Although reptiles thrive in southern Mexico, humans are their worst enemy. In the past, some species were greatly reduced in number because they were hunted for their unusual skin or meat. Although hunting them is now illegal in most countries, enforcement can be spotty and black marketers still take their toll on the species.
Tens of thousands of sea turtles of various species once nested on Mexico’s shores. As the coast became populated, turtles were severely over-hunted for their eggs, meat, and shells, and their numbers began to fall. Hotel and resort developments have hastened the decline, as there are fewer and fewer patches of untrammeled sand in which turtles can dig nests and lay eggs. The Mexican government and various ecological organizations are trying hard to save the dwindling turtle population. The government is also enforcing tough penalties for people who take turtle eggs or capture, kill, or sell these creatures and their byproducts.
Four species of turtles nest on the Chiapanecan coast: olive Ridley, hawksbill, Pacific green, and leatherback; a handful of state-funded centers have been set up to monitor and protect them. Located in Puerto Arista, Boca del Cielo, Riberas de la Costa Azul, and Barra de Zacapulco, these centers are staffed by marine biologists who search for turtle eggs and relocate them to protected corrals; when the hatchlings break through their shells, they are brought to the beach and are allowed to rush toward the sea—the hope is that the experience will imprint a sense of belonging there so that they return to the same beach where they are released. In some cases the hatchlings are scooped up and placed in tanks to grow larger before being released into the open sea.
The cayman is a part of the crocodilian order. Its habits and appearance are similar to those of crocodiles, with the main difference being its underskin; the cayman’s skin is reinforced with bony plates on the belly, making it useless for the leather market. (Alligators and crocodiles, with smooth belly skin and sides, have been hunted almost to extinction in some parts of the world because of the value of their skin.)
Several species of cayman frequent the brackish mangrove waters along the Pacific coast. They are broad-snouted and often look as though they’re sporting a pair of glasses. A large cayman can be 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) long and very dark gray-green with eyelids that look swollen and wrinkled. Some cayman species have eyelids that look like a pair of blunt horns. They are quicker than alligators and have longer, sharper teeth. Skilled hunters, cayman are quick in water and on land, and will attack a person if cornered. If you spot a cayman, the best advice is to give it a wide berth.
Seen frequently in Chiapanecan rainforests, the dragon-like green iguana is one of the 20-plus species of Iguanidae that inhabit southern Mexico. Many grow to be one meter (3.3 feet) long and have a blunt head and long, flat tail. Bands of black and gray circle its body, and a serrated column reaches down the middle of its back almost to the tail. The young iguana is bright emerald green and often supplements its diet by eating insects and larvae.
The lizard’s forelimbs hold the front half of its body up off the ground while its two back limbs are kept relaxed and splayed alongside its hindquarters. When the green iguana is frightened, however, its hind legs do everything they’re supposed to, and it crashes quickly (though clumsily) into the brush searching for its burrow and safety. This reptile is not aggressive—it mostly enjoys basking in the bright sunshine—but if cornered it will bite and use its tail in self-defense.
From centuries past, recorded references attest to the green iguana’s medicinal value, which partly explains the active trade of live iguana in the marketplaces. Iguana stew is believed to cure or relieve various human ailments, such as impotence.
You’ll see a great variety of other lizards in Chiapas; some are brightly striped in various shades of green and yellow, others are earth-toned and blend in with the gray and beige landscape. Skinny as wisps of thread running on hind legs, or chunky and waddling with armorlike skin—the range is seemingly endless and fascinating.
Two species of coral snakes, which are related to the cobra, are found in Chiapas. They have prominent rings around their bodies in the same sequence of red, black, and yellow or white and grow to 1–1.5 meters (3.3–4.9 feet). Their bodies are slender, with no pronounced distinction between the head and neck.
Coral snakes spend the day in mossy clumps under rocks or logs, emerging only at night. Though its bite can kill within 24 hours, chances of the average tourist being bitten by a coral (or any other) snake are slim.
The tropical rattlesnake (cascabel in Spanish) is the deadliest and most treacherous species of the rattler. It differs slightly from other species by having vividly contrasting neckbands. It grows to 1.5 meters (5 feet) long and is found mainly in the higher and drier areas of the tropics. Contrary to popular myth, this serpent doesn’t always rattle a warning of its impending strike.
© Liza Prado and Gary Chandler from Moon Chiapas, 1st Edition