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Building an appetite for iguana, to save the Caymans

Jed Kim Sep 19, 2016
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Green iguanas are becoming a threat to the Grand Cayman's ecosystem, according to experts.
Wikimedia Commons

Green iguanas have inundated the largest of the Cayman Islands and are gobbling up landscaped environments as well as native flora as they multiply largely unchecked.

An expert familiar with the invasion on Grand Cayman said the population could seriously damage the island’s native habitat.

“It could completely wreck the forest system and cause massive ecosystem change,” said Frederic Burton, manager of the Terrestrial Resources Unit at the Cayman Islands Government Department of the Environment. “It’s probably the most serious invasive species problem we’ve come across here.”

Iguana served at restaurant in the Caymans. 

Within their native range in South America, the iguana faces heavy predation from its natural enemies. On Grand Cayman, however, where it is relatively safe, the population is estimated to double every 18 months. Burton said the iguana numbers could top a million within a few years.

Burton recently headed a pilot program to test the feasibility of culling the lizards to manageable levels. Hunters killed about 20,000 iguanas, but the numbers rebounded within weeks. Even if it were possible to continue hunting the iguanas, the island’s incinerators couldn’t handle the load.

“We were literally taking two tons of corpses to the landfill every day,” Burton said. “It was just gruesome, I’m afraid. I mean, nobody can pretend it’s a pretty exercise. It’s horrible to have to do it.”

Burton said he’s hoping appetite for the lizard’s meat will help efforts to depress the island’s numbers.

“If you can bring the population down at the same time that we’re encouraging and promoting meat consumption of the green iguanas, we can get to a point where the hunting pressure on the wild population is enough to stop it coming back up to where it was before,” Burton said.

One business on the island is in the process of securing a license to sell and export the lizard meat. Maria Yapelli, liaison officer for Spinion Exports, said she and her husband originally came up with the idea for the company as an environmental answer for the lionfish invasion in the waters surrounding the Cayman Islands.

“My husband and I were both in the pharmaceutical industry, and we’d been diving for 14 years and saw the invasion of the lionfish and thought something needs to be done, and we have to skills to do it,” Yapelli said. “Why not us?”

Yapelli said the company is in the midst of adding iguanas to its offerings. In the meantime, it has reached out to local chefs to research and develop possible dishes.

“You know, it’s very good eating,” Yapelli said. “It’s readily available here, and Central America’s been eating it for years and years, and they love it. And we’re testing the waters here in Cayman, and we’re finding that the people are a little bit more adventurous than we first thought, and they are willing to eat it.”

She said the company hopes to be able to export iguana meat to the U.S. in the near future, but that doing so would require finding investors.

“America, I believe there’s a wave of new foodies out there that want to eat environmentally safe and conscious foods, ecofriendly foods,” Yapelli said. “Lionfish and iguana — any sort of invasive animal from an area that has the invasion – is that food.”

Her hopes for an American palate ready to eat iguana meat may have some founding. One California-based seller of exotic meats said his sales of iguana meat are growing.

Anshu Pathak, owner of Exotic Meat Markets in Grand Terrace, holding raw iguana meat. 

“It’s getting better and better, because nowadays, god knows why, people are showing interest,” said Anshu Pathak, owner of Exotic Meat Markets in Grand Terrace, about an hour east of Los Angeles.

Pathak said those interested in trying iguana can prepare it however they enjoy any other meat.

“Go with the flavor you like,” Pathak said. “Go with Asian spices, Indian spices, African spices. This meat is so versatile that it can blend with anything.”

We decided to try out Asian spices on iguana meat. Check out this video of Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal doing a taste test of Jed Kim’s recipe: 

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