Utila, one of the three Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras, is most noted for being a whale shark hotspot and for its cheap PADI diving certifications. It’s a backpackers and ocean lovers paradise, but very few people are aware that this island is also home to a critically endangered iguana species.
The Spiny-tailed iguana — locally referred to as the “swamper” or “wishiwilly” — is endemic to the island of Utila. This means that they aren’t natively found anywhere else in the world! They live within the mangrove forests and, up until recently, were suffering a decrease in population largely due to habitat loss and over-hunting.
About the station
The Utila Iguana Conservation Project at the Research and Breeding Station aims to protect these iguanas and ensure their survival. They achieve this through trekking into the mangroves to capture and PIT tag the iguanas to track their movement and health. They also run a very successful breeding program where they hatch iguanas in their care, record data on these iguanas, and release them back into the wild once they reach proper age, weight, etc. Education and awareness programs with the locals are also held, particularly through fun activities with the schools. This is mainly to teach everyone about the iguanas importance and significance, so that poaching of the animals is no longer an issue.
Other than the research and conservation of this endemic species, the station aims to carry out sustainable practices such as buying locally sourced building materials and hiring local labor. They also do a lot of work to protect the islands mangrove habitat and its natural resources. Volunteers from far and wide are allowed to come and join the efforts as well, provided you pay a small fee as a donation to the project. Visitors can also stop by to have a look around the visitor center for more information and to see exhibits of native snakes and other critters!
From La Ceiba, my boyfriend and I took a ferry to Utila and walked to the Iguana Station. We met the owner, viewed a powerpoint on the program and their research, signed a liability form, and took a tour of the property. Once we settled into our room, we met the other volunteers and hung out for the rest of the night. We woke early the next day for the diet prep and feeding of the animals on-site, before heading into the mangroves to look for iguanas. We were required to wear long sleeves and pants for our trek due to the intensity of the mosquitos. I gotta admit I was feeling pretty sexy wearing a bright orange mosquito headnet and a pair of oversized mens thrift store pants — said no one ever.
We sludged through the mangroves in transect lines with noose poles, a GPS, a data journal, pillowcases, and a PIT tag scanner with marking supplies. The noose poles helped us capture the iguanas we found and the GPS was used to mark their location. Once the iguanas were caught, we put them each into a pillowcase (this both calms them down and makes it easier for us to transport them) and one-by-one collected the necessary data in the field journal — things such as weights, measurements, gender. The owner showed us how to PIT tag and mark the iguanas. The PIT tags help us track their movements and provides our computer system with all kinds of other information about the iguana’s health, etc. We marked them by using a chalk-like pen to write an identification number, and we used colored beads set in a specific pattern to later identify the individual upon recapture. The iguanas were then re-released back into the mangroves and we trekked back to the station to clean up. That night was spent endlessly scratching our bites and devouring shakes at a restaurant called Munchies.
One morning for diet prep, I accompanied another volunteer into the forest to machete down chunks of termite nest to bring back for the iguanas. Cue the badass background music as we jump around the trees swinging machetes! We also visited a school to present and explain a science experiment the students would come to the station to try with us. However, the day the school kids showed up, I wound up going through the nerve-wracking experience of having near heat stroke and missed the entire experiment. Though I did get to help teach an entomology lesson for older school kids earlier in the week.
The rest of my time volunteering here was spent manning the Visitor’s Center, building an enclosure for a boa, marking the movements of a few iguanas on GoogleEarth, and measuring young iguanas to be released. When we weren’t volunteering we were all eating at Munchie’s, playing pool at a bar in town, and riding a rented scooter around the island. One volunteer was getting his Master Diver certification between volunteering. The week was packed with tasks at the Station, but also with plenty of fun and adventure!
How You Can Get Involved
If you’d like to do more than just tour the property while visiting Utila, you can apply to be a volunteer! Fill out an application here. When I volunteered in 2011, it was only for one week — though currently the station requires volunteers to stay a minimum of three weeks. Volunteers pay around $75 US per week, and an additional one-time registration fee of around $235 US if staying for less than three months. Housing is included as you can stay in the volunteer lodging on-site, though food and drink are not included in your fees. Cheap local grocery stores and restaurants are within walking or biking distance.
If you’d like to get involved with the breeding season, come during March to May. This will give you a lot of hands on experience with catching and handling the iguanas! Other daily tasks during the year could be collecting food for the iguanas, building and maintaining exhibits, leading activities with the local schools, participating in scientific research and data collection, collecting eggs, releasing iguanas, etc! Learn more about volunteering at the Utila Iguana Station here.
Keep in mind that you will get dirty and that you’ll be working in hot humid temperatures. Trekking through the mangrove swamps is often muddy and this type of habitat attracts a lot of mosquitos. Environmental field research and conservation programs are not for everyone. Through my years of experience volunteering, interning, and working for these kinds of projects, I occasionally run into travelers who are only looking to get a few cool-looking photos of themselves interacting with the wildlife before leaving the program early because they couldn’t hack the work involved, or didn’t come prepared. Don’t be that guy! You’ll work in a bit of a challenging environment here, but this particular program luckily allows you time off to go adventuring and touring both in between and after volunteer hours! Plus, you’re making a hugely positive impact on the survival of these critically endangered iguanas!
Have you ever done any wildlife-related volunteer work before? If so, what animals did you work with and where?!
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