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Jun 26, 2003

Breeding programme boosts iguana population

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They don’t taste quite as nice as lobster, but that hasn’t stopped iguanas from becoming a popular dish on dinner menus in many parts of rural Belize. Today, however, I visited one place in the Cayo District where the population of the well-known reptile is being increased instead of depleted.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting

In April of this year, the San Ignacio Hotel’s Green Iguana Breeding Project took to the riverbanks, combing through sand mounds, looking for iguana eggs.

Martin Velasquez, Green Iguana Breeding Project

“Iguanas tend to use burrows. They would dig with their front claw and extract with their back and would dig a burrow almost three, sometimes almost four feet. In there they will lay a clutch of sometimes almost a dozen eggs if it’s a young iguana. If it’s a more mature iguana, it can lay almost twenty-five to thirty, sometimes forty-five eggs. People have actually found iguanas with over fifty eggs, so this is a small burrow.”

Inside the hole, we find seven eggs.

Martin Velasquez

“Now these are very soft at this stage, we have to be very, very careful.”

For the past six months, Martin Velasquez has managed the Green Iguana Breeding Project, carefully collecting the eggs from the clutches and keeping them safe in these sand filled containers.

Janelle Chanona

“The iguana eggs will stay buried in the sand for about eighty days and then after months of nothing, signs of life from inside the shell. It’s a process that will take about twenty minutes.”

Martin Velasquez

“We are looking here for any little rupture, any little break on the shell, such as this one here. And we can see that a little iguana nose or the front of its head is popping through the shell.”

As the minutes drag on, the lizards seem a little lazy. But hey, this is assisted hatching.

Martin Velasquez

“What I want to do is rip the shell a little bit more so that we can have more of the iguana exposed. At times they are a little bit shy, but by ripping and offering more space to come out, it’s gonna give a little bit of help.”

Janelle Chanona

“Is it dangerous to handle them like this?”

Martin Velasquez

“Not really if your hands are clean and it’s not so oily, well then that’s fine…see that, he’s gonna be all right. (Iguana running around) A lot of energy, a lot of energy…already tasting the sand and tasting the area where it came out from, it’s very alert.”

One by one, the eggs crack, yolks seep out and then sand covered green heads emerge from the shells ever so slowly. And then the iguanas take in their first breath of air and take a look around.

Janelle Chanona

“When the iguanas hatch, they are this brilliant, almost neon green colour and they’ll stay this way for about a year. It’s a crucial factor to their survival because as you can see, it helps them blend in.”

The hatchlings don’t eat for the first couple of days…but after that, they dine on a carrot salad garnished with chaya leaves. With such tender loving care bestowed on these lively lizards, the survival rate of the eggs is almost a hundred percent…even though a couple do show up missing a few parts.

But is assisted hatching slapping survival of the fittest in the face?

Janelle Chanona

“Too many iguanas, isn’t that a problem too?”

Martin Velasquez

“Well we will have some of them that will be a little bit weak. We’ll be able to tell from the time they are hatching, and if they don’t survive within the first year, well then they weren’t fit enough for the wild and we will select the best to continue reproducing. We do know that we eat iguana here in Belize, we call it bamboo chicken and it’s a favourite especially when the female is gravid with eggs. And so the population of iguana is decreasing in most of our community areas.”

Known colloquially as bamboo chicken, iguana is a delicacy to the “picky” Belizean palate. According to Velasquez, iguanas are a threatened species here and listed as endangered in other parts of Central America, prompting conservationists to include public relations with the breeding.

Martin Velasquez

“What’s growing in there?”

Children

“Baby iguanas.”

Martin Velasquez

“Yes, a little baby iguana is coming from out there.”

The Green Iguana Breeding Project hopes that by teaching children about these rigorous reptiles, and maintaining their picturesque river forest habitats, iguanas will be running around in Belize for a long, long time.



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