Utila: The land of lizards

This baby iguana is part of a critically endangered species found only on the Caribbean island of Utila.

I have a rucksack full of iguanas on my back and I’m walking along a Caribbean beach. If you’d told me I’d be doing this a few years ago, I would probably have laughed in your face in disbelief.

Each iguana is wrapped up in a pillow case; they all obligingly stay perfectly still while I splash through the shallows in my walking boots. (It’s very easy to forget you have iguanas in your backpack – I later reach in expecting to pull out my lunch and am reminded by the wriggling of one critically endangered reptile that there is more to this mission than a peanut butter sandwich). As bizarre as it may sound, this is the norm for a volunteer working at the Iguana Research and Breeding Station on the West Caribbean island of Utila. The station aims to preserve one very special animal – the Utila Spiny Tailed Iguana, found nowhere else on Earth than this tiny island.

Bundling up wild iguanas into pillowcases and carrying them around in rucksacks may sound cruel, however the aim on this particular expedition is to catch pregnant females (who lay their eggs on the beach, like turtles) and bring them back to the safety of the station where they are free from poaching or predation. We give the precious hatchlings a better shot at survival. Back at the station the iguanas are housed in a range of cleverly designed cages, along with an eclectic mix of other island species such as curly haired tarantulas, boa constrictors and mosquito fish, to name but a few.

Two of the other volunteers and I are led through the rivers and tropical jungle of Utila by the legendary Mr Osgood. Born and bred on the island, Mr Osgood has had an array of jobs in his time including, ironically, iguana poaching (in his early days) and head of the island police force. He now turns the skills he used in his hunting days to the aid of the Iguana Station and is, without doubt, the best person you could ever meet at catching iguanas. Our aim of the day is to catch three- we are two down and one to go.

The free after school centre is helping to raise awareness among Utilan children about the importance of protecting this unique species.

Unfortunately, the Utila Spiny Tailed Iguana is seen as a delicacy in parts of Central America, despite the fact that poaching and transportation of the animal from Utila onto the mainland is illegal. Hunters have sadly devised a way to get around this, butchering the iguanas on the spot so their meat is essentially unidentifiable. Even worse, iguanas are seen as tastiest when they are female… and pregnant. This does not bode well for this highly endangered species, whose delicate annual journey from the mangrove swamps to the beaches (where they nest) is being made increasingly treacherous every year due to deforestation, new roads and an increase in both tourist and local populations on the island. On top of these threats, many of the inhabitants of the island are used to a culture where shooting the odd iguana for dinner is the norm. It is often difficult to change the ways of a local population of any area, but the Iguana Station is attempting to do this by educating the children. Opening a free after school centre in which any kid, from any school on the island can come see the iguanas, learn about them, get help with their homework etc. has had a huge impact. The idea behind this is that when Dad does bring an iguana home for tea, his children will tell him: “No, we learnt today that you can’t do that because…”

Having spotted a big, fat female up a tree, Mr Osgood concludes she’s too high to reach with the pole-and-noose method. Instead he gives the tree what he calls “a good shaking”. The iguana comes flying out like a bolt of lightning and speeds into the ocean followed by an equally nimble Mr Osgood, who has her neatly in his hand in matter of seconds. With a big, booming laugh he announces that we have our three lizards and would we like to go for a swim. The delicious sea beckons invitingly, and we don’t even bother taking our clothes off. They’ll soon dry on the way home in the 36˚C heat. With all the (rather fun) iguana catching behind us, we spend the remainder of the trip bobbing around in the shallows catching the sun and procrastinating over what to eat for lunch.

If there could be any criticism of the Utilian style of life, it would be that it’s so relaxed it’s almost sedated. Being here is an experience equivalent to taking a massive chill pill. The most pressing decisions to be made are ones like, shall I go scuba diving or snorkelling at the weekend? Beach party or local street food tonight? Talking of food, don’t be surprised when your pizza takes an hour or more to arrive on your table – customer service is non-existent in Utila.

Volunteers at the Iguana Station help to rescue vulnerable iguanas from hunters and hungry locals.

Sure it has its problems, but Utila is a world apart from crime-ridden mainland Honduras in terms of safety, despite being just an hour’s ferry ride away. It is part of a group of islands called the Bay Islands, whose native people are English-speaking and have an astoundingly diverse history. Many locals will tell you they are directly descended from 19th century pirates and they are probably right. The islands were used as a base mainly by Spanish pirate fleets in the 1800s, including the infamous Henry Morgan (John Steinbeck’s novel Cup of Gold was based on this buccaneer’s life). Pirate references pop up everywhere on Utila. Captain Morgan’s Dive Centre rises proudly up in the centre of town, displaying skull and crossbones all over the shop front and La Pirata Bar looms opposite – I was warned within ten minutes of stepping foot on the island never to go there as it’s “locals only”.

The Iguana Station itself offers pleasant accommodation and facilities to its volunteers. Yes, you may find a tarantula under the sink, but the shower is good. Most importantly, for a low price which sets it apart from many volunteering ‘holidays’ on the market these days, volunteers are absolutely crucial to the project. Without them it simply couldn’t exist. You know that the work you are doing is both worthwhile and appreciated. For me as a gap year student with a love of wildlife and sunny places it’s an ideal set up: an exotic location, work experience and an affordable price.

Well, Mr Osgood is telling us it’s time to go. An hour’s trek through tangled jungle lies between us and lunch back at the station. We squeeze the water out of our boots and happily head back, our bags full of some very lucky iguanas.

Find the Utila Iguana Research and Breeding Station online at http://www.utila-iguana.de/

The Iguana Station blog: iguanaresearchandbreedingstation.wordpress.com

Flights to San Pedro Sula, Honduras from £600

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