Diana McCaulay

Blog - SnailWriter

On Tessanne Chin and the Jamaican Iguana

Posted by Diana McCaulay on November 21, 2013 at 6:55 AM

Watching Tessanne Chin on The Voice stage on Tuesday night, head lowered, waiting for America to “save” her, I was reminded of the Jamaican rock iguana. I hope she won’t take offense. I mean it as a high compliment – they’re both so special. Both born Jamaicans. Both rare. In the case of the iguana, vanishingly rare. And their immediate future rests in the hands of others.

Like most of Jamaica, I’ve watched Tessanne with pride, not just for her extraordinary talent, but for her charm and humility. And I’ve wondered, as journalist Dionne Jackson Miller blogged recently (http://newsandviewsbydjmillerja.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/why-the-sudden-love-for-tessanne/, why we so often wait for the endorsement of others before we get behind our own.

Last week, I attended meetings at the Hope Zoo hosted by UWI, NEPA and the IUCN (Int’l Union for the Conservation of Nature) Iguana Specialist Group, which have been working for more than 20 years to save the Jamaican iguana, thought to have been extinct, in one of the most successful conservation programmes in the world. In the WORLD, people. Perhaps I do need to say that our iguana is unique to us, found only here on our rock, and is one of the 100 most endangered animals on the planet. Eight zoos in the US hold specimens of our iguana as last ditch saviours of their genetic material – in case all animals go extinct in the wild, a likely outcome of any large transshipment port nearby. But unlike other iguanas, ours have not bred well in captivity – no one is sure why. Enter the process called headstarting, whereby hatchlings are taken from the Hellshire Hills, grown at the Hope Zoo to a size where they are not so vulnerable to predators and then released back to the wild. 52 young adults were released this season. From the handful of animals seen in the 1990s, there are now more than six times the number of nesting females in the Hellshire Hills.

One of the presentations at the Hope Zoo talked about history – and the presenter showed an extract from one of Hans Sloane’s papers dated 1725 – iguanas, Sloane had written, were plentiful in Jamaica – I think of the name Liguanea, and I imagine many iguanas on the plain – and were excellent eating. Then we hunted them to near extinction. This is what happens when natural resources are approached with recklessness – we eliminate their many benefits, quite apart from their intrinsic value.

At the end of the meeting day, we were taken to look at the headstarting cages at the Hope Zoo. And for awhile, I stood starting at an adult iguana, Rocky, I called him in my mind, giving myself permission to anthropomorphize, and I asked him, animal to animal – couldn’t you have tried a little harder to be just a little cuter? Our iguanas are a dull, patchy gray/brown, with just the tiniest hint of aqua around their dorsal ridge, so faint I wondered if it was wishful thinking on my part. Their skin doesn’t fit them. They’re big – can grow to four feet from head to tail. They’re small dinosaurs but we like our dinosaurs to be the bad guys in films. Rocky, my boy, I said to him, you’re just too reptilian.

And I remembered my climb to iguana bush last year, courtesy of Prof Byron Wilson at UWI, landing on the beach at Manatee Bay, the walk through the mangroves and the bright orange crocodile ponds, and then the climb through the forest of Hellshire, the sharp rocks, the stones that turned treacherously underfoot, the rich colours of fallen leaves, the heat. And then the two wild iguanas we saw, so perfectly adapted to their habitat. It’s simple – Rocky and his kind do not exist to please the aesthetic sensibilities of human beings.

Rocky, I said, that afternoon at Hope Zoo, where do I find the words to convince Jamaicans that you’re worth saving? How can I convince them that you are the Tessanne Chin of the Hellshire Hills, what will cause us to have new eyes, new respect, for one of our own, a creature who was here before we were? Rocky was dignified but mute.

I know the rhetoric – if one Jamaican child can eat from the eradication of the iguana, so be it. We thought they were gone and we were fine with that. Most of us will never see them in the wild. Who cares, who cares, who cares – these are the loudest voices.

In the end it comes down to respect, to awe, for the complexity and beauty of the place where we live, first our island, and then our planet. With regard to the prospect of the transshipment port far too close to the dry limestone forests of Hellshire, I’ve listened to people say – we never heard of Goat Islands before. We’ve never been there and so they do not matter – level them. By that token, an awful lot of the world should be leveled because most of us will never see most of it. I’ve heard the dismissive remarks from people who should know better about “two likkle lizaad”. We have become an urban people, with no connection to wild places and no regard for wild things.

I left Rocky in the fading light, thinking of Tessanne’s soaring voice, and the singular Usain Bolt standing in solidarity with her on The Voice stage, extraordinary Jamaicans both, as our iguana is extraordinary and I wondered, not for the first time, who might change our minds and hearts.


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1 Comment

Reply Lorraine
8:58 AM on November 28, 2013 
Beautiful article. I was wondering if anyone had contacted Tessanne and/or Usain about campaigning for the iguanas? Maybe the iguanas need a bit of celebrity endorsement?