Along the road that connects Valledupar with Codazzi, in northwestern Colombia, vendors stand roadside selling bundles of tropical fruit and deep-fried arepas to passing drivers. Along this 48 kilometer stretch of coastal road, crowned by thorn trees of a tropical dry forest, the regional offering is diverse, and some illegal, as species poached from the most representative fauna of the Colombian Caribbean are sold as Easter delicacies.
The green iguana, hicotea turtle and morrocoy are camouflaged in roadside coolers, while their eggs are sold in clusters of one hundred swaying by an arm to catch the attention of drivers. Considered an illegal activity under the country’s environmental laws, and which can result in a long prison sentence, the sale of reptile meat is not exclusive to a road that crosses the department of Cesar – it occurs in almost every town of the costa and tradition that dates back to when many of Colombia’s reptiles were not endangered.
Holy Week in Colombia is a critical time for wildlife conservation, especially for reptiles such as green iguana (Iguana iguana), hicotea turtle (Trachemys callirostris), morrocoy turtle (Chelonoidis carbonaria) and caiman (Caiman crocodylus),” states María Piedad Baptiste of the Humboldt Institute’s Biodiversity Conservation Program, highlighting that three reptiles lead the ranking of the 10 most trafficked wild animals in Colombia, followed by the parakeet, common parrot, cheja parrot, squirrel, gray marmoset, corn monkey and some frogs.
With millions of travelers celebrating Holy Week on the coast, and time of year food reunites families, the National Police makes huge seizures of iguana eggs stored in roadside kitchens and cargo holds of inter-municipal buses. To extract extract the amount of eggs consumed in soups or hard boiled as an appetizer, hundreds of female iguanas are sacrificed every Easter. “Traditions and cultural roots can have a serious impact on biodiversity,” says Hernando García, director of the Humboldt Institute. “The urgency is to celebrate religious dates in a way that is harmonious with our natural resources.”
With a habitat that covers topographically diverse terrains, from dry forests to rainforests, even cities, the green iguana’s population remains vulnerable to extinction. The species mate at the end of the year and spawn between March and April, months that also coincide with Semana Santa. After removing the eggs, the females are often still alive, and on some occasions, hunters fill their bellies with stones and sew them up.
The carcasses of green iguanas are often thrown into mangroves or their meat sold to local vendors. Three eggs can sell for 800 pesos (40 cents) among food merchants. “This nefarious practice of stuffing the bellies of iguanas is frequently seen in places in Córdoba and Sucre. However, some of the hunters only open them, take their eggs and leave them that way until they die,” says Acosta, curator of the Humboldt Institute’s biological herpetology collection.
Even though in 1967, the country’s former conservation entity Inderena passed a decree to protect the green iguana, their eggs and meat continue to be consumed at the table and “compared to the taste of chicken,” states Acosta. The eggs are also considered to be an aphrodisiac.
A 2019 scientific journal by authors Elizabeth Ramos of Universidad los Andes and Natalia Rodríguez of the University of Copenhague, found that even during pre-Hispanic times, iguanas were an important source of food for the tribes that inhabited the Sinu and Magdalena river deltas. The practice continued throughout the colonial period and, in terms of exoticness, competed with caiman meat and the white flesh of the morrocoy turtle.
For many who reside on the coast, the green iguana could be considered a pest, but they are key for keeping the tropical ecosystem in balance. “Iguanas serve as food for various birds, reptiles and mammals […] that is, it maintains the food web,” says Acosta. “As it survives on fruits and plants, the green iguana transports nutrients to the carnivorous animals that feed on it. They are a link between nutrients in that web. Iguanas are not a pest, since they do not destroy any ecosystem,” says Acosta.
Reporting and information by Instituto Humboldt.