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."
But not all has been smooth sailing for the breeding program. In May 2008, about a half-dozen blue iguanas were killed in their pens, prompting a police investigation that netted no suspects. The iguanas were found stomped and gouged, and Burton said humans, possibly with a pet dog, were almost certainly behind the massacre. Two females had been preparing to lay eggs to help the species repopulate.
Burton said it was an "acid reminder" that not everything could go the program's way, even while it enjoyed broad support among most Caymanians. To protect the iguanas, the breeding pens are now ringed by a fence and barbed wire.
Other researchers have been able to breed captive blue iguanas far from their native environment, though they cannot match the success of the program at home. The overseas program is partly a hedge to make sure the imperiled reptile's genetic footprint survives any calamity.
Nearly 50 adult and juvenile blue iguanas live in 14 U.S. zoos and aquariums, which are considered partners of the breeding program, according to Tandora Grant, of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Ten more hatchlings are due to be born soon, she said. In Europe, two blue iguanas live in the Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic.
Nonetheless, the key to restoring the endangered species remains in its native habitat of Grand Cayman, where Burton hopes to have 1,000 blue iguanas living in the wild, perhaps as early as 2015.
"Once we hit 1,000 and we have a good genetic range out there we can just let the iguanas handle things themselves out in the wild without us messing around with all this complex genetic planning," Burton said at the park.
Gesturing at the breeding pens, Burton said: "Soon this will all be redundant, and that will be a very exciting day."
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd