Where human life is precarious, Haitians look out for a rare Iguana

On a Saturday morning on Haiti’s south coast, just over the border from the Dominican Republic, Pierre Richard Sanon and Tinio Louis scratch around in the dry, sandy soil in the dappled light beneath some small trees. They’re local youth conservation workers, and they’re pointing out the nesting spot of a Ricord’s Iguana.

The mother iguana buries her eggs here, they explain, and after three months, the little hatchlings emerge from the earth.

The babies would be impressive-looking, with grey-green armor, spikes along their backs, and menacing claws. As adults, they could grow to be three feet long.

The Ricord’s Iguana lives only on Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but even here you’re not likely to see one. It’s critically endangered on the whole island, and it was thought to be extinct here in Haiti, until a nest was found right here eight years ago, on a hilly stretch of sand and rock in the town of Anse-a-Pitres, running along a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

The small population of Ricord's iguanas on this isolated stretch of scrubland in Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti, is one of only three remnant populations of the species on the entire island of Hispaniola. Since the population was discovered, volunteer conservation workers have tried to improve the reptiles' habitat by planting shrubby trees and cacti bearing fruit they call "iguana candy."


Bahare Khodabande

As they walk, Sanon and Louis point out hidden caves, birds, tiny iridescent lizards, a giant caterpillar, shrubby trees and cacti bearing fruit they call "iguana candy." Many of these trees were planted by the two young men themselves, as part of a reforestation program designed to protect what it turns out could be a local population of up to 500 Ricord’s Iguanas.

Today, the iguanas might face a greater chance of survival thanks to a young Haitian American woman named Masani Accimé, who was leading a very different life in Manhattan before moving here.

“I was working as an emergency veterinarian, treating dogs and cats with Gucci collars, and in the Prada bag,” Accimé says. “And then I received an email from Ernst Rupp, who actually discovered the sub-population of iguanas here, inviting me to come here to work in this community where there’s no electricity.”

Accimé had worked with iguanas in a zoo, and had been interested in wildlife work. But she says the real draw was the opportunity to do something positive for a country she still considered home.

She landed a grant from a foundation and began recruiting volunteers, such as Louis and Sanon, to patrol the area, plant trees, and speak with local residents about threats like hunting the iguana for meat, and cutting trees for charcoal. She also convinced local politicians to set aside almost 20 square miles for protected iguana habitat.

Accimé also had eager collaborators in a conservation organization across the border in the Dominican Republic, called Grupo Jaragua — with whom Ernst Rupp works. Accimé says that collaboration was remarkable given how bad relations have gotten between the two neighbors.

“They haven’t been willing to see a border,” she says of her Dominican partners. “They’ve been willing to see that the species actually don’t have a border, and they need to survive, and that’s it.”

Where human life is precarious, Haitians look out for a rare Iguana

Project director Masani Accimé on a walkway crossing between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where she has formed a rare cross-border relationship with a partner organization. Relations between the two countries have long been strained but Accimé says her Dominican partners recognize that "the species actually don’t have a border.”


Bahare Khodabande

In a country like Haiti, where environmental destruction seems an intractable problem in the face of unrelenting human misery, the accomplishments by Accimé and collaborators on behalf of a lizard are impressive. But they hardly guarantee long-term success, and the challenges are huge, from unrelenting poverty and superstition about reptiles, to distrust of NGOs, and Haiti’s political chaos.

Accimé says what’s needed most is a national law protecting the iguana. But the government in Port-au-Prince is barely functioning, and similar dysfunction locally makes it worse. A while ago she was close to convincing the mayor of Anse-a-Pitres to push the cause in the capital, but then the mayor was ousted, Accimé says.

She says a new mayor came in four months later and told her, "‘well, I don’t know anything about your work, there’s nothing in the office that shows you’ve been working here.’ And I’ve been bringing documents and holding meetings and workshops for years.”

Accimé regrouped, and she seems to have made progress with the town’s new interim mayor, Mikellange Morland.

“Personally, I would like to see the iguana habitat protection put into law,” Morland says. “And I believe the government wants to as well.”

But Morland also thinks a new law can only go so far.

“You have to look at the feasibility,” the mayor says. “If I say I’m going to arrest anyone who cuts trees, but today there are people cutting trees to survive, how can I give them a way to survive without cutting trees?”

Where human life is precarious, Haitians look out for a rare Iguana

Cutting trees for charcoal production is an impoprtant livelihood in Haiti but also a major threat to its environment, including the the habitat of the Ricord's iguana.


Bahare Khodabande

But Morland believes Accimé’s efforts have helped improve public understanding of the benefits of protecting the iguana and its habitat.

Accimé explains that the iguana can help restore the local forest by spreading and fertilizing seeds through its scat. She also hopes it could help foster eco-tourism here. Meanwhile, her volunteers are ready to give training and supplies to help locals switch from chopping trees and selling charcoal to new sources of income, like beekeeping.

Still, Accimé is growing weary of the challenges.

“I don’t know whether or not this will work,” she says, “because as we’ve seen, many, many, many projects have been failing in Haiti.”

After working in Anse-a-Pitres for the better part of seven years, the Haitian American veterinarian is now planning to turn the iguana project over to her protégés and hope for the best.

“The only way that I think it will take hold is if individual people have an interest in it,” Accimé says. “I think these young people do. So hopefully they’re stakeholders now, this is their work."

“I think there’s a high likelihood that this could fail, but a small chance that it could succeed. It’s been worth a try.”

Where human life is precarious, Haitians look out for a rare Iguana

Youth conservation worker Tinio Louis points to the boundary of the 20 square-mile protected iguana habitat in Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti. Project leader Masani Accimé says she's planning to turn the reins over to Louis and other local residents. "Hopefully they’re stakeholders now. This is their work.”


Bahare Khodabande

Luxembourg hopes to spur the next ‘gold rush’ in space

The government of Luxembourg says it will work with space entrepreneurs to open up access to a wealth of rare minerals and resources in space.

To do this, it plans to partner with and invest in futuristic research projects to develop both new space mining technology and to build on existing technology such as autonomous robots and auto navigation systems.  

"In the long-term, space resources could lead to a thriving new space economy and human expansion into the solar system," Etienne Schneider, Luxembourg's economy minister, told a press conference.

Asteroid mining could potentially make deep space exploration missions easier as supplies of materials wouldn't have to be blasted into space from Earth.

“Luxembourg is taking first steps to make sure that resources will be available in outer space for supporting and building up those manned missions to planets beyond Mars to new territories,” says Yves Elsen of the Luxembourg Space Cluster. “The reason is that there are a lot of raw materials to be found on asteroids — for example, water under the surface in the form of ice -- but if you have water you can split out hydrogen and oxygen, which you need for rocket propulsion systems,"

More than 13,000 asteroids have so far been identified moving close to Earth. Scientists believe that many of them are rich in highly valuable metals like platinum and palladium. As expected these potentially abundant asteroid resources are luring some American start-up companies to compete to be the first to visit these asteroids.

 “This is the beginning of the gold rush in space, and we’re delighted to see Luxembourg’s leadership,” says Chris Lewicki, the CEO of Planetary Resources, one of several US companies hoping to ramp up to actual asteroid mining operations. Lewicki says that by the decade of the 2020s, it will likely be possible to land autonomous spacecraft on asteroids, to drill into their surfaces, and extract very profitable quantities of special ores to bring back to Earth.

Asteroid mining missions will undoubtedly be technologically complicated and exceedingly difficult, but Lewicki sounds confident.

“We can use robotic technology, the same technology that helped Rovers land and drive on Mars, the same technology that’s helping autonomous cars drive around, is something that we can actually do, without ever needing to have a human go, we can explore and develop these resources on asteroids.” 

He notes that a robotic asteroid mission has certain advantages over a manned lunar mission. 

“The moon’s got a lot of gravity that you have to fight in order to land on it and come back from it, but asteroids have very little gravity, so you dock with them, and that makes them much more attractive targets for rocket scientists going out to look for resources in space.”

Another space mining company hopeful is preparing as well.

In a press release, the California-based Deep Space Industries praised Luxembourg for its “unique foresight and their deep understanding of the future of the space industry. This initiative shows they are uniquely positioned to be a major player in the next space economy that is currently gaining traction around the world. DSI is proud to see the leadership of our friends and partners as they help pave the critical path to a future of unlimited resources.”

Rick Tumlinson, who heads DSI, said “The future is built by the bold, and once again, as it did in telecommunications and other areas of technology, Luxembourg is showing the sort of boldness that moves the world forward.”

As futuristic as it all sounds, DSI can already point to successes. Its Arkyd 3 Reflight spacecraft deployed successfully from the International Space Station last year and carried out a 90-day mission that featured some of the avionics, control systems and software, which the company plans to incorporate into future spacecraft to prospect for resource-rich near-Earth asteroids.