Dutch PM flies four threatened iguanas to new home

The Hague (AFP) –


Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had some unlikely companions flying home Tuesday from the Caribbean -- four lesser Antillean iguanas carrying the hopes of their endangered species with them.

And because the politician's plane had no suitable hold, the two males and their two would-be female partners ended up travelling in VIP style in the main part of the cabin.

For conservationists battling to save this little-known lizard species from extinction, Rutte's official visit to the Dutch islands of Sint Maarten and St Eustatius was literally manna from heaven.

For two years, Tim van Wagensveld and his conservation group had been trying to find someone who would agree to fly four large reptiles to the Netherlands as part of an international project.

"We've had terrible logistical problems in flying the animals to the Netherlands. Either nobody wanted to, or nobody could," he told AFP.

His NGO called RAVON, which works for reptile, amphibian and fish conservation in the Netherlands, has joined forces with zoos in Rotterdam, Jersey and Vienna to work to protect the species.

Its numbers on St Eustatius have fallen to only about 400 to 600 animals, while some other populations are also scattered on less populated satellites isles off Guadeloupe, and Martinique.

"They're in big trouble," said van Wagensveld, RAVON's coordinator for the Dutch Caribbean.

Apart from habitat destruction, and falling prey to domestic cats and dogs, the lizards have also been victims of an invasive species called green iguanas which have taken to breeding with them.

"They are polluting the genetic pool, and the lesser Antillean iguana is slowly becoming extinct," said van Wagensveld.

Raising funds to protect them has also proved problematic.

"Tigers, dolphins, panadas they all have that cuddly factor. Try getting funding for iguanas, it's not easy," he said with a sigh.

The four animals survived the trip intact, and will now spend three months in quarantine before being shown to the public in Rotterdam.

The hope is that the couples will eventually breed, and that their offspring can be shared with zoos in Vienna and Jersey.