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In the Iguana's Eye

A modern-day descendant of the dinosaur is now a major player in the fight to protect and preserve our rain forests. The Pro Iguana Verde Foundation in Costa Rica is uniting human, animal and forest in a symbiotic relationship that may guarantee the survival of all three.
by Michael L. Smith
It seems that today an environmentalist lurks behind every bush. Within this genre, the "right" approach to conservation and protection varies from proponent to proponent. Some say we must provide absolute protection at all costs while others say we can exploit to our heart's content, as long as we plant a tree somewhere to replace the one we cut. On the middle ground is a growing faction calling for sustainable development. This sounds like a great idea, but just what does it mean?--We can develop in the forest if we only cut a few trees? We can let people roam this forest if we keep them out of that one? We can let people exploit the already desecrated land near the forests if they promise not to wander into the protected areas?

With her Pro Iguana Verde Foundation, Dr. Dagmar Werner has found alternative ways to support protected areas, to make rational use of the forests without cutting them down. Concentrated in the buffer zones around these areas, her work involves campesinos (farmers) as an important factor in the formula. Iguana Park, near Orotina, Costa Rica, is where she practices the technology she has developed with the endangered green iguana.

Doctor Werner asked, "Why not get serious and teach the growing human population how to live off the forest and preserve its abundance for future generations?" Iguana Park is the showplace of just exactly how this can be accomplished, and in fact is being done. The campesinos, who hunted wild iguana for food, are now learning how to raise them, for food and livelihood. What they are learning is surprising a lot of people.

What iguanas need to survive is buffer zone habitat a combination of open areas, scrub and trees just the type of area humans historically destroy. We encroach upon the forest at its edges, destroying it by slash and burn. If humanity can be taught how to manage this buffer zone and its naturally occurring fauna, we can actually increase this type of habitat and its fauna. Then farmers working these areas will become not only self-sufficient, but more productive and less destructive members of society. The key is making it economically feasible--the lowly green iguana is the first step in this concept.

At Iguana Park the melding of science, technology and practice has created a project in sustainable development that is earning profits at its first stage of implementation. In its initial five years in Costa Rica, more than 80,000 iguanas have been released into the wild. They are now a recovering population here and the Park has permits to sell iguana meat and make other commercial use of the animals. The Park's outreach programs involve local communities in all aspects of iguana farming: locals raise the young animals for release, hunt them, produce iguana leather and make handcrafts.

Scarlet Macaw An equally important project at Pro Iguana Verde is the scarlet macaw program. Due to habitat destruction and fragmentation, a population of scarlet macaws that once stretched from Mexico to Peru is today limited to several small isolated populations. These groups have essentially no intercommunication nor gene exchange. Add to this the problem of uncontrollable poaching and you have populations that, at the very best, are stable. Unfortunately, all signs indicate that populations are declining.

Pro Iguana Verde is using a scientific approach to restore resident macaw populations as a first step toward replenishing the vast historical numbers. According to recent censuses, there are only three groups left in Costa Rica. Two hundred birds live in Carara Biological Reserve next to Iguana Park, another 150 in Corcovado National Park and seven reside in Palo Verde National Park. These numbers are way below the minimum size population that is viable over the long term and a genetic refreshment program encompassing neighboring colonies is necessary. These three groups are still close enough in genetic characteristics to interbreed and begin to refresh the gene pool. Birds from unknown populations or imported from far-away groups are too dangerous genetically and tend to produce negative effects in native macaws.

This project also depends greatly on the locals. Scarlet macaws are heavily poached because they bring big bucks in illegal marketing--as much as $1000 each, locally. Encouraging campesinos to breed and raise the birds of unknown origin for sale in a legal market protects the resident populations from poaching. With proper training the local people can use well-known technology to raise up to eight clutches per year, earning sizeable incomes and protecting the local macaw populations from the introduction of potentially dangerous gene variations.

Beyond the iguana and scarlet macaw, Dr. Werner's next step is a feasibility study, utilizing other buffer zone animals in the same fashion. Deer, paca and wild turkey all use the variety of buffer zone vegetation for survival. The idea is simple, she said: "Increase the economic feasibility and optimize use of the forest. In the virgin forests you cannot manage animals. The optimum management environment is a diversity of habitats with open areas, scrub areas and secondary forests, because you have a higher diversity per unit area and in total plant numbers."

A newly opened tourist facility now teaches visitors about these interesting and vital programs, offers a walk through the reserve area with a local guide, and provides the opportunity to cuddle an iguana in the facility's walk-in cage. The Park's restaurant serves a variety of tasty iguana dishes--at this writing the only legal place to buy an iguana-burger in the world. The gift shop has a variety of souvenirs produced locally from natural materials and iguana leather. This is also one of the few places outside of a zoo where you can see scarlet macaws; in the newly built macaw cage as well as flying free overhead.

Petting an Iguana While in Costa Rica visit Iguana Park and see the future of forest management . . . and eat a little iguana for the rain forest.

Author's note:

Since the original publication of this article in 1995, Dr. Werner has moved on to other environmental projects and Iguana Park has ceased operation. I have left the story on line as an example of the fine work being done in Costa Rica by many organizatons like the original Iguana Park and Pro Iguana Verde Foundation. I hope you find it enlightening and inspirational.

This article was originally published in Costa Rica in May, 1995. It was updated for the Web in July, 1995. Text and photos Copyright (c) 1995 by Michael L. Smith. All rights reserved. Please address your comments to Michael L. Smith.

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Updated on July 20, 2006