What to Do With Puerto Rico’s Invasive Iguanas? Eat Them

When video producers Jean-Paul Polo and Isabel Perez Loehmann were growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1980s, they remember the constant presence of big green iguanas strutting around, chomping on leaves, and getting underfoot. They had no idea they used to be pets, or that the iguanas were destroying the island’s crops and busting up asphalt by burrowing under roadways.

In fact, for the last several decades, green iguanas have been the island’s most notorious pests, eating their way through fields of farmland and repopulating like crazy. Think of them as the lionfish of the land (see Man v. Lionfish). Polo and Perez Loehmann discovered when researching the National Geographic video below that Puerto Rico is welcoming bands of hunters who will come and voluntarily shoot the pesky critters by the dozens to get them off your farm.”We are eliminating a plague,” one iguanero explains.

But then what? A potentially lucrative solution might be to eat them, says biologist Rafael Joglar of the University of Puerto Rico, although getting over cultural aversions to eating reptiles might be tricky.

To see how people would react to eating iguana, Polo and his team convinced Chef Roberto Hernandez, executive chef of the top-notch Washington, D.C. restaurant, Mio, to cook with it.

“It smelled like fish, it felt like chicken in their hands, but it looked like red meat, so it’s a completely different experience for me as a chef,” Hernandez says as he cuts up the backbone, revealing a deeply purple-reddish flesh.

You can fry them, stew them or skewer them, but the most popular preparation with Hernandez’ diners was deep-fried, as in popcorn iguana, he tells The Plate.

It turns out iguana is a pretty lean meat, and since we’re always looking for cheap sources of protein (including bugs) to feed the world, iguana may become part of the solution. But not just yet. As the video notes, it’s not yet legal to sell iguana meat in Puerto Rico. There are concerns about the risk of salmonella.

Of course, as is often the case with animals, where you stand on iguanas also depends on where you sit.

In South and Central America, where the green iguana is native, it is an endangered species in some countries because people have been hunting and eating this “chicken of the trees” for a long time.