Jeanne and I recently traveled to the most remote island of the British Virgin Islands—Anegada. Most mornings, we were the only people on the beach at the Anegada Beach Club. The beaches here are the most beautiful we have ever experienced with white sand and crystal clear water loaded with coral and grass beds. Unfortunately, there is one creature, endemic to the region that hangs on edge of extinction.
The Earth’s fourth-largest coral reef surrounds Anegada. Queen Conchs (large sea snails) comb the seabeds for grass by the thousands. Once hunted to extinction on the island in the 60s, Carribean flamingos now flourish. This is the last place on Earth where the critically-endangered Anegada Rock Iguana is making a sustained comeback in the wild.
Anegada Means ‘Drowned Land’
Columbus named this low-lying, limestone island Anegada, which means “drowned land.” The highest elevation of this fifteen-square-mile island is only twenty-eight feet.
We Ate Conch Everyday
The coral reef and grass beds teem with fish, lobster, and conch. The Carribean Spiny Lobster and the Queen Conch are the main local dishes. We ate conch every day…conch fritters, coconut cracked conch or conch ceviche. Sherwin Walcott, who we met on the ferry from Tortola to Anegada took us out on his boat for an afternoon outing. Horseshoe Reef was our destination where we snorkeled and dove for conchs. He taught us how to harvest the snail and prepared ceviche with his “special sauce” right on the boat. It was the best we have ever eaten.
The Anegada Conch Mound is a must-see destination. Located near the eastern edge of the island it is where fishermen have been discarding their conch shells for over a hundred years.
Flamingos Reintroduced in 1992
The Carribean Flamingo was hunted to local extinction in the 1960s. In 1992 The Conservation Agency led by Dr. Numi Michell and James Conyers released several flamingos from Bermuda into the salt ponds of the island. The birds flourished and today there are several hundred. Humans took them out, humans brought them back. With understanding, science, and passion we can bring back most anything.
The Anegada Rock Iguana—On the Edge of Extinction
I’ve got this thing about free-roaming cats. We are on this remote beautiful island on vacation and wouldn’t you know it, free-roaming cats are the number one reason the Anegada Rock Iguana is critically-endangered. Cats kill juvenile iguanas. And since the Queen of England took possession of most of the land on the island in the 1960s farmers let their fences go. As a result, all their livestock including goats, sheep, cows, and donkeys roam free, eating the vegetation needed by the iguanas for survival.
But There is Hope
Scientists, naturalists, and iguana enthusiasts have charted a comeback for the endemic iguana.
The National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands in partnership with many organizations including the San Diego Zoo and the Fort Worth Zoo established the Anegada Iguana Headstart facility on the island. Hatchlings and juveniles are captured in the wild, transferred to the facility and raised in cages. When the adults reach a weight of 14 ounces they are released back into the wild.
In the 1980s eight adult iguanas were captured on Anegada and transferred to the BVI island of Guana. Offspring have been sighted but there are fears of inbreeding. The San Diego Zoo maintains a small population as a hedge against extinction in the wild.
Most Destructive Species Worldwide
“Cats, rats, and goats are the most destructive invasive species worldwide, and particularly so for islands. Unfortunately, Anegada has them all. The natural mortality rate of hatchling iguanas is close to 50%, so adding an additional predator, especially one as efficient as a cat, has resulted in almost no recruitment in this population. Today the headstart program is the main source for new individuals being added to the population,” states Kelly Bradley, Conservation Biologists with the Fort Worth Zoo.
There is a Species Recovery Plan with many recommendations. Establishing a national park, eliminating the free-roaming cat population, and livestock containment are a few of the major recommendations. There is also an excellent environmental profile about Anegada.
Cats are perhaps the most destructive, non-native mammal on Anegada and in North America. Worldwide they are responsible for the extinction of sixty-three species, including the Stephens Island Wren.
Island Conservation Methods Can Give Us a Path Forward for Restoration of Larger Landscapes
Endemic-species on islands are especially vulnerable to the impacts of invasive species. Humans caused the demise of the Carribean Flamingo on the island and cats are now causing the demise of the Anegada Rock Iguana. We can restore sustainable populations threatened and endangered species with the help of science, passionate people, and dedicated organizations. Please help these initiatives with your talents and contributions.
Conservation issues on islands amplify the same issues we have on larger landscapes. For example, we now know that the domestic cat is responsible for the death of billions of birds annually in North America. Cats and other free-roaming domestic animals are a global issue. It is time to come to grips with it. All cats must be indoor cats and domestic livestock must be contained.
Great review of your trip. Didn’t know about the place. Glad you and Jeanne enjoyed it. I have a thing with free roaming cats also and it’s not positive. I vote for eliminating the population of free roaming cats. We have them at our place on Bogue Sound. NC, but I think coyotes are thinning them out.
Thanks, Roger. I agree!
We have two garage cats (they live in the garage) that patrol our farm for mice mainly, but they do get an occasional bird. How do we manage the mice population without them? When they pass on, we’ve talked about not replacing them. Perhaps cat birth control is in order on the island and any feral cat be removed? Limit the cat population with licenses and certification of spaying/neutering and indoor habitat?
Mice populations are controlled by nature. Snakes, hawks, and other birds keep them in check. Old fashioned mouse traps work well too. Trap, neuter, and shelter programs work. You might consider a catio as well. These are really cool outdoor patios for cats. Here are four compelling reasons to keep your cats indoors.
Agreed, cats are not necessary for keeping mice in check. If you want to add a predator try installing a nest box for an American kestrel. You will love being able to watch them through the season and they are great native mousers. If you are going to try a box, get it up by early March. Mine show up like clockwork, usually on March 18th. It might take a little while the first year but if you live in a setting where they already frequent you will likely see some interest right away.
Wonderful comment, thank you. We have two Kestrel boxes up and love watching them.
Another great piece, Bobby. I was talking w/ my brother-in-law over Christmas about invasives in Hawaii, where he has a condo, and the cats, mongooses, pigs and goats are really damaging native wildlife.
Unfortunately given the islands’ size eradication efforts are piecemeal at best, but in smaller locales the removal of exotics has been very successful, as in the Channel Islands. Here’s hoping that these cats can be quickly and efficiently disposed of before the Anegada rock iguana is gone for good (and if they need a volunteer sniper I’m immediately available).
Thanks, Bill. Good comment. I’ll be giving you a call.
Thanks, Bobby. My daughter works for the American Bird Conservancy. Your readers might like to check out their webpage on outdoor cats and birds. I was once an owner of indoor/outdoor cats on my youth in N.C. and thought it was normal and natural. Wow was I wrong! Not only Hawai’i, but also New Zealand and perhaps all nations are dealing with invasive animals (and plants) eliminating native ones. New Zealand has declared war on a number of invasive animals that go after the kiwi bird, including feral cats. I’m assuming there would need to be laws and fines to prevent cat lovers from allowing them to go out. I have friends who think trap/neuter/release programs are wonderful, but ABC does not,as feral cat populations are often maintained in city parks (including Purcell and Hillandale) and cat owners leaving town often leave pets, including cats that have NOT been neutered, with the colony. And of course, they are free to kill as many birds as they like. But it’s sad. Many people really love cats and think they should be free to behave like cats.
Anne, spot on comments as usual. You probably already knew about the American Bird Conservancy v. Rose Harvey case that just settled and all cats must be removed “humanely” from Jones Beach State Park. The Piping Plover wins!
Hello Bobby, GREAT article! Although I was in Anegada in the early 80’s when it was truly remote/unknown, your story provided great info that I had not heard. The beach looks the same and leaves me aching to return. On cats roaming free, I agree with you more and more as I see the destruction rendered. Thank your always for finding a path to both educate and enterain!
Did any of the seven books Jeanne read have any redeeming value? Ha ha……so glad you had a great time and a break from winter.
Thanks for your kind words, Sarah. Hope you had a great time in Iceland.
Love seeing this and shared with my extension colleagues . Matthew Lail, MBA
Thanks, Matthew. Good to hear from you.
Thanks, Bobby, for continuing to help wake us up about the invasive and destructive scourge of feral cats.
They are not part of nature; they don’t exist anywhere except in association with people.
Coyotes are helpful in controlling loose cats, but the most effective controller, ironically, is a bird, the Great Horned Owl, which may specialize in house cats as prey. I once heard a presentation, complete with photos, by a wildlife researcher who found several GHOW nests decorated with house cat remains and have often wished that cat owners who chose to let their cats roam free could hear that report.
Wow, good comments. Let’s get that person here to give that presentation.
Thanks for the great pictures and information.
We were recently in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji and the same is true with invasive plants and animals. I was unaware of the damage from rabbits on the sheep pasture.
The feral cats need more attention as we have folks in our neighborhood letting their cats roam free.
Very glad you had a great vacation.
Wow, I will spend all week at OBX just HOPING to find a piece of a conch shell to pick up, now you’re telling me there’s an entire MOUND of them somewhere?????!!!!!! 🙂 Sign me up!!!!!
As to the cats, in the last two years, I went from never owning a cat before to now owning 2. BOTH of my cats are indoor ALL the time. I let them watch kitty tv, I put a bird feeder outside a window. They play fetch, chase each other, and sleep. They are living happy kitty lives all in the comfort of our home. And yes, I’m one of those owners, if I do take a cat out, it’s on a leash. Yes, you can put a leash on a cat….yes, they’re about as obedient as you would expect a cat to be when it’s on a leash….but they are safe, and the wildlife are safe.
Patti, so good to hear from you. We snorkeled right off the beach and within a few minutes, we could have harvested a dozen conchs. I think this is the Queen Conch capital of the world.
You are my cat owner model! I would like to come over and take some pictures of you and the cats. Do you also have a catio?
Excellent post Bobby! The more I learn, the more I understand your feelings about cats. All cats should be indoors or contained in some way. What an amazing experience to spend time on the island! As always, thanks for your post and contributing to my education about the environment and this beautiful planet we inhabit.
Charlotte, thank you so much for your comments. Looking forward to your visit in March!
I would add humans to your list of ..most destructive invasive species worldwide. 🙂
Margot, you are so right. Humans are in first place.
A German Shepherd , a Doberman, and a cat all passed away on the same day and sat before God for judgment. The German Shepherd said he had spent his life sniffing for people trapped in rubble with a rescue squad. God said he could sit at his left hand. The Doberman said he had spent his life protecting a family and being a friend to numerous children and people. God said he could sit at his right hand. God looked at the cat. The cat said “you are in my seat”.
Ha! Good one, Charlie.
I did not know anything about Anegada nor the Anegada Rock Iguana, but as the article expressed it seems to be a wonderful place with lots of biodiversity! I was happy to hear that the Iguana and the flamingos are making a return. It is unfortunate that cats are able to do so much damage and it seems that many places around the world have an issue with feral cats. I think there needs to be more education on the harm cats are capable of on the environment and what people can do to help this issue (laws or fines may even be necessary). I did not learn about the harm cats do to the environment until a few years ago, but I have talked to many people that are still completely unaware of the issue. On our farm we have have two cats that just showed up and are now barn cats. Figuring out a way to keep these cats happy, and the environment healthy is definitely something I will be looking into, and it shows that the population of feral cats is an issue even in our own backyards.
So, true. Thanks for your comment.