The Saint Lucia whiptail was first discovered in 1966 surviving on both Maria Major and Maria Minor and is the only species of this genus found in the Caribbean. The Government of Saint Lucia includes the whiptail lizard under the new wildlife protection act, recognising the need to protect the species which has a small population size and highly restricted range.
Despite their close proximity to mainland Saint Lucia, the two offshore islands, covering an area less than 17 football pitches, have avoided invasion of alien predators providing a refuge for the four endemic reptiles present, including the Saint Lucia whiptail. The Government of Saint Lucia declares the Maria Islands a nature reserve and they are managed by the National Trust.
The Government of Saint Lucia approaches Durrell requesting a safety-net captive population is established in Jersey to protect the future of the restricted species. During his visit to monitor the Saint Lucia Amazon parrot, Durrell's David Jeggo visits Maria Major with a team and successfully captures five lizards and returns them to Jersey's reptile house.
To reduce the risk of extinction it is imperative that the population size and range of the Saint Lucia whiptail is increased. Praslin Island off Saint Lucia's east coast is identified as a candidate release site. To restore the island, a programme to remove invasive rats and goats is successfully completed by Durrell and the Saint Lucia Forestry Department staff over a period of eight days.
Durrell's Trust Secretary, Simon Hicks, travels to Saint Lucia armed with field equipment, 5,000 posters and 10,000 button badges to help promote the conservation of the Saint Lucia whiptail. Handing over of equipment to the Government of Saint Lucia takes place during a ceremony where school children sing a calypso of Zando, the local name for the whiptail.
After completing population monitoring and habitat suitability assessments Durrell staff confirm a trial introduction of whiptail lizards to Praslin Island can take place. The vegetation on Praslin Island following restoration efforts has improved and ecological surveys confirm the island will support an introduced population of whiptails.
The trial is completed in two stages by the Saint Lucia Forestry Department and Durrell staff who successfully translocate a total of 42 lizards to Praslin Island. Despite the invasion of a single mongoose, which is swiftly removed, the trial is considered a success and instantly doubles the number of sub-populations of the species, reducing the risk of extinction.
A rat invasion is swiftly detected by Saint Lucia Forestry Department staff whilst conducting biosecurity checks put in place to protect the establishing population. Durrell contacts partners Fauna & Flora International who lead the eradication, and the rats are successfully removed. Population monitoring estimates the sub-population has grown to 155 lizards.
Surveys are conducted on the Maria Islands, as well as Praslin Island, to estimate the global population of Saint Lucia whiptails to be 2,349 individuals. Following the translocation of 42 lizards to Praslin Island, the population is now estimated at 335. This is an increase of nearly 800% in just ten years and has significantly reduced the species risk of extinction.
Maximising the genetic diversity of the species is considered a priority to reduce the negative effects of inbreeding which include reduced fertility and reduced resistance to disease etc. The aim of the plan is to capture this diversity by establishing a third population founded by individuals from both Maria populations.
Following restoration of Rat Island, located off Saint Lucia's northwest coast, a total of 24 whiptails are successfully translocated to establish the fourth sub-population of the species. The majority of individuals came from Maria Major but two were sourced from Maria Minor's tiny population as part of the attempt to maximise genetic diversity and preserve the future viability of the species.
As part of a wider plan to protect the endemic Saint Lucia racer, a natural predator of the whiptail lizard, Dennery Island is identified as a suitable site to introduce both species. Restoration efforts begin with the removal of invasive goats and when a robust population of whiptails is established through translocations, introduction of the racers can be considered.
Tackling threats posed by invasive predators to the endemic reptile fauna of Saint Lucia is a conservation priority for Durrell. In order to increase the protection of these unique species, Durrell's reptile expert, Dr Nik Cole, visits from Mauritius to advise and train staff in biosecurity techniques and strengthen skills of National Trust and Government staff.
During a visit to Rat Island to conduct routine biosecurity surveillance, 10 individual whiptails are encountered, including one juvenile. This evidence that the fourth sub-population has successfully established means that nearly 20 years since the first introduction, conservation efforts have doubled the number of sub-populations and increased the species range by 20%.