by Dipika Chawla, Rainforest Alliance
“Iguana species are absolutely paramount to reforestation efforts in Haiti. We need to show people that these animals are their allies.”
With its striking pale gray chevrons alternating with deep gray markings, the Ricord’s iguana (Cyclura ricordii) is easily identified though rarely seen on the island of Hispaniola, where it is an endemic species and also among the most endangered reptile species in the world. It is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN due to low population levels and highly specialized habitat requirements – it lives in xeric, or extremely dry, ecosystems, and the species’ total native habitat has shrunk to an area smaller than 40 square miles.
Ricord’s iguanas were known to exist in just three small isolated subpopulations in the Dominican Republic: one on Isla Cabritos, a second along the southern shore of Lake Enriquillo, and a third in the coastal lowlands near the town of Pedernales. In 2007, biologist Ernst Rupp of Grupo Jaragua, working alongside the International Iguana Foundation (IIF), discovered an entirely new subpopulation in the Haitian town of Anse-a-Pitres. Subsequent research by Rupp and Masani Accimé of IIF revealed that this population is extremely fragile, with an estimated 250 adults left, while what remains of its dry forest habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. With support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Accimé has been working closely with the Anse-a-Pitres community to create a municipal wildlife reserve that would save this subpopulation from extinction.
Habitat degradation is common in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and a nation that’s been nearly completely deforested. What little forestland that remains continues to be cut down for charcoal, the country’s primary source of energy. According to Accimé, after an access road to Anse-a-Pitres was built in 2011, charcoal production became a significant source of income for local residents, who also hunt Ricord’s iguanas for their meat and eggs. Cyclura species only reproduce once a year by laying 14-20 eggs in one nest, so egg poaching has a devastating effect on the population.
“People in Anse-a-Pitres don’t have a wildlife conservation ethos. They just don’t see animals that way. To make matters worse, there’s also a fair amount of herpetophobia in Haiti,” Accimé explains. “A lot of our work involves trying to foster a different attitude and making people aware of the role of these animals in their environment.”
As the largest endemic herbivore on Hispaniola, Ricord’s are of great ecological importance to the region. They play a vital role in dispersing plant seeds—in fact, an IUCN study found that seeds that had passed through the alimentary tract of rock iguanas ended up growing more quickly and into bigger mature plants than seeds that had not.
“Iguana species are absolutely paramount to reforestation efforts in Haiti,” Accimé emphasizes. “We need to show people that these animals are their allies.”
IIF plans to create a municipal wildlife reserve in Anse-a-Pitres that would legally protect Ricord’s iguanas from poachers and their habitat from charcoal producers. This goal is modeled after a previous IIF project with Grupo Jaragua in Pedernales in the Dominican Republic, where they established a 70-acre (29-hectare) private reserve to protect and monitor Ricord’s iguanas. As a result of their work, the iguana’s population in Pedernales has increased by 60 percent in the past five years.
While the success of the Pedernales project is encouraging, Accimé acknowledges that the different cultural, institutional, and socioeconomic conditions in Haiti require a different strategy. In the Dominican Republic, the national government has historically been much more proactive in creating protected areas and respecting those laws afterwards.
“Environmental education and wildlife conservation ideals are part of the public school curriculum in the Dominican Republic,” says Accimé. “Dominicans are generally more aware of the importance of conserving natural resources and wildlife.”
In contrast, she says, even though Haiti does technically have a national system of protected areas, a lack of institutional capacity at the national level has posed challenges for conservationists. Frequent changes in leadership and other bureaucratic inefficiencies have frustrated the process of getting approval for and executing conservation projects.
So Accimé has taken a grassroots approach, focusing on garnering local support in Anse-a-Pitres for her project. IIF has held several workshops and community meetings in town, and both the municipal government and the community support establishing a wildlife preserve in the area. Once the municipal protected area is established, Accimé aims to eventually lobby to include it in the national protected areas system. For now, her short-term goals are centered on increasing local awareness and capacity.
“When we meet with the people, we try to educate them about Ricord’s iguanas and their importance to the environment, but we also want to learn about their needs and their perspective,” said Accimé.
IIF found that local charcoal workers are very open to alternative livelihoods. Charcoal production is physically taxing and the pay is low. Long term exposure to charcoal fumes has also been associated with a higher incidence of lung disease in the country. In addition, all of the large trees in Anse-a-Pitres have been cut, so workers have now resorted to using small trees, woody shrubs, and cacti. Regardless of the environmental impacts, local people can see that charcoal production as a source of income is not sustainable over the long term.
IIF has posed some ideas for alternative sources of income such as opening nurseries for reforestation and introducing beekeeping. Accimé recognizes that the socioeconomic problems stemming from charcoal production are on a national level and that the government will ultimately have to take a proactive stance if there is going to be a meaningful, long term solution for sustainable livelihoods. But for now, if IIF can create a municipal reserve, they can protect the plants and wildlife that are left in Anse-a-Pitres and probably even reverse some of the impacts of deforestation.
In addition to creating a wildlife preserve, IIF is increasing capacity for monitoring of Ricord’s iguanas in Anse-a-Pitres. A key local partner in their conservation activities has been the youth organization Organisation des Jeunes Actives Anse-a-Pitres (OJAA), whose members have long been passionate advocates for conservation in the area. IIF is training OJAA staff in monitoring nesting habitats and fitting adult Ricord’s with transmitters so more can be learned about their habitat needs.
Accimé aims to have the municipal protected area approved and established within three to eight months. If successful, the Anse-a-Pitres reserve will be the first of its kind in Haiti and would benefit a wide range of plant and animal species, including the vulnerable rhinoceros iguana (Cyclura cornuta), which shares an ancestor with the Ricord’s iguana. IIF also discovered Haitian solenodons (Solenodon paradoxus) in the area, a very rare, endemic insect-eating mammal that is a priority species for conservation in Hispaniola.
“Everything we do for Ricord’s will help other wildlife species.” says Accimé. “It’s all connected.”