When I look up at the almost sheer, 2,500 foot, 750m, vegetation-naked cliffs of the escarpment of La Merica above the wild (and naked bathers’) beach of Playa del Inglés on La Gomera, I wonder how even lizards could have survived there.
There are no more than a dozen, narrow, semi-level rock scars five or six metres long and 2,000 feet up, that would afford a foothold for a clawed creature and a few succulent plants on which they might live.
Unbelievably, these broken rock ‘shelves’ were also reached by death-defying feral cats who went there to eat the lizards. This appalling practice has now been stopped. The cats didn’t realise it was appalling; they could not have realised that these lizards were among the earth’s creatures most threatened with extinction.
They were the Giant Lizards of La Gomera, declared extinct in the 19th century, and thought to remain so until a derring-do team of scientists from the university of La Laguna on Tenerife abseiled into action down the cliff face having heard rumours of life on the ledges below the rim.
The lizards are up to 65cm, about two foot long, nose to tail, and can weigh 550gm. Not actually Komodo dragons, you’d say, but impressive, compared with your common or garden lizard and found nowhere else but on this small island of La Gomera, which is almost circular and just 50km in diameter. There are other ‘giant’ lizards on other Canary Islands, but none as famous as the wild Gomeros, for they were, literally, brought back from the brink of extinction by biologists who found them, led by Juan Carlos Rando.
Their decrease had been gradual, but they would not survive much longer. They had been driven, for the previous 500 years, since man arrived on the islands with his rats and cats, to last refuges like the cliff face of La Merica. But they weren’t safe there, for cats could reach them, and rodents could reach their eggs. Their small population would have finally been annihilated. Another species (which, who knows, could prove of great value to mankind, as have many humble creatures) would be gone from the face of the earth.
For 10 million years, they had lived apparently blameless lives on this remote island. They were once plentiful and lived in almost every habitat. Many fossils have been found, sometimes in the nearly inaccessible caves where the Guanches – aboriginals who arrived from North Africa long before the island’s ‘discovery’ – laid their dead, swaddled like the mummified bodies of ancient Egypt and Peru.
The Guanches would have eaten them, as many races eat snakes and frogs. The lizards were bigger then, up to twice the length. Individuals within populations decrease in size when the population shrinks, perhaps because food is often simultaneously less available, or reproductive vigour wanes when survival pressure is immediate.
There are other endemic lizard species here. Most common are the female wall lizards, striped brown and yellow from nose to tail, delicate and pretty, compared with their big-headed, wide-mouthed blue-black mates, that sometimes fight fiercely.
The sleek skinks, shiny and sinuous as a spill of mercury, are my personal favourites. Moving close to the ground, for their legs are very short, given another million years of evolution and they may become snakes.
The grey and warty geckos come out as the sun goes down. Their young are beautiful when very small, and so transparent that one can see their hearts inside them, beating.
The giant lizards, although discovered in 1996, weren’t scientifically ‘described’ until 1999. An expert English herpetologist, Jim Pether, who had a study centre in Tenerife, was an important element in the establishment of a Recovery Centre for the Giant Lizard of the Gomera, just behind the Playa Inglés and directly below their ledge-habitats at two inaccessible sites on La Merica, 2km apart.
The management and success of the conservation programme is a great credit to the team and to the local administration of La Gomera. From 60 ‘recovered’ wild lizards in 1999, the population now numbers 780 individuals. Of these, 280 are retained as breeding stock to guarantee the continuity of the species. Juveniles are released after a ‘training’ period, orientating them to survival in the wild. The releases reinforce consolidation of populations and dispersal of the specimens in new areas where survival prospects are high. Presently, 500 roam free. In the past year about 100 individuals have been released, creating three small groups in an area that meets the requirements for species growth. The only danger remains feral cats, but measures are taken to eliminate them from the sensitive areas.