It’s pouring rain, and I’m shivering in a metal hunting stand 15 feet off the ground, deep in the Georgia woods, waiting for a feral hog to wander out of the brush so I can kill it. Next to me sits Jackson Landers, an expert hunter who has graciously spent his morning drilling me on gun safety. Before today, I have fired a gun exactly once–at a paper picture of an evil clown on a rifle range near the San Francisco airport. I come from a staunchly vegetarian family that loves animals like other families love football. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad hustling me outside to hear geese flying overhead.
But Landers thinks his approach to hunting could help save the critters my family adores: He targets invasive species that make their way into local ecosystems and help themselves to food and real estate, often at the expense of native fauna. The key, Landers says, is to convince people that these interlopers are fun to hunt–and delicious. “Once you create a market, the problem will basically take care of itself,” he told me earlier. “You’re sort of killing two birds with one stone. Invasives are free-range; they’re a lot more ethical than meat from a factory farm.”
To test his model, I accompanied Landers and his father-in-law, Bob, to a 1,000-acre former horse farm–a tangle of dirt roads, wetlands, and thickets of live oaks and loblolly pines near Savannah. That’s how I ended up atop the hunting stand, wondering whether my hippie parents would disown me.
Landers was not the first to have this idea–there’s a whole “invasivore” community online, sharing tips on where to find invasive plants and animals and posting recipes for kudzu, Chinese mystery snails, and Asian carp–but as far as I know, he’s the first person trying to make a living from it. Since quitting his job as an insurance broker last year, he’s shot iguanas in Florida, snatched armadillos with his bare hands in Georgia, and speared lionfish in the Bahamas.
At 33, Landers resembles a Boy Scout: khakis, boots, a knife on his belt. He has a blog called The Locavore Hunter, teaches hunting classes in Charlottesville, Virginia, and works with wholesalers, restaurateurs, and chefs to promote invasives as menu items. At first, it was a tough sell–even adventurous chefs tend to draw the line at grilled armadillo–but the idea is catching on. A sushi restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut, now serves several species of invasive fish, and one Louisiana chef is running a bold compaign encouraging restaurants to add nutria to their menus.
Getting rid of feral pigs would be a major coup, says Billy Higginbotham, a wildlife specialist at Texas A&M University. Introduced to the Southeast by Spanish settlers in the 1500s, these pigs have thrived in the wild. In coastal areas, they gobble the eggs of endangered sea turtles; farther inland, they root up native plants, destroy crops, and dig wallows big enough to topple tractors. And they’re survivors: prolific, smart, and omnivorous. “They can live off any food item out there,” Higginbotham says.
Halfway through the first morning, we hear four shots. Investigating, we find Bob driving down the road, beaming, a dead pig in the back of his ATV. We head back to the barn to celebrate with a mason jar of moonshine. Landers lays the pig on a platform and cuts it open, one long slice down its middle. He expertly removes its guts, and we hang the carcass on a hook for skinning. We pass the moonshine again. I’m beginning to think I could get into this.
But what if it’s too much fun? Julie Robbins, a biologist with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, believes pig hunting helped cause the population to explode in the first place. A couple of decades ago, property owners trying to eliminate the ferals found that it made for great recreation. “People began to trap pigs and illegally transport them to their own properties, then charge an arm and a leg for people to come and hunt them,” Robbins says. In some parts of the South, pig hunts fetch up to $500 a night.
That’s one problem with invasive animals: They’re often exotic and interesting and sort of thrilling to have around. On Gasparilla Island, off Florida’s Gulf Coast, black spiny-tailed iguanas wreak havoc on tortoises and birds, while attracting another key species–tourists. Gasparilla wildlife specialist and iguana hunter George Cera says locals are aware of the problem but bristle at the idea of eliminating a species that has become the local mascot. “I had beer bottles thrown at me while I was hunting,” he says. “One time I swore a guy was going to start a fistfight with me.”
And the invasives don’t always cooperate. After three days of shivering in the woods, I have nothing to show. Bob graciously offers me a shoulder from his kill. That night, I bring it to the South Carolina home of a friend’s parents. The kitchen fills with a smoky smell as her mom roasts the shoulder with onions, thyme, beer, and a rich red barbecue sauce. When it’s done, the meat slides easily off the bone. We pile the juicy pieces on hot rolls, slather on more barbecue sauce, and call it a pulled-pork sandwich. And it’s delicious: tender, tangy, sweet.
So can invasive pulled-pork sandwiches save the world? Most scientists I spoke to agreed that ecology is messy, unpredictable, and poorly suited for the restaurant supply chain. But Texas A&M’s Higginbotham says people like Landers at least do their part to turn people on to conservation: “Silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so to speak.”