Cayman Island authorities are investigating the violent deaths of a half-dozen giant blue iguanas that are among the most imperiled creatures on the planet.
Five captive Grand Cayman blue iguanas, critically endangered lizards that resemble miniature turquoise dragons, were found scattered across a breeding park in the British dependency after they apparently were stomped and gouged, scientists said.
The sixth dead iguana's entrails were found strewn outside its pen in the fenced-in facility in Grand Cayman, according to Fred Burton, director of a program that has brought the rare reptiles back from the brink of extinction.
Feral cats kill young blue iguanas, and adult iguanas are sometimes killed by dogs. But humans were almost certainly behind the weekend massacre, which wiped out more than half of the adult breeding iguanas at the facility, Burton said.
The Royal Cayman Islands Police have launched a criminal investigation, including forensics work on the dead iguanas.
"It's ugly and deeply shocking," Burton said Tuesday from the Blue Iguana Recovery Program. "These were six of our most high-profile, most-loved captive iguanas."
Two females had been preparing to lay eggs to help the species repopulate when they were killed late Saturday or early Sunday.
The blue iguana, which frequently lives more than 20 years and grows to more than 5 feet (1.5 meters), is only found in the wild on Grand Cayman.
It is a subspecies of the Cuban rock iguana, and is closely related to the rock iguana that is found on the islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.
Only 10 to 25 cold-blooded blue iguanas, which eat flowers and fruits, were known to exist in the wild before Hurricane Ivan ravaged the Caribbean island in 2004.
Since then, the captive breeding program has restored about 200 of the reptiles to a wildlife sanctuary on the island's northwest, Burton said.
"We have a broad constituency of support here, but this appalling incident is an acid reminder that things can't always go our way," he said.