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The Honduran Recipe Driving an Iguana to Extinction

How to responsibly eat iguana, if you wanna.

by Ben Richmond
Dec 3 2014, 6:40pm

Honduras's endangered spiny-tailed iguana. Image: James Willamor

The iguana has been a part of Central American cuisine for a long time. People who keep iguanas as pets probably find the idea of eating iguanas just as distasteful as I find the idea of eating dogs, but, then, human culture is a vast and hungry tent. And while I found this video of someone hacking up an iguana pretty unappetizing (don't say you weren't warned!), I'm willing to admit I probably wouldn't like watching the first steps that it took to get me a hamburger either.

It takes all kinds, and iguana meat is popular enough that iguana farms have been built in El Salvador, with an eye on exporting the meat to America and Asia. During a severe drought in Nicaragua this year, the government and land management experts recommended that people eat iguana instead of other meats.

But in Honduras, iguana-eating has become a problem. Although many species of iguana are threatened by habitat loss, according to research just published in the journal Herpetological Conservation and Biology, the Valle de Aguán spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura melanosterna) is "one of the most threatened species of iguana in Central America." They estimate that there only 5,000 mature individuals left in the Honduran Aguán river valley.

Researchers from the San Diego Zoo and the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras interviewed residents of the area to see if they were aware of the spiny-tailed iguana's precipitous decline, and also to figure out if there was a way to stop it.

They found that a big part of what drove the numbers down was the manner in which iguana is best served: with its eggs. That meant that, when hunting, female iguanas that are full of eggs—gravid, if you want the term—are prized.

According to Tak Landrock, a Colorado-based Anthony Bourdain-style traveling eater and reporter who sampled the reptilian fare in Honduras, "if you truly want good iguana, you can tell if it is prepared properly because it will come with some of the iguana's eggs." The iguana he ate was flash fried and served with rice, beans, and plantains.

Hunters will immediately see the problem here. Ideally, hunting is regulated in order to keep a population healthy. For mammals in the temperate zone, that usually means avoiding hunting when the animals are nursing their young in the spring. Not only are the females more vulnerable, bagging one who is nursing essentially leaves the young to die. Naturally, eating a gravid female is going to cut down on the next generation of iguanas.

But beyond the egg problem, iguana meat has a bit of a reputation across Central America. According to the Christian Science Monitor, iguana meat is called "a cure-all for everything from colds to poor sexual performance."

This reputation extends to Honduras as well, where 38 percent of the people that researchers talked to believed eating iguana was medicinal.

"Specific medicinal purposes ranged widely but included: source of vitamins, increase in appetite, cure for cancer, malnutrition, diabetes, reduced cholesterol, fever, and scars," the paper states. "Specific body parts are thought to have different uses. For example, fat is thought to be useful for asthma and earaches, and blood useful for respiratory diseases."

The majority of people, especially older people, that they talked to were aware of the drop in numbers. Some even thought the spiny-tailed iguana was already gone. But consumption still poses a threat.

There isn't really an easy solution to the problem either. The region is one of Honduras's poorest; the population is mostly small communities that rely on subsistence farming and harvesting for their livelihood. The researchers note that, long-term, the goals of conservationists and the residents of the valley are the same: more iguanas. But short-term, the goals conflict.