Iguana Nation
Mr. Sherman Arch’s Island Farm Provides a Refuge for Threatened Green Iguanas

February 1st, 2008
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] v6-2-Feature-IguanasA group of about fifty iguanas basks in the January sun. After weeks of rain every minute of warm rays is precious. A dozen tourists take photos of the iguanas. They place the lenses of their cameras inches from the noses of these prehistoric looking creatures. The five claws of the iguanas’ front paws are clasped in tension on the ground. The rear paws are relaxed, folded alongside the tail. They are indifferent, without so much as the blinking of an eye. They know the ritual, they know what to expect. While some enjoy the spectacle of tourists close-up, other iguanas watch the goings-on from among tree branches 30 feet up.

Mr. Sherman Arch began the farm in 1980 as way to protect the iguana from unscrupulous hunting. Their numbers depleted to the point of threatening their existence on parts of Roatan. In 1991, the year of the first cruise ships to Roatan, the iguana farm was opened to the public. Still, the iguana farm has been looked on as an Arch family hobby, a passion, not as a source of revenue.

“The tourists are fascinated because they can get so close to the iguana. You can pet them, you can hold them … because they are so tame. Nowhere else can they do that,” says Nora, an islander tour guide who brings Coco-View guests for a visit to the iguana farm every week.

Mr. Sherman began feeding several iguanas with banana leaves. As the news spread from one iguana to another, more and more were attracted by the regular, filling meals. “Every day there would be more and more,” said Gale Arch, Mr. Sherman’s daughter.

Within a couple months several Green iguana females laid eggs in a construction sand patch near the Arch’s house. Iguanas lay their eggs in dug out holes four feet deep, so the artificial sand patch immediately attracted their attention and is still used today. Located 100 feet from the Arch home, the iguana breeding sand pile offers a place of shelter to hundreds of thousands of iguana eggs. Mr. Sherman always brings more sand before the iguanas start laying their eggs in the spring months of March, April and May.

Female iguanas are ready to reproduce at three years of age. Each female lays around 35 to 40 eggs that, after a 70-day gestation period, become little iguanas. If they are able to avoid the predation of carnivorous Hammo Negro iguanas and dogs, they can live up to thirty years.

The iguana gestation period is a particularly vulnerable time for the iguanas as poachers hunt them ever more intensely for their eggs, which are considered a culinary delicacy. While the sale of the Green iguana as food is illegal in the Bay Islands, the practice of hunting pregnant iguanas has reduced the ability of the species to reproduce.

The 15-acre Arch property in French Cay is home to an estimated 6,000 iguanas. The most numerous are the Green iguanas with around 4,500 individuals. There are also 2,000 Hammo Negro iguanas, 2,000 Monkey Lalas or Jesus lizards, and hundreds of Blue Head lizards. While the Green iguanas eat mostly plant leaves, vegetables and fruits, the Hammo iguanas sometimes eat young chickens.

Iguanas are not the only animals populating the farm. It also shelters rescued exotic mammals brought in by Roatan police. In 2000 two light-faced cappuccino monkeys were brought in to the farm. In addition, Pancho, a young coatimundi (pizote), was rescued by Roatan police and brought to the farm.

After Hurricane Mitch battered Guanaja and the east part of Roatan, Mr. Sherman’s farm took in several yellow naped parrots native to the Bay Islands. The birds suffered numerous injuries – broken beaks, wings – and many were starved, barely hanging on to life. Mr. Sherman’s farm provided them a place to recover and get healthy. Nine years later several of the parrots, those with broken wings and damaged beaks, still live on the farm.

Mr. Sherman Arch with his daughter Gale.

Mr. Sherman Arch with his daughter Gale.

Just south of the iguana area a 6,500-square-foot marine enclosure serves to keep the marine animals. In 2000 Mr. Sherman discovered thousands of tarpon bony fish trapped in a lagoon on the north side of Roatan. When the property owner cut the mangroves that served as a place for breeding tarpons, the fish found themselves unable to swim out to sea. Mr. Sherman brought several barrels and moved around 150 baby tarpons to his French Cay marine enclosure. “We need to take care of what we have because tomorrow it can all be gone,” says Mr. Sherman. Six years later the surviving 60 tarpon have grown to four feet and reach 45 pounds.

The water enclosure is also home to six hawk’s bill turtles. Four of them were bought from poachers and two were brought in after being entangled in shrimp nets. There are hundreds of lobsters and even reef fish who swim in and out from the enclosure until they grow too big to swim back into the open water.

An indispensable person in the Iguana Farm is Gale, who once a month swims around the marine cage to make sure it is secure. She also has a unique, life-long relationship with the farm’s iguanas. One of them, Ben, has resided in Gale’s home since she was three years old. Ben, six feet long, is still fed inside the house; but as one of the biggest iguanas on the farm, he prefers to display his dominance amongst his fellow reptilians outside.

The biggest iguana ever grown on the farm is “Godzilla,” a male that has grown to be 5′ 6″ long. The males achieve their prime in their 20s and can be aggressive, swiping their tails back and forth. “I’ve gotten scratched many times, but never bitten,” says Gale.

The Arches are using life experience and books to guide them in raising the reptilians. Others have tried to raise iguanas but failed. In 1998 an American tried to start an iguana farm in Sandy Bay. The man paid local people to catch 135 iguanas and place them in cages. “It was a disaster,” said Mr. Sherman. The few that were still alive were released into the wild.

Pond turtle in its pen.

Pond turtle in its pen.

Iguanas can only be caged if they are placed in cages as babies and grow accustomed to the restrictions of movement. When the caged iguanas grow to be three to four years old, they are allowed to move around outside the cage and come back at night to their cages. Eventually, instead of the cages, they choose the protection of the trees.

Wild iguanas don’t want to be caged. They fight, bite the cage and refuse to eat. Eventually they tear their snouts on the metal cage wire and die.

In 2005 a foreigner living on the island cut a hole in the fencing of the marine enclosure at the iguana farm. Twenty-one tarpon, 50-60 lobster and several turtles all escaped. About a week later Mr. Sherman found the man in West End. “I told him ‘I forgive you, but please don’t do it again,'” said Mr. Sherman. “A lot of work went into saving and raising these animals.”

There are other methods of ensuring the survival of the Green iguana. In Belize there are several farms raising iguanas to provide a food source for the local population. The pioneer of iguana farming is Dr. Dagmar Werner, a German herpetologist who founded the Pro Iguana Verde Foundation that manages the Belize farm. In La Mosquitia there is the Iguana Vigilantes group whose motto is, “The iguana is our heritage, our future. We have to take care of it.” Mr. Sherman supports the idea of raising iguanas for food. “They grow cows, pigs, chickens. They can also grow Green iguanas for food as well,” says Mr. Sherman. “It’s a good thing.”

Mr. Sherman believes that the attitude of the islanders towards saving the Green iguana has changed. In some cases it is the conscience that speaks to iguana hunters who, when visiting the farm, are confronted with examples of healthy, proud and unafraid reptilians comfortable with their surroundings. “I feel I have accomplished something important. People who have hunted iguanas before come here and tell me, looking at these iguanas, they feel that they can’t kill them anymore,” says Mr. Sherman. “My goal is to feed them and protect them,” says Mr. Sherman.

In 2001 Mr. Sherman received the Bruno H. Schubert Environment Prize for his efforts in protecting the Green iguana. “Mr. Sherman is a true grass roots environmentalist. He’s impressed me so much,” said Bill Brady, an American architect living on Roatan since the 1970s.

v6-2-Feature-Iguanas

A, B, Cs of Green Iguana Farm

Artificial nests increase the number of hatched eggs and improve the overall survival rates of the Green iguana from 50% in the wild to 90%. The iguana population is maintained at several times the density in the wild, around 50 adult iguanas per hectare. An efficient food for the reptile is a mixture of rice, meat, bone, and fish meal, as well as papayas, mangos, bananas, avocados, and a variety of leaves and flowers. Simple feeding stations are kept and stocked with table scraps or weedy vegetation. This makes for low-cost production before the iguanas reach harvesting size.

While females are green year round, males turn orange during the mating season. Male Green iguanas have highly developed femoral pores on the underside of their thighs which secrete a scent (females also have femoral pores, but they are smaller in comparison to those of the males). In addition, the dorsal spines that run along a Green iguana’s back are noticeably longer and thicker in males than in females, making the animals somewhat sexually dimorphic.

Green iguanas are oviparous with females laying clutches of 20 to 70 eggs once per year during a synchronized nesting period. The female Green iguana gives no parental protection after egg laying, apart from defending the nesting burrow during excavation. In Panama, the Green iguana has been observed sharing nest sites with American Crocodiles and in Honduras with Spectacled Caimans.

Young are usually hatched between June and July. The hatchlings emerge from the nest after 10-15 weeks of incubation. Once hatched, the young iguanas look similar to the adults in color and shape, resembling adult females more so than males and lack dorsal spines. Juveniles stay in familial groups for the first year of their lives. Male Green iguanas in these groups often use their own bodies to shield and protect females from predators. The Green iguana appears to be the only species of reptile which does this.

When frightened by a predator, Green iguanas will attempt to flee and, if near a body of water, dive into it and swim away. If cornered by a threat, the Green iguana will extend and display the dewlap under its neck, stiffen and puff up its body, and bob its head at the aggressor. If the threat persists the Green iguana will lash with ts tail, bite and use its claws in defense. Wounded animals are more inclined to fight than uninjured ones.

Green iguanas use “head bobs” and dewlaps in a variety of ways in social interactions, such as greeting another iguana or to court a possible mate. The frequency and number of head bobs have particular meanings to other iguanas.

On Roatan people are the biggest predator of the reptilians. In other places, Green iguanas are preyed upon by hawks, and their fear of hawks is exploited as a ploy to catch them in the wild. The sound of a hawk’s whistle or scream makes the iguana freeze and become more easily captured.

Green iguanas are diurnal and arboreal and often found near water. Agile climbers, iguanas can fall up to 50 feet and land unhurt, using their hind leg claws to “hook” leaves, branches or anything in a clasping motion to break a fall. During cold, wet weather, Green iguanas prefer to stay on the ground for greater warmth. When swimming an iguana remains submerged and lets its four legs hang limply against its side as it propels itself through the water with powerful tail strokes. [/private]

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