“Moo”-ve over, cows: A sustainable jungle town’s efforts to raise iguanas instead of cows for meat

Panama’s goat-like cows graze along the road to Kalu Yala. (Emma Sarappo/Medill)

By Matt Zdun

Cattle that look more like large goats graze along an unpaved roadside in the jungles of Panama. 

At the end of that road, Kalu Yala, a sustainable jungle town about 50 miles outside of Panama City, hopes to begin raising iguanas and repopulating them in their native habitat.

But this comes as the biology department of the town and educational institute also searches for sustainable protein alternatives to beef.  

Ryan King, director of biology, said cattle have been the cause of widespread deforestation that “devastated the tropics” over the past 50 years.  

According to a Livestock Policy Brief released by the United Nations, “the link between deforestation and cattle ranching is strongest in Latin America.”

The report found that forest area in Latin America was reduced by about 40 percent between 1960 and 2000, the same period in which the cattle population increased rapidly.

Of that deforested land, an estimated 50 to 80 percent was used for cattle pastures, according to the report.

“It’s just not feasible long term,” King said.

That is where iguanas enter the picture as Latin America’s “chicken of the trees.”

Kalu Yala is both a town and an institute where interns come for 10-week stints to explore innovative solutions in sustainability.

Biology intern Hailey Bovee is leading Kalu Yala’s iguana project. 

Two months ago, Bovee collected iguana eggs from various nests around Kalu Yala and began incubating them with the goal of raising local population levels of the endangered species and learning how to farm them using only sustainable methods.

“Right now it’s not sustainable because many people already hunt the bigger male iguanas,” Bovee said. “There is a shortage of males and so there are many females laying unfertilized eggs.”

Bovee recently moved her iguana eggs to a more permanent habitat where the eggs will remain for another 90 to 120 days until they hatch.

Check out Bovee’s “Iguana Mama” efforts.

Kalu Yala residents have yet to begin eating iguana meat and, if Bovee’s iguana eggs hatch, it will still be another three years before the iguanas mature to adulthood, hopefully with enough males to begin a sustainable repopulation.

Still, Bovee thinks the project could benefit generations of people in the tropics.  

“I’m happy to be a part of something bigger,” she said. 

In addition to the iguana project, Kalu Yala’s biology department is also working on developing biofuel and looking into ways to become carbon negative.

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