Gaborone - A prolonged drought has led to the decline of mopane worms, the region’s favourite culinary delight.
The mopane worms are not only a source of relish, but also a source of income for millions of rural communities in Southern Africa.
While in the past, authorities have expressed concern that the decline was as a result of over-harvesting, it has now emerged that a prolonged dry spell in the region has also contributed significantly to the dwindling of the snack.
Seen as an important source of protein, the caterpillars of the region’s distinctive emperor butterfly emerge from their eggs with the rains and feed on the leaves of the mopane trees; that is when people gather them up by the bucket-load and take them home to feed themselves, or to sell at markets.
But increased frequency of drought is threatening to decimate the mopane worms across the Southern African region.
A regular mopane worms harvester, Neo Keobonye, says that the sweltering heat and low rainfall recorded during the build-up to mopane harvesting season (from November to January) contributed to the dwindling of the delicious snack.
Speaking to this publication by the roadside in Serule in the central part of Botswana, Keobonye said while last year the worms were not in abundance, this year seems to have been worse.
“This year it was it was literally bad. I almost travelled to all places where the worms breed in the woodlands in search of mopane worms but still they were scarce,” she said.
Another harvester, Lechani Nkhwa, shared the same sentiments with Keobonye.
“I think there is no one who cannot see that the population of mopane worms is declining and this is threatening rural livelihoods and the wider economy. Maybe something needs to be done to increase production,” she said. She added that last year “I bought them from a Zimbabwean trader and resold them. But I understand that even in Zimbabwe they are not in abundance.”
Mopane worms are considered to be a profitable harvest, as a mere three kilogrammes of feed (mopane leaves) will generally yield one kilogramme of mopane worms: in contrast, cattle farming requires ten kilogrammes of feed to generate one kilogramme of beef; thus the worms are a low cost.
Traditionally, mopane worms were harvested for subsistence. Because of the seasonal nature of the occurrence of these edible caterpillars, they are not a year-round food source. However, traditional mopane worm harvesting is evolving to be more commercially-driven.
According to a researcher at the University of Namibia, Benisiu Thomas, there has been a shift from harvesting mopane worms for subsistence to trading them in both rural and urban markets.
He noted that the increasing importance of the mopane worms in the urban diet has caused overexploitation of the insect. Unless this common property food resource is managed in a sustainable manner, there could be very low populations and market failure for the crop. Thomas recommended that the government(s) improve the property rights and institutional arrangements that govern the use of mopane worms by supporting communities to establish indigenous natural resource management systems.