Reptiles as food

There is no doubt that many reptiles have the necessary skills and physical characteristics to protect themselves, but generally they are more sedentary and lethargic and less intelligent and aggressive than large birds and mammals. From prehistoric times these qualities have made them vulnerable to human predation. Reptiles remain important food items for isolated tribes in developing countries throughout the world. Human foragers fulfill their need for scarce animal protein with reptiles when the opportunity presents itself, and in certain situations they actively hunt some taxa. In the developed world, turtle, crocodilian, and rattlesnake meats have found their way into a variety of unusual recipes.


Reptile eggs, particularly those of chelonians (turtles and tortoises), provide excellent nourishment and are sought as delicacies nearly worldwide. Although conservation laws protect turtle eggs from harvesting, thousands, perhaps millions, of eggs are dug up and eaten or sold as food annually. When female turtles come onto land to dig nests, they are particularly vulnerable to human predation. Whether they are sea-turtles the size of automobile tires or terrapins the size of frying pans, these creatures' graceful and wiry movements, which make them difficult to catch in water, are valueless when they are on the beach. Turtle hunters gather the smaller species and place them in sacks or pens. Seaturtles that have come onto beaches to lay eggs are flipped onto their backs and left to flounder helplessly, unable to right themselves. These massive animals are too big and bulky to be moved, so they are butchered on the beach. Eggs are scooped into buckets, the flesh is cut into chunks, and organs that are thought to have medicinal value are stored in suitable containers. Large sections of skin are cut out carefully, but smaller pieces, appendages, and any remaining entrails are dumped on the ground for scavengers. Shells are transported carefully to a safe place, where they are air-dried. Then they are cleaned of all remaining skin, polished, and sold as is. Alternatively, pieces may be carved into an array of collectible curio items. Damaged shells are pulverized and used in folk medicines.

Of the Asian countries, China is the biggest consumer of turtle meat; in fact, the Chinese eat more than all other countries combined. Until the 1990s the average Chinese citizen had scant access to this expensive delicacy. Industrialization and an upgrade in the nation's economic structure changed that; turtle meat now has become available to the masses. The Chinese view turtle meat in the same way as Western countries view beefsteak—a delectable, fairly common source of protein. In 1996, 7,716,000 lb (3,499,900 kg) of turtles (roughly three million animals) were imported and consumed in Hong Kong alone.

In the heyday of sailing ships, it was difficult to keep adequate amounts of food and water onboard during long voyages. Sailors learned that live giant tortoises stayed alive for weeks without the need for food or water and yet retained their weight. Thus, tortoises were viewed as an excellent source of fresh meat and could be butchered whenever they were needed as food. The decimation of Galápagos tortoises (Geochelone nigra), Aldabra tortoises (Geochelone gigantea), and several other large species throughout the world, brought many taxa to the brink of extinction.

In the United States common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), soft-shelled turtles (Apalone species), and red-eared sliders are farmed and ranched along with the more sought after but protected alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys tem-minckii). "Snapping turtle soup" is widely available in restaurants in the eastern and southern states.

Lizards and snakes

Eggs of the common iguana, Iguana iguana, are a delicacy in Latin America, where they can be bought hard-boiled in markets. The eggs of other lizard species are also available periodically in markets throughout the developing world. The eating of common iguanas and spiny-tailed iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) has been traced to prehistoric times, and these animals were common fare for the Mayans in the mid-1500s. They still can be found skinned and dressed in indoor markets or sold by children at bus stops and along roadways in villages throughout Mexico and Central America.

Iguanas, skinned and cleaned, are a main ingredient in many dishes, including casseroles and stews. They also may be baked or grilled. Pregnant females are gutted, leaving the eggs intact, and roasted as a delicacy. The Catholic Church does not consider reptile flesh to be meat, so during the 40 days of Lent, when eating meat is forbidden, Latin Americans often substitute lizards. In Nicaragua enormous numbers of common iguanas are slaughtered during Easter's Holy Week to prepare a traditional soup, indio viejo.

Adult iguanas are in such demand that they fetch as much as $10 per animal. The country has attempted to protect the lizard by listing it as Threatened and placing a ban on collecting and eating from December 1 to March 31, the peak of their reproductive cycle. The fine of 50 cordabas ($5.50) per animal is mostly a symbolic threat, and it is rarely enforced. Generally, when collectors are caught holding iguanas, the animals are confiscated and released into the wild.

Lizards are eaten nearly everywhere in developing nations. Generally, smaller lizards and snakes require too much effort to catch for the amount of meat they provide; large water monitor lizards, Varanus salvator, are the only species that are considered a primary food source, mainly on a few Malaysian islands. Goannas, Australian varieties of monitor lizards, are skinned, gutted, and broiled on a skewer by some aborigines. Several species are eaten throughout their extensive range in Africa, India, Asia, and Australia. The liver and eggs are particular delicacies.

Islamic law considers turtle, crocodilian, and snake meats haram (unclean) and forbids eating them. Lizards are labeled mushbooh (doubtful or suspect). African and some Arabian Muslims eat monitor lizards (Varanus griseus and V. niloticus) and dhabb lizards (Uromastyx species), which they call "fish of the desert."

Large snakes have substantial flesh, which is palatable when properly prepared and cooked. For a multiplicity of reasons based on fear, religion, and folklore, snakes are rarely eaten by all but the most protein-starved people. They have found a small niche among predominantly North American and European epicureans searching for unusual food items. All rattlesnake meat is from animals taken at rattlesnake roundups or caught by commercial collectors.


Crocodilian steaks from animals butchered in their second or third year of life are said to be exceptionally tender and succulent, making them a delicacy in posh restaurants throughout the civilized world. Saltwater crocodiles (Crocody-lus porosus) are eaten in Australia, with a favored dish being crocodile vol-au-vont. Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus) in southern Africa, saltwater crocodiles in Australia and Malaysia, and American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) in the United States are extensively and successfully farmed.

There are several large facilities that produce tons of meat, skins, and other products. These farms meet most commercial needs and have gone a long way toward making the capture of animals in the wild unnecessary.

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