The Cayman Islands may have more billionaires’ mansions than rock iguanas, but cats are not to blame
GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands––If free-roaming cats were really a significant threat to iguanas––of any subspecies––one might expect most of Florida to be devoid of iguanas.
Florida, after all, has reputedly the most optimal habitat for feral cats of any U.S. state.
But Florida also has the most green iguanas, Mexican spinytail iguanas, and black spinytail iguanas of any state, often seen sunning themselves alongside cats, who commonly hunt skinks, geckos, and anoles, yet show little interest in lizards who grow to be as big as the cats are.
“The world’s most infamous tax haven”
Yet, bannered the online magazine Vice on December 8, 2022, “The World’s Most Infamous Tax Haven is About to Kill Hundreds of Stray Cats.”
Wrote freelance Tamlin Magee for Vice, “The Sister Islands rock iguana is native only to Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, the lesser populated of the three Cayman Islands, which are generally more famous for its corporate tax havens than rare lizards.”
Indeed, the Cayman Islands boasts a per capita annual income of at least $68,200 per year, in the top 10 richest nations worldwide.
Rock iguanas have tripled population since 2012
“Now numbering below 2,000 according to the Cayman National Trust,” Magee continued, the rock iguanas have for 30 years been repopulated through a captive breeding program that began with just 25 specimens, but boasted 700 by 2012, of whom 443 were mature adults, and have nearly tripled their abundance since then.
This has occurred, Magee explained, even though “the gray-green 40-inch long creatures are imperiled by road traffic, human development, and other animals, including the rival common green iguana, subject to a previous bloodbath in 2019 and on course for another soon.
Only two rock iguanas confirmed to be cat-killed
“More recently,” Magee summarized, “the Cayman government has been reviving a controversial plan that it says could address the lizards’ dwindling numbers: exterminating the local stray cat population. The reasoning is that, while the adult lizards are large enough to fend off interested felines, hatchlings and young iguanas are easy prey.”
Since when is an increase from 25 to nearly 2,000 “dwindling”?
Magee did not ask that question, but recalled that, “In 2017, armed with transmitters, cameras, and other equipment, the Cayman Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment monitored the hatchlings of these reptiles in order to determine just who or what was to blame for the declining population.
Plan to kill cats based on speculation
“Although only two of the 28 [iguanas outfitted with transmitters] were confirmed to be cat-related kills, given the large number of cats on Little Cayman, many more iguanas could have fallen victim to the felines. When it was decided that the survival of these iguanas was at a crisis point, the government devised a plan: they would kill some of the cats.”
Apparently no one asked then, either, how an increase from 25 to nearly 2,000, or even 700, could be considered “declining.”
And just how many cats constituted “a large number”?
IUCN questions “high levels of cat kills”
Acknowledged Magee, “The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, which categorizes endangered species, notes that the exact impact and extent of mortality [among rock iguanas] by cat predation is ‘extremely difficult to establish’ because rock iguana hatchlings are tricky to observe, and the high levels of cat kills are largely assumed based on the number of cats on the island.”
But what is that number?
The 2018 cat extermination plan reportedly caught and killed just 24 cats before, Magee narrated, “two local charities, Feline Friends and the Cayman Islands Humane Society, caught wind of the initiative and obtained a court injunction to put a halt to the project.”
Government paid off humane society debt
The injunction, however, was lifted in early 2022 after the Cayman Islands government paid off the Cayman Islands Humane Society’s debt for legal services of about $30,250.
“On Little Cayman,” Magee said, “the government’s plan will begin with microchipping “companion cats” on the small island. Next, authorities will lay traps across Little Cayman, and any cats found in them without one of these microchips will be euthanized by a vet.”
Magee appeared to be unaware that the culling had already started about six months earlier. Six nights of trapping caught 40 cats, four of them licensed pets. Thirty-six were killed.
Funded by U.K.
What did this accomplish, at what cost, and why?
What killing the cats accomplished, besides putting a lot of money into a few local pockets, appears to be presently undocumented, and probably unverifiable.
What it cost and why, though, Magee explained.
“Part of the ominously titled ‘Darwin Plus’ initiative,” Magee wrote, “a British government scheme to protect biodiversity, the Cayman project is funded by a $585,972 grant from the United Kingdom’s Department of Environment, Food, & Agriculture.”
That amounts to $5,745 per square mile of Cayman Islands land surface, or $293.00 per rock iguana, about the same as the price of a substantially identical captive-bred rock iguana descended from bootlegged ancestors and sold online.
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
“Since 2012,” Magee continued, “Darwin Plus has awarded $40 million to projects in United Kingdom Overseas Territories,” which are “self-governing territories with historical ties to the United Kingdom that still count the British monarch as their official head of state.”
But King Chuck III, to be coronated on May 6, 2023, is not entirely to blame, despite his lifelong penchant for shooting animals in great numbers.
“Leading the [cat extermination] project in partnership with the Cayman government and a local university,” Magee revealed, “will be the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.”
In other words, the killing is not really about saving rock iguanas at all.
Tweety & Sylvester
Rather, it is yet another round of the lethal Tweety-&-Sylvester show waged by bird conservationists on island after island for decades, which has exterminated thousands of cats without ever achieving anything close to the projected depth of guano on sea-swept rocks that the merchants of death anticipated.
Bird conservation is big business in the Cayman Islands. The National Trust for the Cayman Islands, for instance, billing itself as “the only nongovernmental organization implementing land purchases for biodiversity protection in the Cayman Islands,” claims to “have secured all or a large part of four of the Cayman Islands and 10 important bird areas to protect 179 non-breeding migrant species, including the threatened Cuban parrot, Vitelline warbler, white crown pigeon and West Indian whistling duck.”
Magee noted the catastrophic failures of cat extermination on Isla Isabel, Mexico, and Marion Island and Macquarie Island, near Antarctica, where killing cats permitted the populations of bird nest predators including rats, mice, snakes, and rabbits to explode.
And then there are the Cayman Islands green iguanas, whom cats are conspicuously not controlling.
Magee learned that that 2019 green iguana massacre paid bounties totaling $4.5 million to 320 licensed cullers who among them killed 825,420 iguanas.
That was 8,092 green iguanas killed per square mile, near the upper-end population density for the species.
Ninefold human population increase
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List “notes that habitat loss, including a boom in road construction, commercial and residential real estate development in sensitive nesting areas are other leading causes” of rock iguana endangerment,” Magee mentioned, adding that, “In 2010, about 10% of all rock iguana deaths were due to road vehicles. And, as the Territory’s National Trust notes, these creatures mainly congregate around the built-up areas of ‘Blossom Village,’ one of the more developed sites on Little Cayman.”
Since gaining independence from Jamaica in 1962, the resident human population of the Cayman Islands has increased from about 8,000 to 72,000. Add to that about 74,000 cruise ship visitors expected in 2022, the first year of normal traffic since a two-year interruption due to COVID-19.
Cruise ship traffic before that had reportedly been rising by as much as 14% per year.
Between the residents and the transients, undisturbed habitat for Cayman Islands wildlife has become more a theory than reality.
Despite that, Blue Iguana Recovery Programme director Fred Burton opined in 2005 to Georgina Kenyon of BBC News that, “There are no insurmountable biological, political or social barriers to the re-establishment of a viable wild population.”
“As fast learners,” said Kenyon, “the iguanas have expanded their natural diet of some 50 or so native plant species, to over 130, by discovering new edible plants brought to the islands by horticulturalists and landscapers. They can also adapt to a man-made environment; they are as happy sleeping under a wooden shed as in a natural rock hole.”
But Kenyon mentioned that, “The blue iguanas, named because of their skin which turns slowly from slate grey to blue throughout the day as the sun shines, were once shot and eaten by people and are still attacked by pets. The iguanas do not instinctively recognize dogs and cats as lethal predators and the first chance to learn often ends in tragedy.”
At that, though, cats had nothing to do with the stomping deaths of six rock iguanas in 2008 and seven more in 2015, apparently killed by an irate human. A dog whose tracks were found nearby may have been just an uninvolved passer-by.
The other tragedy of note associated with the rock iguana recovery program was the June 2011 heat stroke death of 21-year-old Blue Iguana Recovery Program volunteer Daniel Hamilton, a Perdue University student from Hebron, Indiana.
Rock iguanas have, however, become a moneymaker for entrepreneurs catering to tourists. Reported David McFadden of Associated Press in 2012, “Now, with growing pride in the blue iguana’s rebound, the reptile has inspired stuffed toys, bobblehead dolls and other souvenirs. Visitors landing at the airport are greeted by a poster showing a blue iguana with the words ‘His ancestors have been here for 2 million years.’ A blue iguana dubbed “Gorgeous George” graces the cover of the island’s phone book, while tourists go on blue iguana ‘safaris.’”
Savannah cat breeder
Earlier, even as scare stories about the poorly documented alleged threat from cats to rock iguanas gained momentum, the Cayman Islands hosted a shadowy company called ColdStar Capital, headed by one Jonathon Nicholson, doing business under a variety of names, including one subsidiary called Savannah and another called Tetros Inc.
The Tetros chief executive was someone named Simon Brodie.
Brodie circa 2007 promoted a rent-a-pet scheme called Flexpetz, and won mass media publicity for supposedly breeding hypoallergenic cats at $22,000 apiece under the names Ashera and Allerca. The cats shown in materials meant to attract buyers of sales franchises, however, were identified by cat fanciers as ordinary Savannah cats.
The Cayman Islands government does not appear to have taken much interest in the alleged cat-breeding operation, perhaps because few if any cats resulted from it.
Green sea turtles
But the Cayman Islands in November 2002 did unsuccessfully seek Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES] permission to sell products and byproducts from hatchery-reared green sea turtles, a globally distributed species recognized as endangered throughout the world by both CITES and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Founded by turtle meat promoters in 1968, the Cayman Turtle Farm at West Bay, just north of George Town, was acquired by the Cayman Islands government in 1983 and rebranded as a tourist attraction and “conservation project,” where visitors can pick up young sea turtles, swim with sea turtles, and eat sea turtle soup.
The Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy and the London-headquartered World Society for the Protection of Animals, now called World Animal Protection, campaigned in 2012 for the closure of the Cayman Turtle Farm, beginning after about 300 juvenile green sea turtles died in 2011 due to water quality problems.
Humane Society of the U.S. invested in Caymans
The Humane Society of the U.S. meanwhile banked about $15.5 million in cash reserves in the Cayman Islands as of 2014, through companies called the Ascend Partners Fund I, L.P., BKM Holdings, the Fore Multi Strategy Offshore Fund, Ltd., and the Fir Tree International Value Fund.
Unclear is whether the Humane Society of the U.S. is still invested in Cayman Islands-based hedge funds.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals and possibly the Humane Society of the U.S. interest in the Cayman Islands appears to have developed after U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas in May 2009 accepted a guilty plea to civil and criminal wildlife trafficking charges from Ruzial Ltd., a Cayman Islands holding company that federal prosecutors alleged existed only to hold title to the yacht M/Y Mystere C.I.
Dimitrouleas fined Ruzial $150,000.
Different rules for billionaire Russian trophy hunters than for Paul Watson
“Signing the guilty plea,” reported David Fleshler of the Fort Lauderdale-based South Florida Sun Sentinel, “was the company’s sole director, Tamir Sapir, a Soviet-born billionaire who owns several Manhattan office buildings.
“Ruzial pleaded guilty to attempting to import 29 wildlife items, including specimens of protected species,” Fleshler elaborated.
The yacht, arriving in Florida from Italy aboard a transport ship in late 2007, “was outfitted with a decorating scheme of dead animals: rugs made of zebra, jaguar, lion, leopard and tiger. Cigarette cases covered with reticulated python skin. An entire stuffed lion.”
And “a big-game hunter’s haul of elephant tusks, a mounted tiger head, and bar stools
covered with reticulated python hides.”
At about the same time that the Cayman Islands provided registration to Sapir’s yacht, incidentally, it cancelled the registrations of several vessels registered there as yachts by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.