Green and scaly, with a mouth full of sharp teeth, the iguana might not look like a nutritious meal, but as the iguana population surpasses the human population in Puerto Rico - destroying gardens, digging holes under houses, and blocking roads and runways - residents are beginning to see the benefit of using the animal for meat.
Although there is, as of yet, little global demand for this untraditional dish, Puerto Ricans are looking to international meat markets to support local pest control.
Iguanas originated in Central and South America and were first brought to Puerto Rico in the 1970s to be sold as pets. The reptiles reproduce quickly, with mature females laying up to 70 eggs annually. Once iguanas entered the wild in Puerto Rico, the population quickly spiraled out of control. The animals are well camouflaged and very fast, which makes them difficult to catch.
Fortunately, iguana is a fairly common ingredient in many Latin American countries, earning the nickname, gallinas de palo, or "chicken of the tree."
By using iguanas for food, Puerto Ricans have found an effective way to control the reptile’s exploding population. Iguana meat has been compared to a slightly sweeter version of chicken, and common recipes include stews, tacos, and roasts. Iguana eggs are edible as well, and are said to have a rich, cheesy flavor.
Puerto Rico is not the only place using iguanas for food: in Central and South America, the meat is seen as a delicacy. Nutritionally, it is rich in minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, and has more protein than chicken. If Puerto Ricans develop a taste for the meat, iguana could become a staple food source for the island.
Some other countries, including El Salvador and Mexico, already have export industries for iguana meat. Between 2001 and 2008, the United States imported more than 20,000 pounds of the delicacy to meet the low but rising demand for consumption by humans.
According to connoisseurs, iguana meat can go for up to $50 per pound in some US markets. The business can be so lucrative that people in some countries have established iguana farms to ensure consistent supply. The production of iguana has resulted in markets for other products as well: iguana skin is used to make leather, while iguana oil is used for medicinal purposes - relief of rheumatism, clearing up bruises, and as an aphrodisiac.The production of iguana meat and other products could benefit Puerto Rico in multiple ways: it could protect other Puerto Rican fauna, offer new employment opportunities, and boost domestic food security.