“Do you want to hold an iguana,” certainly isn’t the first thing you’re expecting to hear in the morning. But this past Saturday, that’s just about how my day started. While we were too tired from our first week of work to make it to any of the major tours, Hannah and I stayed in San Ignacio to get a taste of the local activities. The first stop? – The Green Iguana Conservation Project at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel.
Balanced just at the top of the major hill in town, the hotel sits on the edge of the rainforest that grows up the banks from the Macal River. The tropical green leaves provide the perfect tree cover for a shaded iguana enclosure. The iguana project started over 20 years ago when the population of green iguanas in the area started to decline because of hunting. The meat of an iguana, known as “bamboo chicken”, as well as the eggs, were considered a delicacy in this area. Now it is illegal to hunt iguanas out of season, but there still remains a need for supporting the redevelopment of the population.
Our guide, Zhawn, introduces us to the alpha of the iguana community community, Gnome. At first we were confused because although Gnome is a green iguana, he is not green at all. As it turns out, male iguanas turn orange during the mating season. As the dominant male, Gnome is extra orange. The large flap under his chin, called the dewlap, helps him get all the ladies while he waves it back and forth in a territorial mating display. The dewlap is also helpful for absorbing extra heat and regulating body temperature.
All in all, Gnome seems pretty satisfied with his life in a protected enclosure with his 15 lady iguanas.
We were also lucky enough to meet some of the baby iguanas. Their names are Pride and Joy and at 8 months old, they are still only a few inches long. Near the end of every breeding season, the conservationists at the project venture down the river banks looking for the holes where female iguanas lay their eggs. From there, they carefully dig up the eggs and bring them to the enclosure to be incubated. This protects the eggs from poachers and gives the baby iguanas the best chance of survival away from predators. The Belizean jungle is full of iguana predators- and iguanas are a highly sought out prey item at every stage of their development. The hatching process can take up to 5 months and iguanas don’t reach full maturity until age 5.
Thanks to our guide Zhawn for all of the fun facts!