The loss of wildlife in Grand Cayman is scarcely imaginable. When Christopher Columbus arrived on the islands in 1503, the seas were said to ripple with turtles, hence the initial naming of the islands as Las Tortugas. The islands later became known as Caymanes, after the Carib word for marine crocodile – now lost from the Cayman Islands – whose abundance on the coastline rivaled the turtles’ density in the surrounding seas.
The Blue Iguana (Cyclura lewisi) very nearly went the same way as the marine crocodile. Close to the brink of extinction, with barely 30 individuals remaining in 2002, the Blue Iguana was Critically Endangered. Thanks to conservation efforts, the Blue Iguana population recovery is one of the great conservation success stories of the 21st century. By 2018, the 1,000th individual was released into the wild.
The dedication and hard work of conservationists ensured that the Blue Iguana was not lost from the Cayman Islands. The Blue Iguana Recovery Programme – the head start facility run by the National Trust of the Cayman Islands (NTCI) – has been essential for this species' recovery. For its long-term survival, it needs primary dry forest habitat in good condition.
In 2019, RSPB - the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe and the Rainforest Trust conducted their first-ever overseas joint land purchase, purchasing a 10-acre parcel that buffered and adjoined the 680-acre undisturbed, largely intact and pristine natural dry forest habitat that comprises the Salina Reserve, freely leased to and managed by the National Trust of the Cayman Islands. This was a pilot land purchase with the intention to expand from this into other areas to help further buffer this protected area from development pressure.
In 2021, a new opportunity emerged to purchase an additional 10-acre parcel near the jointly owned plot. Habitat maps and local knowledge indicated this was high value, intact habitat that would provide a much-needed additional safe haven for the Endangered Blue Iguana and several threatened endemic plants and trees.
The second land purchase connected the Rainforest Trust - RSPB land and the existing Salina Reserve into a more cohesive block and secured the protected area. The shape of the land parcel made the Salina Reserve significantly greater in width at its narrowest northern extent.
This purchase has prevented the loss of diverse, threatened, endemic-rich, dry forest from Grand Cayman. As hoped, the original Rainforest Trust - RSPB purchase catalyzed the second land purchase in the Cayman Islands.
QRFN funding proved crucial in supplementing the John Ellerman Foundation (JEF) funding to secure the purchase. Thanks to the growing network of supportive funders such as QRFN, Rainforest Trust and JEF, the RSPB and NTCI have the confidence to pursue an ambitious program of further land purchase to protect and safeguard habitats of high conservation value in the Cayman Islands.
Authored by RSPB, edited by Sanjiv Fernando