Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom
A female swamper in one of the breeding enclosures.

Utila NGO takes Care of an Endemic Iguana and Educates

Comfortable and relaxed, he sits atop a rock, basking in the warm Utila sunshine awaiting his next meal. Although he is way past his peak reproductive years, Swampy, a 22-year-old spiny tailed iguana remains a beloved resident here. Resting in his large enclosure, Swampy seems entirely unconcerned with the presence of human visitors.

Utila’s endangered and famous Spiny-tailed Iguanas’ Latin name is Ctenosaura bakeri, but they are known to the locals as “swampers”. They are one of five reptilesendemic to Utila including two anoles and two species of gecko. In 1994, Gunther Köhler PhD, a German biologist, came to Utila to study the endemic yet elusive swamper. In 1997 the Ctenosaura bakeri breeding program was launched eventually evolving into an educational and research station.

One of five reptilesendemic to Utila
including two anoles and two species of gecko.

In 2008 the center changed its name to ‘Bay Islands Foundation,’ a self-sustaining organization recognized by the Honduran government. “We have biology students form UNAH (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras) coming to do their master’s programs here,” says Geyvy Delarca, the foundation’s coordinator.

Today the center welcomes visitors, runs a breeding program, organizes workshops & provides educational programs. Thirty-two volunteers, all but three of them foreign, stayed there in 2018. The foreign volunteers pay 80 Euro a week to stay and work at the center where they care for the swampers, feed them a closely monitored diet, and get rid of their parasites.

The veteran of the original captive swampers: Mr. Swampy

Swampers live on a complex diet of hibiscus flowers, leaves, carrots, beets, oat meal and vitamins delivered to their cages twice daily. Two to three times a week the adult swampers are fed a violin crab, while their small offspring are given termites. “It’s to supplement their source of fiber,” says Silvia Núñez, foundation’s coordinator.

The life of the captive swampers, while not exciting, it is relaxing. The center’s 17 reproducing iguanas are housed in tall hexagonal wooden enclosures. Some swampers run away from human contact, while others jump forward in expectation of feeding or simply out of curiosity. Other than eating and sleeping, the swampers are only required to reproduce. As the resident swampers age, the research center catches their replacements. In 2019 the NGO intends to capture two males and six females. “The three to four-year-old iguanas lay between six and 24 eggs,” says Núñez. The breeding period takes place in February and March and incubation takes place in July and August.

Once-a-year the yearling swampers hatched the previous year are released onto a 4-acreblack mangrove forest where the swampers can begin their new life. About 200 are released each year after they grow to the size of a couple inches. No studies have been made on the survival rates of those specimens released into the wild, “The number of swampers has decreased, [over the years], but it’s holding steady [now],” says Nunez. “The young ones are vulnerable to ants, to brown hawks,” explains Núñez, but by far the biggest predator on Utila is humans. “Some locals hunt them for food,” says Núñez. “While rare, the swampers do become victims of local mischief. It tastes like bony chicken,” says Gunther Kordovsky, who has lived on Utila since 1970 and once tried the swampers cooked. “Times have changed, most Utilans respect the swamper and understand that it’s an element in attracting tourists to the island”, shares Kordovsky. “I have saved one. It was in a mouth of a snake, a big snake. I squeezed him out and he limped away,” continues Kordovsky, recalling the 6-8-foot snake that caught the swamper on the Utila’s north side a few years ago.

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