Canaries in a flap over lost lizards

IT IS to be hoped the threatened Canarian giant lizards will not fall victim to the likes of Jereme James, charged with smuggling three endangered iguana into the USA using his false leg.

He is thought to have adapted his prosthetic limb especially to smuggle the reptiles from Fiji. When the US Fish and Wildlife Service received a tip-off and raided his California home, they found four individuals and indications that the reptiles were being bred there.

If found guilty, James could face up to five years in the slammer. It would seem a light enough punishment for abetting the disappearance of a unique species from the wild.

There was great excitement in 1999 when a small colony of the giant lizards of La Gomera, long thought to be extinct, were discovered on ledges on a sheer cliff overlooking one of the wilder beaches, Playa Inglés, in my old haunt, the Valle Gran Rey. The species can reach 1.2 metres long and weigh up to 5 kilos.

An individual lizard, an insular variation, has also been found on the neighbouring island of La Palma. It didn’t swim there from Gomera, which is 33 miles across the deep sea at the nearest point. Other small colonies have been found on El Hierro, Gran Canaria and Tenerife. All differ slightly, like Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos.

Playa Inglés was not named because of the fact that it’s inundated by English holidaymakers; it was once a favoured hide-out of English pirates preying on Spanish argosies returning with spoils from Mexico and Peru.

Unlike its namesake in Gran Canaria, there isn’t a house, café or shop, let alone an apartment block, hotel or shopping mall, anywhere near it. It is pristine and undeveloped, favoured by nudists, especially Germans.

The sea rolls acriss from America, and the waves are usually high and choppy. There is a such a deep and abrupt shelve to the sand that it is not a safe place to bathe most of the year. So, it was largely left alone, and presumably that is why the lizards are still there.

The Guanches, mountain Berbers from North Africa who came to the islands long before the Spaniards but were conquered by them, ate the giant lizards as a delicacy.

However, how they might ever have accessed colonies living on the ledges 1500 feet up is beyond me. They were, certainly, an agile people, at home in their mountainous environment, and led the Spaniards a merry dance in hunting them down and murdering or enslaving them. The ‘conquistadores’ were, of course, on a church-endorsed mission to Christianise or kill the endemic people they encountered.

The reptile experts who confirmed the presence of the lizards had to abseil down from the cliff-top to reach them. There were only six individuals in the colony and it is likely there are no more than 100 left on the island where it was once common, as fossil remains attest. Feral cats, rather than habitat loss, threaten their survival and the six were captured and installed in a captive breeding centre near Playa Ingles.

The breeding programme has been a huge success. Among the females who laid eggs this year were some of the first lizards to be born in captivity.

The seven females averaged six to seven eggs per clutch, with hopes that total births could reach up to 40.

The giant La Palma lizard was thought to have been as dead as the dodo until José Antonio Mateo, from the species recovery centre on Gomera, found an individual. It is thought to be about four years old.

It is assumed that there is a colony somewhere and it is threatened. The search is on.

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