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Food for Thought . . . Not Iguanas

How does tourism impact the endemic TCI Rock Iguana?

By Devyn Hannon, Jacqui Taff, Sedona Stone, Maddie Adkison, Lily Finn, Amber Johnson, Abbey Stewart, Luke Monteiro, Kerry Bresnahan and Morgan Karns, The School for Field Studies

Edited by Julia Locke, Waterfront Assistant, The School for Field Studies

Hiking in the Turks & Caicos Islands: bright sunshine, stunning ocean views and . . . iguanas? Every tourist dreams of seeing unfamiliar new creatures when they take a trip to a tropical oasis. One of the rarest creatures to see is the cold-blooded Turks & Caicos Rock Iguana (Cyclura carinata), currently found on only a few of the islands.

This is an adult male rock iguana on Long Cay. Feeding iguanas human food to lure them out for tourists is detrimental to their health and the welfare of the eco-system on which they depend.

In the past, the rock iguanas inhabited all the islands and cays in the Turks & Caicos Islands. This species is native to Turks & Caicos and assists with seed dispersal for native TCI plants, in contrast to the invasive green iguana (Iguana iguana) that damages native wildlife in Florida, and has recently invaded Providenciales. Unfortunately, populations of the native rock iguana have disappeared from 13 of the 40 islands and cays of the Turks & Caicos over the past 20 years. Because of this loss, the species is now designated as endangered on the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Hunting, habitat reduction from development, human disturbances and the introduction of exotic species that either outcompete them for food or hunt them are all factors that have contributed to the decline of the native iguana population in TCI. As a result, they are now limited to a few smaller islands like Big Ambergris Cay, which inhabits the largest subpopulation of this species.

In an effort to expand the reduced range and population size of this endangered reptile, 400 TCI Rock Iguanas were relocated in 2001 from Ambergris Cay to Long Cay, off the southern coast of South Caicos inside the Admiral Cockburn Land and Sea National Park. The population there appears to be thriving currently, but increased tourism on Long Cay could affect their behavior and normal diet as humans lure them into the camera frame with food for their social media photos.

Although many people think feeding wild animals is harmless, even helpful, studies have shown that the long-term effects on diet and behavior can be detrimental to a population. A study on a similar species from the Bahamas found that iguanas fed by tourists were more likely to consume trash and non-native foods, which disrupts their digestive system. To observe whether this trend occurs in the TCI, students from The School for Field Studies (located on South Caicos) collected data on the behaviors of iguanas from two beaches — one frequented by tourists, and one seldom visited — on Long Cay. The results of these observations suggest that TCI Rock Iguanas at tourist-visited sites have become accustomed to being fed. The following excerpt from our field notes illustrates this clearly:

These three male rock iguanas are eagerly awaiting a handout.

We hopped off the boat at Long Cay into the clear blue water and waddled our way to the sandy shore, not nearly as adept at traversing uneven terrain as our scaly subjects. As we waded through the water, a small boat filled with tourists whizzed by us, also on their way to see the iguanas that afternoon. Walking southwest along the shore, we immediately noticed five eager iguanas confidently running up to us. We enjoyed their fearless attitudes as we took note of habitat type, as well as the age and sex of the lizards, and we hoped to continue seeing them along the rim of the island. However, as we continued farther along this beach, there appeared to be fewer iguanas that made their presence known.

Traveling up the path towards the top of the island, where tourists often hike and feed iguanas, we came across several more iguanas as they ran down the well-trodden path to greet us and the tourists ahead. We were soon overwhelmed by the iguanas on the path, struggling to take note of their age and sex before we were swarmed again. Many were bold enough to approach us, gathering at our feet like golden retrievers running to the door when their owners arrive home. It was exciting to see such a rare species scampering across our toes, but the similarities between their behavior and that of a domesticated pet weighed heavily on our minds.

When we returned to Long Cay the next morning, we trekked along the less visited shoreline, far away from the path commonly used by tourists. We were greeted by fewer iguanas than the day before, spotting only four in total. Unlike the iguanas regularly fed by tourists, those we spotted did not approach us, but scattered into the brush and did not come clearly into sight, eager to escape our presence and find safety in the vegetation. 

The clear contrast in iguana behavior between both locations demonstrated the immense impact that unnatural feeding can have on an animal population. The iguanas on the first beach had clearly habituated to humans and their food, while those on the second beach exhibited the species’ natural wariness.

We can surmise that this drastic change in iguana behavior is correlated with human feeding because there was little to no change of habitat type between these two sites. Iguanas will return repeatedly to a feeding site if they are consistently successful, so it comes as no surprise that the tourist site was filled with them. With so many people coming to visit and feed these iguanas, they will become more dependent on human provisioning, leading them to forage less for themselves and to consume food that does not have all the nourishment they need. An unbalanced diet will give them less energy to escape predators and reproduce. Plus, they will fail to fulfill their ecological role of pruning shrubbery and transporting seeds around the island if they are too full of food hand-delivered to them. As a result, the overall environment and ecosystem on Long Cay may shift out of balance. 

Another potential consequence is aggression towards tourists and other iguanas. Male rock iguanas are naturally very territorial, and human provisioning makes them more likely to ramp up that aggression as they compete for the tourists’ handouts. In fact, while collecting data on the tourist beach, one male iguana jumped at and scratched a member of our group, perhaps frustrated at not being fed. This was a trained group of students, with no food to offer, so we can only imagine how bouts of aggression may increase in the future when more tourists lure iguanas with food.

These unfortunate effects of tourists feeding wildlife can be seen all around the world. In the quest for a photo, vacationers have been attacked by monkeys in Thailand and South Africa, kangaroos in Australia, and bison in Yellowstone National Park. These animals are becoming accustomed to the food that tourists are giving them, possibly leading them to attack each other in competition for that food, or humans that do not provide any. As mentioned, the foods normally offered by tourists, such as fruit or granola bars, are terrible for the animals’ digestive system and overall health. Furthermore, their natural foraging abilities will disappear if generations become accustomed to humans feeding them.

As exciting as these incredible animals can be up close, our study demonstrates the rapid, negative effects that tourist feedings can have on iguanas and other wild animals. Tourists who wish to observe these wonderful critters should grab a pair of binoculars, rather than food, to get a good look at the iguanas on Little Water Cay’s boardwalk experience. After all, observing an animal’s natural behaviors, undisturbed, in its native habitat is a far more rewarding and special experience. Most importantly, iguanas with natural diets and environments are happier and healthier, making the experience more fun and safer for both the iguanas and their admirers. The rock iguanas are also Belongers of the Turks & Caicos Islands, and responsible iguana excursions are essential to help this species thrive. Leave smiles, not snacks!

For additional information about The School for Field Studies, visit www.fieldstudies.org or contact us on South Caicos at hhertler@fieldstudies.org.



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