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Iguanas Unbound

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On a visit to the Natural History Museum a few years ago, my eye was caught by a small exhibition of animal products confiscated by British customs officials: snakeskin belts, crocodile skin bags, wallets made from the skins of protected species, stuffed baby alligators, stuffed toads arranged around miniature pool tables, clutching cues. As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, I then noticed that at least half the exhibits seemed to come from Nicaragua, where I live.

Trussed, live iguanas and armadillos (which are at least sold as food) used to be a common site at Nicaraguan markets and roadside stalls, along with parakeets, green parrots, toucans and rare red macaws. In the tourist markets, stalls competed to sell the most grotesque animal displays: toads turned into cigarette cases and iguanas playing football were the least of it. My wife has often bought live iguanas or armadillos which we’ve then released on our farm.

Of course, it’s all too easy for us to take the moral high ground. I once stopped on the dirt road near our farm to admonish two boys with catapults, who, I thought, were taking pot-shots at birds. No, they said politely, they weren’t shooting at birds, they were hunting for lunch for their families.

But that was a few years ago. Stuffed exotica is gradually disappearing from the local tourist market. Roadside sellers stock domestic animals more often than wild ones. There are fewer children with catapults. The government recently passed an animal protection law, which will be difficult to enforce but is at least being well publicised.

And there are still places where the law isn’t even necessary. In the trees by the side of a mountain road in central Nicaragua I once saw in fairly quick succession a group of monkeys, a colony of squirrels and a family of two-toed sloths. I was so astonished that I stopped a couple of passers-by and asked them what they thought about the sloths being there. They were baffled by my questions and seemed not to have noticed the animals. I remembered the sloth we’d rescued from stone-throwing children in our community a couple of years ago: all it had wanted was to be ignored.

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