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Repatriation Milestone: Specimen of 170-Year-Old Jamaican Giant Galliwasp returns home

The UWI Regional Headquarters, Jamaica. Friday, May 10, 2024—A rare Jamaican Giant Galliwasp (Celestus occiduus) specimen kept in The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow in Scotland since the 1800s has finally returned to its homeland. Its return to Jamaica marks the successful joint repatriation operation between The University of the West Indies (The UWI) and the University of Glasgow (UofG). To ensure the safe journey of the specimen, a team of experts from The UWI and the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) travelled to Scotland from April 18 to 24.

For nineteen months, The UWI and UofG, partners through a 2019 MOU, have been meticulously coordinating the repatriation of this unique creature. The young adult female, wet preserved lizard, (nicknamed Celeste) is believed to be over 170 years old and resided at The Hunterian Museum at UofG since 1888. With the support of the Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research (GCCDR) established by the two universities, as well as the IOJ, the specimen made its way by air travel from Scotland to Jamaica.

The Jamaican Giant Galliwasp, the largest of galliwasp in Jamaica (15 to 20 inches long), was endemic to Jamaica, but vanished sometime in the late 1800s, and is now presumed extinct. Before they became extinct, galliwasp specimens were collected and sent to various museums in Europe and the USA. Some were held by the Institute of Jamaica but are thought to have been lost during the 1907 Kingston earthquake. 

Dr Shani Roper, Curator, The UWI Museum who served as the University’s lead coordinator, commented on the expedition, saying, “The trip allowed us to achieve the end goal of repatriation and also provided an opportunity for team members to explore Caribbean fauna collections in Scotland, facilitating knowledge sharing and further collaborations. This programme not only built bridges between the institutions but also established best practice for Caribbean museums contemplating repatriation and supports regional reparative justice agendas.

Now that it’s in Jamaica, the Galliwasp specimen’s permanent home is the country’s National History Museum. An official handover will be held on May 22, formalising its entry into the national museum to facilitate public viewing, scientific study, and research about this lost species and its role in the Jamaican ecosystem.

The return of the Galliwasp signifies more than the homecoming of a specimen; it symbolizes an important milestone for scientific research, cultural heritage preservation in the region, and repatriation as part of the reparatory justice for the Caribbean. The UWI remains steadfast in its commitment to greater advocacy and consciousness-raising of the reparatory justice movement which deals with various issues of different scales. 

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