How to have your iguanas, and eat ’em too – iguana farming

How to have your iguanas, and eat ’em too – iguana farming – Up Front

Grilled, roasted, or stewed, iguana tastes something like chicken. The inhabitants of rural Central and South America so favor the flavor of the three- to six-foot common iguana that in places they’ve hunted it almost to extinction. Would-be Lotharios also slit open gravid females for their eggs, because eating boiled iguana eggs is supposed to improve sexual performance. Add shrinking breeding grounds, and it looks like the sunset of the iguana.

Enter Dagmar Werner, an East German scientist of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama, who has studied iguanas there and on the Galapagos Islands. During the past fifteen years much of their rain forest habitat has disappeared and their numbers have been dwindling. Werner’s dream: to persuade peasants to farm the lizard, which in turn might provide incentive for preserving the rain forests.

First, Werner looked for a way to improve egg-hatching percentages, since in the wild only about one out of forty eggs ever makes it to lizardhood. Working on a two-and-a-half-acre plot in Soberania National Park, she modified the natural iguana nest — females lay their eggs in shallow holes in the dirt — by building concrete- block nesting chambers and filling them with damp sand. The eggs are transferred to Styrofoam hatching boxes as soon as possible after they’re laid. The sun serves as a natural incubator that keeps them at between 81.5 degrees to 88 degreesF. Three months later, the tiny iguanas emerge. Werner’s hatching rate: 95 per cent. By fiddling with the humidity and temperature in which the eggs are incubated, she can even produce a longer-tailed model (next year, fins?). So far, 1,200 custom-hatched lizards have been released into the countryside. Werner is now doing follow-up studies to see how well they adapt and survive in the wild.

Before and after they’re released, Werner’s iguanas are fed a high-protein diet of soya and fish meal that makes them grow more quickly and become meatier — weighing a good six pounds at three years — than their kin in the forest. This has raised the possibility that campesinos may be persuaded to use this low-tech method to breed iguanas, as they do chickens, thus alleviating the pressure on the native population. To test the idea, a pilot breeding project is under way. Iguanaburgers, anyone?

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