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ABQ BioPark Zookeeper Visits Grand Cayman Island to Help With Iguana Conservation

Reptile keeper Phil Mayhew says his experience will help inform the Zoo’s Grand Cayman blue iguana care program.

May 8, 2022 - Reptile Keeper Phil Mayhew recently returned from a trip to Grand Cayman Island, where he learned all about the care, diet, breeding and conservation of the endangered Grand Cayman blue iguana. “I was really interested in trying to help them in the wild,” he said.

Mayhew visited the island from March 25-April 1, thanks to funding from the New Mexico BioPark Society. He spent the majority of his time with Luke Harding, manager of the island’s Blue Iguana Conservation (BIC) program, which is managed by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands.

Grand Cayman Island is the only place in the world where this endangered species roams the wild, mostly in the island’s three reserves: Colliers Wilderness Reserve, Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park and Salina Reserve. Mayhew visited each of these reserves to help BIC staff and volunteers perform releases, surveys and food collection, as well as to observe the species in its natural habitat.

BIC houses nearly 300 iguanas, and its breeding and release program has had astounding success with 100 percent of eggs hatching in recent years. To date, the organization has released more than 1,000 hatchlings, and Mayhew released its 1,018th iguana. He also helped BIC staff process more than 100 hatchlings, which entailed helping with medical exams, tagging and microchipping.

Young blue iguanas face a number of hurdles to their survival. Their number one threat is predation by feral cats and dogs, as well as snakes. Loss of habitat, competition with invasive green iguanas, and accidental deaths also threaten the species.

BIC is staffed by Harding, two full time employees and one part time employee who do everything from gathering the iguana’s diet from the wild each day, and performing any needed construction along with surveys and general iguana care. “It’s an incredible amount of work for four people to take care of nearly 300 iguanas,” Mayhew said. “It was eye-opening coming from a facility with a diet room, maintenance staff and other specialists.”

The ABQ BioPark is home to three Grand Cayman blue iguanas: mates 12-year-old Lola and 9-year-old Igor, and 12-year-old Frankenstein. Mayhew said his experience will make a positive impact on the BioPark’s blue iguana care program. (Lola is carrying eggs! Learn more here.)

“I learned a lot of tricks from Luke,” Mayhew said. One thing that Mayhew brought back is new diet ideas. The BioPark is now incorporating foods that are more reflective of the species’ wild diet, including a new type of mulberry. Mayhew also said he’d like to include more perching opportunities for the BioPark’s blue iguanas after observing some climbing behaviors among their wild counterparts.

In the future, Mayhew hopes to help secure funding for BIC to help them build a new nursery for their hatchling iguanas. This will help to set a carrying capacity for the facility as well as improve care with updated enclosures for the young iguanas.

 Mayhew called the trip an “awesome experience.”

“Everyone there was very welcoming and Luke is a godsend,” he said. “The amount of work he’s been doing is phenomenal. It’s very eye-opening to see how many directions one person can get pulled and still do an effective job.”