In the Oaxaca region of Mexico, iguana has been and still is a commonly eaten meat in the smaller towns. You find it on restaurant menus, usually in tamales or stew. If you order it, don’t mind the raised eyebrows. It’s thought to be an aphrodisiac. But one local teenager wants to stop the hunting and consumption of wild iguanas.

In the small city of Juchitán, about 200 iguanas a day are eaten, according to the Juchiteco Ecological Forum. People breed them in their backyards, much the same as they do chickens, to have their own supply of meat, but many still hunt them in the wild. The large lizards are easy quarry, sluggish during the peak of the day. Consumption of iguanas grows to almost 500 a day in the weeks leading up to Easter, which also happens to be their breeding period.

It’s no surprise that as the city of Juchitán grows, the population of wild iguanas is dwindling. Green and black iguanas are considered in danger of extinction in the area and are now protected, though that does little to slow the harvest.

José Francisco Sánchez, 15, loves iguanas, and not in his lunch.

“I learned to value animals since I was a child,” said Sánchez. The high school student has turned his backyard into a substantial habitat for the creatures, raising dozens. Currently, his little breeding program is unlicensed, but he is pursuing accreditation as a Wildlife Management Unit (UMA). Sánchez dreams of one day becoming a herpetologist—a scientist who specializes in the understanding, care, breeding, and conservation of lizards.

As a UMA, Sánchez would legally be allowed to breed and sell the endangered animals. He hopes to both release adult lizards into the wild to join the breeding population once they reach sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years of age, and to sell juveniles to other backyard breeders. Even if they use them for food, Sanchez’s efforts will benefit the population of wild iguanas.

Juchitán also hosts an iguanarium, a facility dedicated to breeding, conserving, and selling black and green iguanas just as Sánchez wants to do. The iguanarium has released approximately 3,000 adult iguanas into the wild over the past 15 years.

Photo: A green iguana rests on a log after a meal. Credit: Shutterstock