Aug 22, 2012

An interesting way to boost exports

This is one for the "strange but true" news section. Puerto Rico is apparently overrun by iguanas. Having been to Puerto Rico a few times, I can attest to this. They're everywhere. They creep some people out, but I think they have a relaxed, zen like quality. Puerto Rico is hoping to battle the "green plague" by cooking up the lizards and selling their meat to diners in Central America, South America and the U.S. They say the meat is white and juicy, and has reported aphrodisiac qualities ("hey honey, put the kids to bed, and lets have a tasty snack!"). Reported by the eminently entertaining The Wall Street Journal:

The reptiles, which aren't native to Puerto Rico, have few natural predators and are highly fertile. They have proliferated so uncontrollably that their population, estimated at roughly four million, now outnumbers humans in this U.S. territory. "This is a real serious problem," says Daniel Galán Kercadó, secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. "We have to attack it."

First, Puerto Rico declared iguanas a nuisance, opening the way for people to hunt them. But that didn't put much of a dent in the population. Now, authorities have a new solution: eat them.

There isn't much appetite for iguanas in Puerto Rico, but the meat is popular in other countries, Mr. Galán Kercadó says. Puerto Rico hopes to gather iguanas up, slaughter them and export the meat to countries in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere with a taste for the lizards. Not only will this help rid Puerto Rico of a problem, Mr. Galán Kercadó says, but it could create jobs too.

Unlike Puerto Ricans, who consider the creatures a pest, many Central Americans go gaga for iguana. They eat it roasted and in stews. They use its oil to treat rheumatism and bruises. Some even consume it in the hope of increasing their sex drive, according to a recent U.S. government report on the reptiles.
The region's taste for the animals has depleted the population of some species, prompting countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua to enact protections, according to the report.

Luis Ramírez Camejo, a Panamanian graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico, says he couldn't believe his good fortune when he arrived here and discovered the island was overrun with iguanas. "In my family, iguana meat is a luxury," he says. "You don't find it easily."

He says he has caught numerous iguanas on the island and prepared the meat in a stew with achiote oil, onions and tomatoes. The meat is white and slightly sweet, he says.

Once, Mr. Ramírez Camejo says, he laid a skinned iguana carcass outside his dormitory window to dry in the sun. His fellow students were horrified. "Disgusting!" he recalls them saying. "How can you eat that?" From then on, he says, he began drying the meat in a microwave oven instead.

Puerto Rican officials hope iguana lovers like him will provide a lucrative market overseas. The government is now encouraging entrepreneurs to get into the iguana-exporting business with incentives like subsidized rent.

They have one taker so far: José Luis Monge, founder of Best Iguana Puerto Rico Meat.

In an industrial park east of San Juan, he is setting up a slaughterhouse he hopes will one day ship out 2,000 pounds of iguana meat a week.

Already, he has around 600 of the lizards, which he buys from a number of hunters. The animals, which can grow as long as six feet, including their tails, and weigh as much as 20 pounds, live in a corral out back. They eat mangoes, bananas and carrots, and cool themselves under little thatched huts Mr. Monge built.

"I made them a concrete pool, but they didn't like it," he says. "They like natural settings more—dirt and grass." So he built them mud pools instead.

Among the iguana hunters Mr. Monge relies on is Héctor Cruz Rohena. One recent morning, Mr. Cruz Rohena set out in an aluminum rowboat on a murky canal that snaked through a residential area. His iguana-catching device consisted of a long bamboo pole rigged with a rope that formed a noose at the tip.

The creatures may be abundant, but they are no easy prey. When Mr. Cruz Rohena approached a group of them on a shoreline, they tore off into the vegetation. Then he spotted a female in a tree and tried repeatedly to work the noose around her neck, but she kept lowering her head.

"She's playing with me," he said. Then he accidentally knocked her off the branch, and she plunged into the water and swam off. "The females are more difficult to catch," he said. "And they weigh less. They're not worth it."

A while later, Mr. Cruz Rohena found a male hanging out on the shore. He approached quietly, lowered the noose over his head and yanked the rope hard. He pulled the writhing reptile into the boat and stuck him inside a wire cage. The iguana opened his jaws and hissed at him.

Native to Central and South America, iguanas arrived in Puerto Rico in the 1970s as part of the pet trade, says Rafael Joglar, a biology professor at the University of Puerto Rico who has studied the animals. Over time, he says, some escaped and others were set loose, and they slowly began to multiply.

In the past few years, complaints about the creatures have increased.

They infiltrate electrical substations and trigger power outages, including one in January at the island's biggest shopping mall. They congregate on runways at the international airport in San Juan, periodically forcing officials to delay flights until they can be removed.

When the government first announced the iguana plan in February, it drew snickers. "Really???" wrote one commenter on the website of Primera Hora, a local newspaper. But over time, the plan has gained supporters.

The animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, however, is outraged. "Eradicating iguanas in Puerto Rico is just senseless and cruel," says Kristin Simon, senior cruelty case worker at PETA.

"They're a nuisance species," Mr. Galán Kercadó responds. "We need to manage that kind of invasion."

One potentially interested iguana buyer is Anshu Pathak, owner of Perris, Calif.-based Exotic Meat Market, which sells everything from antelope to zebra meat. He says there is a healthy appetite for iguana meat in the U.S., especially among Latin American and Asian immigrant groups.

"I sell every iguana I get," he says. He touts the animal's supposed aphrodisiac qualities to potential buyers, he says. "Sex is my main selling point," he says. "Everybody likes sex, right? So please eat my iguanas."