By Larry Smith
If you are like most Bahamians, you probably don’t know or care much about iguanas.
These large, plant-eating lizards were part of the Lucayan diet long before the arrival of Europeans, but so few are left these days - in just a handful of remote locations - that they are the subject of intense scientific interest. This is especially so on San Salvador, where an academic field station has operated for decades.
The southern Bahamian iguana (whose scientific name is Cyclura rileyi) is one of the most threatened of the West Indian rock iguanas. It is now confined to small, uninhabited cays in the Exumas, and around San Salvador and Crooked Island. The few hundred that survive on the offshore cays of San Salvador are considered critically endangered.
But although they are protected by international and Bahamian law, these lizards are an attraction for poachers. In 2009, a pair of American tourists was prosecuted for barbecuing iguanas in the Exumas, and just a few weeks ago two Romanian women were caught at London’s Heathrow airport trying to smuggle 13 San Salvador iguanas to a buyer in Germany.
In fact, wildlife trafficking is big business around the world, and it threatens an increasing number of species. This illegal trade is usually driven by a demand for rare, protected species which need to be smuggled, or by a desire to avoid paying duties. The market for live animals includes wealthy collectors, brokers and exotic pet fanciers.
Border officials have found birds stuffed into plastic tubes, lizards stitched into suitcases, pythons in garden pots, reptiles hidden in body packs, snakes coiled into stockings, and spiders crammed into film canisters. In the case of the San Salvador iguanas, they were stuffed into socks and packed in checked luggage.
The scale of the problem is best illustrated by Brazil, whose Amazon rain forest is one of the world’s biggest smuggling hotspots. Millions of animals are poached from the Amazon each year - most of which die in transit - and there are hundreds of criminal gangs profiting from this trade. According to Brazil’s National Network to Fight the Trafficking of Wild Animals, these gangs are connected with drugs, arms and precious stones traffic, and they generate huge revenues.
Globally, the problem is made much worse by the demand for illegal wildlife products - such as ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts - particularly from Asia. This type of poaching involves the illegal slaughter of tens of thousands of rhinos, elephants and tigers each year, posing a real risk of extinction for these iconic species.
In fact, the situation has become so dire that a high-level international conference was held in London just a few days ago, with delegates from 46 countries and several UN agencies agreeing to treat wildlife trafficking as a serious international crime by implementing stiffer penalties and more aggressive investigation and prosecution.
In a keynote speech at the conference, Britain’s Prince Charles called for urgent action “to put a stop to this trade, which has become a grave threat not only to the wildlife and the people who protect them, but also to the security of nations.”
And US President Barack Obama this month issued a new national strategy for combating wildlife trafficking that strengthens enforcement and seeks to curb demand with greater international co-operation. “We can take action to stop these illicit networks and ensure that our children have the chance to grow up in a world with, and experience for themselves, the wildlife we know and love,” he said.
In short, the illegal wildlife trade is a major global conservation challenge. One in five of the world’s mammals, birds, reptiles and fish are said to be threatened by extinction. And for many, unsustainable harvesting is a major contributing factor. So while the smuggling of 13 San Salvador iguanas may be a small part of a much wider problem - locally, it is just as significant.
Deputy Prime Minister Philip Davis (who represents San Salvador in Parliament) said the incident was “troubling in many ways”, pointing out that the two Romanians quite possibly had assistance from residents on San Salvador and New Providence.
And while the Bahamas is not a favourite tourist spot for Eastern Europeans, it is known that a number of Romanian ship welders are employed at the Freeport container port. They and their families travel back and forth to London frequently. In fact, I have sat next to them more than once on British Airways flights.
The Deputy Prime Minister says he is “anxious that this criminal act is fully investigated and that all parties involved in this despicable attack on our natural heritage are dealt with by the law in all relevant jurisdictions. I have been in contact with our security organisations and other agencies. We must all play our part in protecting our natural heritage.”
Since the iguanas were found by British border officials on arrival at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 on February 4, interagency meetings have been held in Nassau to facilitate their return. Participants have included officials from the Ministries of the Environment and National Security, The Nature Conservancy and The Bahamas National Trust, the Civil Aviation Authority and Nassau Airport Development Company, as well as a representative from the British High Commission (which is based in Jamaica).
According to BNT Executive Director Eric Carey, British Airways has agreed to transport the iguanas back to Nassau in the passenger cabin as soon as legal formalities have been completed. But scientists are still debating whether or not to hold them at Ardastra Gardens for a time or return them immediately to the wild. “These matters are all being discussed now,” Carey said.
Meanwhile, Bahamian police are said to be in talks with their British counterparts about the pending court case against the two Romanians, but sources on San Salvador say there has been no investigation on the ground to unravel what happened earlier this month.
Unofficially, both the Riding Rock Inn and Club Med on San Salvador have confirmed they had no Romanian guests during January, and no Romanian students were living at the Gerace Research Centre. A $500 reward for information offered by local conservationists has so far gone unclaimed.
Among those conservationists was San Salvador’s Living Jewels - a local grass roots organisation whose primary goal is to establish a national land and sea park at San Salvador. This group recently sent an open letter to the prime minister calling for a comprehensive official investigation to determine who the buyer was in Germany, why the smugglers were not detained before leaving the Bahamas, and who helped the Romanians acquire the iguanas?
“The Bahamas should be setting a strong example on this issue,” Living Jewels said. “The illegal wildlife trade exacerbates one of the gravest problems facing humankind: the mass extinction of species. And wildlife on small islands like San Salvador are particularly vulnerable.”
Populations of species on earth declined by an average 40 per cent between 1970 and 2000 - and the second-biggest direct threat to species survival, after habitat destruction, is wildlife trade. In fact, it’s now generally agreed among biologists that another mass extinction is underway. If current trends continue, by the end of this century as many as half of earth’s species will be gone.
“This unfortunate incident strengthens the case for our petition to the government to establish a national land and sea park on and around San Salvador,” Living Jewels said. “Following the worldwide negative publicity generated by this crime, a decision to thoroughly investigate the incident and move forward with the park proposal would be a major advance with significant public relations benefits for The Bahamas.”
The BNT, which asked the government in 2007 to designate several offshore cays and pockets of Crown land on the 13-mile-long main island as a national park, has resubmitted a slightly revised proposal that addresses property ownership issues. Protection of the endangered San Salvador iguana is cited as one of the key factors in the proposal’s decision-making process.
“We know from the fossil record that the main island of San Salvador was once teeming with iguanas,” the proposal says. “As the largest terrestrial vertebrates in The Bahamas, iguanas contribute to the uniqueness and health of Bahamian ecosystems. Iguanas are found elsewhere in The Bahamas, but those on San Salvador are unique. They have no other home in the world (and) fewer than 600 likely remain.”
According to Sandy Voegeli, a founding member of the Living Jewels whose husband Vince was director of the Gerace Research Centre, “For almost 10 years we have worked hard to make this park a reality, so I hope something good comes from the not-so-good iguana smuggling event. The good would be locals rallying together and a national park established. The bad is obvious.”
But as we wait for the wheels of Bahamian officialdom to inch towards a conclusion, it is worth considering what happened after a similar incident in Ecuador recently. Early last year a German man was sentenced to four years in prison for trying to smuggle iguanas out of the Galapagos Islands.
And in Australia, for example, the penalty for illegal importing or exporting wildlife is $100,000 and/or 10 years jail. Bahamian iguanas are covered by the 1968 Wild Animals Protection Act, but there is only a $300 fine for breaching this law.