More than two weeks after Irma hit St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, you can still see how the winds ripped through tin roofs like lids of sardine cans, snapped electricity poles as if they were toothpicks, upended trucks and planes on the airport tarmac. At a nearby marina, a yacht’s bow still sticks out of the water.
The strong winds also uprooted trees, cracking their branches and defoliating them to the bare bone. St. Thomas is no longer a lush green rain forest. Instead, it’s dull brown with naked trees on the hillsides.
For the thousands of iguanas, this massive destruction of their vegetation is tragic. The tree canopies where they live and hide are all gone. They can’t camouflage themselves anymore. The fruit, leaves and hibiscus flowers have disappeared. These reptiles also feast on mosquitoes, which has helped control the local population.
Since Hurricanes Irma and Maria, there’s been a lot of rain in the region. That’s promising for the trees, but also means more mosquitoes.
“The debris and receding floodwaters are excellent breeding sites for disease-carrying mosquitoes,” says Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. That’s a boon for diseases like dengue, chikungunya and Zika.
“Without healthy populations of [insect eaters] our human populations are more vulnerable,” says U.S. Virgin Islands wildlife biologist Renata Platenberg.
Iguanas are not native to the island, but nonetheless they’ve made this place their home because the climate and vegetation had been just right. Islanders either love them or hate them. Love them because they’re tame, social reptiles. They don’t bite. They offer great photo ops for tourists.
And they’re hated by locals mainly because they eat home gardens and poop on people’s properties.
The iguanas might be able to swim to their neighboring island of St. John, but they’ll find the forests are all gone there, too.
“All the islands in the same proximity are all devastated,” says iguana lover Laural Branick, a park ranger at Virgin Islands National Park. “There’s nothing for them to eat.”
With the amount of deforestation caused by this year’s hurricanes, it will take a long time for the trees to come back. So for the moment, the green lizards are easy to spot, perched on broken branches, running aimlessly across streets — and sometimes getting hit by cars.
“We should just eat them,” says St. Thomas native Brigitte Berry. “They’re delicious.”
But the bigger question is, without a healthy iguana population, who will eat the mosquitoes?