Invasive green iguanas could be targeted for food

New recipe for success in iguana control efforts?

A green iguana climbs down a tree in South Sound.- PHOTOS: MATT LAMERS

Putting green iguanas on restaurant menus could be part of the long-term strategy for controlling the exploding population of the invasive species, according to chefs and environment officials.

More than 14,000 green iguanas were culled by hunters during a week-long trial last month. Department of Environment officers are analyzing the findings from that study in an effort to formulate a long-term strategy for radically reducing numbers.

Fred Burton, the head of the National Conservation Council’s invasive species committee, said there is potential for iguanas to be targeted as a food source in the long term, assuming the processes meet food inspection standards.

He said culling for food has helped make an impact on efforts to control lionfish populations, another invasive species that threatens the ecosystem of the Cayman Islands, and the same approach could work with iguanas.

“I think it will catch on because the meat is quite varied. I can see a green iguana cookbook like we have the lionfish cookbook,” he said.

If local diners do not have the stomach for iguanas, there is always the export market. They are widely hunted for food in Central America, to the extent where they are endangered in some countries.

“There is definitely potential to ship it out to other countries where it is already a marketable food source,” said Mr. Burton.

At Tukka restaurant in East End, owner Ron Hargrave serves kangaroo and ostrich steaks to diners, as well as lionfish tacos.

He believes green iguanas could be a harder sell, though he is interested in giving it a try.

“We have done well with the lionfish,” he said. “Everyone likes to eat them. Eating a lizard could be a little more difficult.

“I don’t know how it would be received. You can definitely eat them, that is not the issue. It is more the perception of how people would respond to it.”

Mr. Hargrave said he tried iguana in Honduras and it tasted like a cross between crab and chicken. He said he would be interested in testing some iguana recipes to see the response.

“If they are going to keep up the culling, it makes sense to do something with the iguanas. It could be something that helps everyone. I’d be interested in seeing what the reaction is.”

He said processing the meat for export to Central America, where iguanas are a common food source, is another viable option.

Hunters, like Herman Myrie, culled more than 14,000 iguanas in a recent week-long trial.
Hunters, like Herman Myrie, culled more than 14,000 iguanas in a recent week-long trial.

Iguana hides are used in other parts of the world. At Justin Boots in Texas, a pair of iguana-skin boots retails for $389.95.

U.S.-based Roje Exotics American Leathers processes hides of everything from lizards to eels and sharks, to provide skins for manufacturers of boots and handbags.

A spokeswoman for the company told the Cayman Compass that the main difficulty in producing good quality leather on island would be tanning.

“Skins are easily ruined if they are not processed fast locally,” she said.

The iguanas from last month’s cull went to the George Town landfill.

Mr. Burton says the immediate priority must be to reduce the number of green iguanas. An estimated 500,000 green iguanas are in Grand Cayman, and at the current rate of growth, they are likely to cause massive ecosystem changes over the next few years.

“Eating iguanas and marketing them as a food source is not going to work in terms of controlling the population at current levels,” Mr. Burton said, “but there is potential for hunting for food to help control numbers in future.

“Right now, the priority has to be to bring the numbers down radically. If we reduce the population significantly, and hunting for meat production does become more popular, then that could help prevent it from rebounding.”

Thomas Tennant, a chef at the Brasserie, said iguanas are staple ingredients in people’s diet in many countries.

He said it could be cooked in many ways but the best was to coat it in cornmeal, deep fry and toss in buffalo sauce.

“It tastes like frog legs, except cleaner,” he said.

Mr. Tennant, who helped put lionfish on menus in the Cayman Islands, said the same strategy could work for iguanas.

“What made lionfish successful as an ingredient was that we heavily marketed it and we were dedicated to putting out this message that it was good for the environment and delicious. Using Taste of Cayman as a platform, we were able to give samples, answer questions and push boundaries…

“Green iguanas are destructive to our Islands in many regards and the one formidable way I can make a difference is to inform guests and present a delicious alternative.

“The strategy can work, but it would be a bit more difficult than lionfish.”