Eat the insects, spare the lemurs


  • To solve the twin challenges of malnutrition and biodiversity loss in Madagascar, new efforts are promoting edible insects as a way to take pressure off wildlife that people hunt for meat when food is scarce.
  • Insects are widely eaten in Madagascar. They are also incredibly nutritious and one of the “greenest” forms of animal proteins in terms of their land, water and food requirements and their greenhouse gas emissions.
  • One program is testing the farming of sakondry, a little-known hopping insect that tastes a lot like bacon. Another is setting up a network of cricket farms.
  • Other attempts to reduce reliance on forest protein include improving chicken husbandry in rural areas.

MASOALA PENINSULA, Madagascar — It’s a lovely walk from the village of Ambodifohara to BeNoel Razafindrapaoly’s field. Nestled at the foot of the mountains of Masoala National Park in northeastern Madagascar, the rainforest tumbles down toward the sea, a fringe of smallholder plots the only barrier between these two elements. Everything seems to grow here: fruit trees (mango, papaya, guava), cash crops (clove, coffee, vanilla), staple crops (rice, yam, sweet potato). Everything is luminescent green, courtesy of the abundant rain and even more abundant sunshine.

Here, Razafindrapaoly has planted tsidimy, a native bean plant, to attract a small hopping insect called sakondry. Hardly anything is known about this insect, except that it’s edible, and most importantly, delicious.

A juvenile sakondry. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.

That was enough to grab the attention of Cortni Borgerson, an anthropologist at Montclair State University in New Jersey, who has been studying the interactions between ecosystems and human health in Madagascar for 15 years. Her work has included the question of why people hunt endangered species, which conservationists have struggled to remedy. She is now leading a three-year program titled Sakondry to see whether farming the insect, and therefore increasing its consumption, could solve the twin challenges of malnutrition and biodiversity loss.

For despite the appearance of abundance and the stunning primordial landscapes, Madagascar faces serious human and environmental challenges. Three-quarters of the population live on less than $1.90 a day, and nearly half of children under the age of five suffer from stunting due to malnutrition, one of the highest rates in the world. In desperate times, “people turn to what they have, which is the forest,” said Borgerson. Her studies show that in some villages, 75 percent of animal-source foods come from forest animals, including lemurs. With 94 percent of lemur species threatened with extinction, this is unsustainable.

Borgerson also found that child malnutrition was higher in households that hunt lemurs, a strong indication that bushmeat is a last resort for families who have little else to eat. Another study by Christopher Golden, assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, shows that removing access to wildlife would lead to a 29 percent increase in the number of children suffering from anemia and a tripling of anemia cases among children in the poorest households.

A white-fronted brown lemur (Eulemur albifrons) on Masoala Peninsula. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

“You can see that there is a clear correlation between malnourishment, food insecurity and lemur hunting,” Borgerson said. “But that also makes it very solvable: we just need to solve what you put on top of your rice. If we can fix this, people will shift off,” she said.

Local people are also becoming aware of the value of wildlife protection for tourism: “It’s important to keep lemurs for tourists,” said Lorien, a resident of Ambodifohara. The village is the gateway to Masoala National Park. Most of the 3,000 or so tourists who make it to Masoala each year therefore pass through the village. There are a handful of lodges nearby and the village has benefited from employment opportunities, financial support for the school and even the installation of a micro-hydro turbine, which provides free electricity.

Insects are widely eaten in Madagascar, locusts and beetles being the most popular. In Masoala, Borgerson found that 60 percent of households have eaten insects in the last year, with sakondry the favorite. Insects also happen to be incredibly nutritious, containing high levels of protein, minerals and vitamins (see graph).

Borgerson’s project, which is funded by the IUCN’s Save Our Species initiative, will therefore plant tsidimy, the sakondry host plant, hone farming techniques and monitor nutrition indicators as well as wildlife hunting at three test sites on the Masoala Peninsula. Its stated goal is to improve rural nutrition and food security in ways that reduce targeted lemur hunting by at least 50 percent. The project started last December, with villagers at the test sites planting more than 4,200 tsidimy plants. Early estimates suggest that more than 52,000 sakondry have now taken up residence among their leaves.

Borgerson said the priorities over the next few months are to understand the limitations of the current traditional farming system and to study the insect. “It’s amazing how much we don’t know,” she said. “We’ve established the genus, a Fulgorid planthopper, but we can’t tell male from female; we don’t know when females lay their eggs. We want to look at the life cycle, parasites, diseases etc.”

They don’t even know what it eats: although sakondry lives on the native bean plant, it doesn’t feed on it. All this information will help Borgerson and her team develop and test enhanced farming techniques.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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