No season. No limits. Kill them all. As much as we hunters hew to expectations of responsible behavior, those words have their own magic. They were spoken by John Ray, the marketing wunderkind who represents the big-bore air gun company Hatsan USA, and they were followed by an invitation: Would I want to travel to Puerto Rico to shoot iguanas with air rifles?
Pure, incandescent expectation may have caused me to mumble my simple answer: Sí. This is how I ended up on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, a .35-caliber air rifle in my hands, shooting at fruit-eating lizards that are causing environmental havoc on the Caribbean island.
The premise for our trip was twofold. From Hatsan’s perspective, they were looking for opportunities to get their large-bore air rifles in the hands of American hunters and writers. What better off-season opportunity than to target nuisance lizards on a tropical island? But the other reason is one that spoke to me: Non-native iguanas are rapidly taking over the rural and even urban habitat in Puerto Rico, and the island needs to remove as many of these reptiles as possible. In other words, this was less a junket than a public service.
We flew to San Juan, then drove over the mountainous interior of Puerto Rico to the southern coast, to the city of Ponce. From there, we headed out in the country to a landscape dotted with plantations that grow mangos, bananas, papaya, and melons. We met with farmers who quantified the damage caused by non-native iguanas: up to a quarter of their crops are eaten or damaged by the lizards, which can grow up to 6 feet in length and pock the earth with their subterranean nests. The farmers have no affection for the iguanas, but because the reptiles are not native, they don’t have much experience with them, either. Unlike many Central and South American countries, where native iguanas are considered a culinary delicacy, Puerto Ricans generally look on the lizards with a mix of curiosity and disgust.
Our arsenal was large-caliber air rifles provided by Hatsan. Mainly we shot the company’s
BT Big Bore Carnivore rifles in both .30 and .35. If that sounds like overkill for lizards, consider that the largest iguanas weighed in at 20 pounds, and like most cold-blooded reptiles, can be hard to kill with a single shot.
In my .35 Hatsan, I shot 82-grain bullets at about 725 fps. Basically, it’s like shooting a .380 handgun load in an air rifle. The rotary magazine holds 6 rounds, and I got about 30 shots before I needed to refill my air cylinder. That’s a lot of shots at fruit-eating lizards.
These rifles shoot pellets and bullets propelled by air that’s compressed to as much as 2,900 psi in removable, refillable cylinders that are charged with scuba tanks.
The air rifles were mainly PCPs (it stands for pre-charged pneumatics).
Our hunting tactics took advantage of the iguanas’ daily habits. The reptiles tend to roost in trees overhanging wooded ravines on the borders of the plantations, climbing down to feed on farmers’ fruit during the night. By mid morning they were back in trees, basking in the sun. So we set up along the ravine and spotted iguanas on the highest limbs.
Hunting reminded me of shooting especially unwholesome squirrels. Most of the shots were at acute overhead angles, and it paid to find some way to support the rifle while delivering the payload.
Shooting required patience and precision. Patience to wait for a treetop iguana to present a head shot. Body shots (even with .35-caliber projectiles) might move a lizard, but they rarely knocked them out of the trees. Precision was required to make a killing shot that resulted in the glory of an iguana tumbling down through the canopy to make a satisfyingly substantial plop on the ground.
Everyone wanted a hero shot with their first iguana…
But the iguanas didn’t take the persecution without reaction. The minute they knew they were being targeted, they either dropped out of trees into the stream at the bottom of the ravine, or they simply edged themselves on the safe side of larger limbs so the hunters didn’t have a shot.
Much of our time was spent cooling off in the shade and spotting the next treetop lizard.
But the American hunters had help from locals who have much more experience hunting iguanas than we did. The father-son team of Frank and Alex Echevarria were talented spotters. Here, Frank hoists a trophy lizard. The Echevarrias are part of a group of Puerto Rican iguana hunters who call themselves “Iguanaros,” and help landowners remove troublesome populations of the depredating lizards.
The Iguanaros wore a uniform of sorts, this distinctive t-shirt.
A close-up of an iguana reveals just how hardy these reptiles are. They are armored to protect them from predators.
Their claws, looking for all the world like those of little velociraptors, enable them to crawl and slither up nearly any tree. They use their scaled tails as defensive weapons when cornered.
And their prodigious teeth allow them to eat just about any fruit or vegetable on the planet.
It’s easy to demonize iguanas, but as fun as they were to hunt, all of us on the trip had one lingering question: How do they taste? So we kept most of one day’s harvest to find out. Alex Echevarria spent hours skinning out the lower tails and back legs of dozens of iguanas.
The meat was then marinated in wine and herbs and then grilled. We all wanted to be sure the internal temperature was as hot as possible. Iguanas are known to carry bacterial diseases such as botulism, and we were more interested in well done meat than medium rare.
The trip ended with a grand feast of adobo Puerto Rican rice and roasted iguana. How did it taste? About like alligator. Slightly sweet, slightly stringy. But the perfect culmination to a most unlikely hunting trip.
Editor-in-Chief Andrew McKean traveled to Puerto Rico this spring to help tackle the island’s invasive iguana problem. Here are the highlights from his air rifle hunt.