Delicatissima Iguanas Fly First Class!

Tim van Wagensveld (Reptile, Amphibian, and Fish Conservation the Netherlands (RAVON),

Matt Goetz (Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust / Jersey Zoo),

and Mark de Boer (Diergaarde Blijdorp / Rotterdam Zoo)


A female Lesser Antillean Iguana by the STENAPA office, and seen with glass beads as part of the monitoring program by RAVON. Photo by Tim van Wagensveld.

Numbers of the Critically Endangered Lesser Antillean Iguana (Iguana delicatissima) are ever-dwindling throughout their native range. In early 2016, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (Jersey Zoo), Diergaarde Blijdorp (Rotterdam Zoo), St. Eustatius National Parks (STENAPA), and Reptile, Amphibian, and Fish Conservation Group in The Netherlands (RAVON) got together to develop an ex situ breeding project for this species. While this plan focuses on an ex situ breeding group, it also feeds into the Species Action Plan, which is being developed throughout the species’ native range.


A small ex situpopulation of I. delicatissima is already being kept at a number of EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquariums) institutions. This population is currently coordinated through an EAZA studbook managed by Matt Goetz (Jersey Zoo) to keep a sustainable and sufficiently robust genetic base. It would strongly benefit from the genetic input of several unrelated iguanas, which would have to be wild-caught without resulting in a detrimental effect on the wild subpopulation.


The main aims of this ex situ population are to safeguard a genetically robust captive population, to develop husbandry and breeding expertise to aid in situ initiatives developed under the Species Action Plan, and to display the species to zoo audiences to facilitate the raising of awareness and funds. There is the possibility that at some point offspring could return back to their native range if the situation in situ would require this and appropriate biosecurity measures would be in place.


We hope that in the near future we will be able to start an in situ breeding facility on St. Eustatius as well, and bring to it the knowledge gained from the breeding project in the European zoos. However, on St. Eustatius, and many other islands, it remains important that surveillance and biosecurity measures are upheld in order to protect the native I. delicatissima population, from (further) Common Green Iguana (Iguana iguana) or hybrid incursions. Presence of invasive iguanas could make in situ breeding efforts of I. delicatissima futile if they are destined to eventually hybridize; therefore any invasive iguanas must be removed. This is still deemed possible on St. Eustatius as hybridization is still at an early stage, and to date only 10 hybrids have been located based on many hours in the field specifically on the lookout for invasive iguanas.


In 2016, the possibility arose to bring four I. delicatissima from the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, to contribute to the ex situ breeding program in Europe. However, before any iguanas were to leave St. Eustatius, STENAPA, RAVON, and Rotterdam Zoo held numerous meetings with local stakeholders, regarding the proposed idea. It was agreed that we were to only take four adult iguanas (two males and two females), and the iguanas, although never able to return back to St. Eustatius, would ceremonially remain property of the Statian government. After approximately a year and many additional meetings, a consensus was reached among all the stakeholders on how to pursue with the project.

Sandra Bijhold of Rotterdam Zoo is seen here checking the iguanas one last time before they head off towards the F.D. Roosevelt Airport on St. Eustatius. Two crates were used, each containing two iguanas. Photo by STENAPA.


When all paperwork was arranged (CITES, customs, veterinary) allowing us to catch and bring four iguanas to The Netherlands, plans were made to initiate the project in September/October 2017. This initiative was timed to be in combination with a workshop hosted by the Anguilla National Trust (ANT) for regional and international partners for an I. delicatissima regional recovery plan on Anguilla. However, the original timing was disrupted when Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the Antilles causing major damage to both infrastructure and nature, forcing us to cancel our trip. We scheduled a new date to acquire iguanas from St. Eustatius to coincide with another iguana workshop in February – March 2018. However, two days before our departure, the airline stated that it was going to uphold an embargo on the transportation of reptiles and amphibians, due to a shipment of reptiles that were found mostly dead on arrival from Malaysia to The Netherlands a few days prior to our departure. A last-ditch effort was made to fly with a different carrier via other islands or countries so that the transport could still go through, but the sudden amount of paperwork and extra costs involved made it impossible. We flew back from St. Eustatius empty handed, but thankfully we were able to contribute to a very fruitful regional recovery plan at the workshop.


It seemed we were left without any options until we were informed that a Dutch government delegation, including the Dutch Prime minister Mark Rutte, was scheduled to visit St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, and Saba in early May 2018. We approached government officials and asked if it would be possible for four iguanas to travel in the government airplane on the flight back to The Netherlands. After a few weeks of waiting, the answer that we were hoping for came through and we would be allowed to transport the iguanas! A couple of days later we flew to St. Eustatius with a week’s time to catch four iguanas. We tried to catch them as far apart from each other as possible, to minimize the chance of catching related iguanas. We also would not retain an individual if it was, for example, the only male in that particular area. After we had caught two adult females and a single adult male it seemed as though we were not going to find another male (many during that time had been run over by cars). But, upon arriving at the holding area in the early morning to feed the previously caught iguanas on our penultimate day, an approximately two-year old male was stuck in the chicken wire trying to get in. What was even more interesting was the fact that it was the same small male that got stuck in the same chicken wire exactly two months earlier when we also had two females in the holding area.


One of the two crates being loaded on to the chartered Winair flight from St. Eustatius to St. Maarten. Photo by Tim van Wagensveld.

On the day of departure, the iguanas were placed in large crates with the adjustability of sectioning-off different parts on the inside of each crate depending on the size of the iguanas. Before the flight, a very quick press interview with the local Statian government was organized and the governor ceremonially carried one of the crates to the aircraft. The first flight from St. Eustatius to St. Maarten was onboard a privately-charted flight, which gave us breathing space to keep an eye on the precious cargo and provide as much peace for the iguanas as possible. Upon arrival on St. Maarten, the iguanas (accompanied by a RAVON and Rotterdam Zoo caretaker) were transferred on the tarmac to their next flight onboard the Dutch government airplane. It was an amazing experience to place the iguanas in the prime minister’s on-board conference room. Not many people get to fly in such luxury, let alone iguanas! They arrived safely in Rotterdam, at the Hague Airport, and went straight into quarantine at Rotterdam Zoo. The iguanas are still doing well, and will remain for the time being until they are moved to a large new enclosure being specifically built for I. delicatissima, that will open at Rotterdam Zoo in early 2019.