Goat Islands Saved!

Sometimes working in species conservation invokes a roller coaster of emotions.  The highs of our successes certainly help get through the rough times, and fuel hope that our fights are warranted and will produce results.  This week, myself and other members of the Jamaican Iguana recovery program are celebrating an unprecedented win for conservation, and breathing a huge sigh of relief too!  In a town hall meeting with the Jamaican diaspora in New York City, the Prime Minister confirmed that a destructive development proposal, jeopardizing the Jamaican Iguana’s only home, would not be going forward.

In August 2013, we learned that the previous Jamaican Prime Minister’s government was negotiating with a Chinese development company to build a massive transshipment port on the Goat Islands in the heart of the Portland Bight Protected Area.  This port would have leveled the two Goat Islands, dredged the surrounding coral reefs and mangroves, and include infrastructure on the mainland very near to the tiny population of Jamaican Iguanas.  Not surprisingly, I freaked out when I heard about this proposal since I have been working to reestablish a viable population of Jamaican Iguanas since the early 1990s.  Several of us quickly mobilized and began working with the strongest local advocacy group, the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), to fight against this proposal which would not only mean the end to the iguana and other native vertebrates, but threaten the 271 plant species identified in the area.

Working with Diana McCaulay at JET, I built a website as a repository of information about the beauty and significance of the Portland Bight Protected Area, and why it is much more economically valuable to Jamaicans as an intact ecosystem than as a port (SaveGoatIsland.org).  The site was also useful to catalog the numerous press articles that were published in local and international outlets.  We held various lecture events and town hall meetings, organized an internationally-signed postcard petition delivered to the Prime Minister, and JET filed two lawsuits to force the government to release documents pertaining to the proposal.  My colleagues at the University of the West Indies and the IUCN SSC Iguana Specialist Group were particularly active in providing scientific information on ecosystem value by publishing editorials, lecturing, and sending high-level letters of concern to the government and development company.  We also commissioned two independent economic studies which determined there are alternative locations for the port that are cheaper and produce far less environmental damage.

Thanks to funding from the International Iguana Foundation (iguanafoundation.org), we recruited the help of Robin Moore from the International League of Conservation Photographers.  Robin’s stunning photographs of the area really increased the exposure and impact of our message by appearing in several online magazines, including National Geographic and The Guardian.  Together with a filmmaker friend, they developed two short videos that we used as outreach and fundraising tools, and even projected on the Jamaican embassy building in Washington, D.C., one evening.  Our social media broadcasts were picked up and shared by several celebrities including musicians Ziggy Marley and Kabaka Pyramid, and actor Mark Ruffalo that really spread our reach.

So now it is full speed ahead, to reinvigorate our stalled action plan to eradicate non-native predators from the Goat Islands and reintroduce iguanas and other endemic species like the Jamaican Boa, Blue-tailed Galliwasp lizard, and Jamaican Coney, a large rodent resembling a Cavy.  We hope to build a visitor’s education center on Little Goat Island to highlight the rich plant and wildlife diversity of the area, and where Jamaicans would be likely to see their iguana that was once believed to be extinct.

I am grateful to all those that helped turn this issue from catastrophe to victory.  We didn’t just sit back, cross our fingers, and hope that minds would change.  We worked hard to ensure the iguana’s ecosystem would continue to work for the benefit of Jamaicans, and for that we deserve this celebration.

Grant, Tandora D.  2014.  Biosphere reserve to transshipment port: travesty for Jamaica’s Goat Islands. IRCF Reptiles and Amphibians Conservation and Natural History 21(2): 37-53.

Available at http://www.ircf.org/journal/volume-21-2-2014/

Robin Moore’s videos:

Guardian of the Reptiles  –  https://vimeo.com/93621704

Save Goat Islands  –  https://vimeo.com/149153206

Robin Moore’s account of his trips to Jamaica:

Saving Goat Islands: A Conservation Success Story