Saving the Swamper: from menu item to mascot
By Mary Randolph
Most tourists go to mangrove forests eager to see the abundant birdlife. They spot birds as they enjoy a peaceful paddle among the trees’ stilt-like roots, which rise from brackish water along coastlines all over the world.
Not me. I was looking for a lizard.
And not just any lizard. I had my heart set on spotting a Utila spiny-tailed iguana, the only iguana in the world that’s known to live in mangrove forests. The “swamper,” as it’s called locally, exists only on Utila Island, one of the Bay Islands off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, in three square miles of the Turtle Island Wildlife Refuge. Because its habitat is shrinking and because both humans and non-native raccoons eat swampers, it is critically endangered.
My guides that day know the swamper well. They work for a small NGO called Kanahau, which is dedicated to preserving the biodiversity of the Bay Islands. With support from Seacology, they are running an outreach campaign to change attitudes about the swamper—to turn it from a menu item to a symbol of island pride.
A new cartoon character, Swampy the iguana, appears on signs all over the island, exhorting people to take care of the environment. Kanahau throws an annual swamper festival, and staff members spend a week every month in local schools, teaching kids about the mangroves and their most endangered resident.
Kanahau staff and volunteers have also planted three kinds of mangroves in the wildlife refuge, to restore and protect the swamper’s habitat. Swampers live only in mangrove trees, eating leaves and the occasional insect or small crab. Only the females venture out to the sandy beaches to lay their eggs; about two months later, the six-inch long hatchlings hightail it back to the trees, dodging raccoons, snakes, and dogs. If they make it, females may grow up to 22 inches long, and males can reach 30 inches.
When we waded onshore at the wildlife refuge, I was doubtful I’d see one of these rare animals. But as soon as we headed into the mangroves, a big gray iguana, the flashy spikes on its neck identifying it as a male, dashed in front of us. I was thrilled—and greedy for more. But an hour of tramping through the undergrowth in the tropical heat yielded just two quick glimpses of small iguanas.
On our way back to the boat, though, we all stopped abruptly at the sight of a big female swamper on a log, her gray-brown skin blending with the tree bark. She calmly watched us approach to within just a few feet, taking photos that showed her elegant profile. But her failure to flee is one more reason swampers are endangered—they are easier to catch than other iguanas. Silently, I sent her some advice: Run!