Back when I was living deep the mopaniveld of northern Namibia, there were communities where rural subsistence and even substantial profits were realized on a worm-based economic model. The caterpillar of the "Emperor Moth" (Imbrasia belina) is an obligate species within Colophospermum mopane woodlands that occur in frost-free, generally alkaline conditions in bands across parts of southern Africa. The moths oviposit on the leaves of Mopane tree and their voracious larvae - known as "Mopane worms" - are of great significance as non-timber forest products with high value for regional food security. Although gourmets worldwide can get their sun-dried caterpillars in upscale packaging from purveyors of coffee beans regurgitated by weasels and other exotic fare, the African style is a newspaper cone filled by a roadside vendor from great buckets overflowing with squeezed, salted, fried and dried Mopane worms.
I've eaten these things. I've eaten a whole cone of them washed down with sorghum beer on a rattling, overloaded minibus brimming with unwashed humanity. This is not one of those culinary delights I yearn for from my days in the bush - certainly not enough to order up a 1.29 oz pack for $27.41 (+ shipping from Britain). That absurd price is comparable to the cost of fresh American caviar or half an ounce of saffron, although an ounce of prime truffles will still set you back $150 or so. Mopane worms are not in the same league as any of these things, but as a source of plentiful, high protein nourishment they are hard to beat. Laboratory analysis shows on a dry matter basis that these worms are comprised of 60.70% crude protein, 16.70% crude fat, and 10.72% minerals. Of course, this discovery has long part of the traditional knowledge base in many African communities.
As with any natural resource, and especially those that fall outside preservation areas, mopane worms are vulnerable to over harvest and unsustainable exploitation. Failure to appreciate the emperor moth's complex life cycle can lead to over collection of larvae in ways that compromise their reproductive success. The challenges of managing a shared resource on lands with communal land tenure are particularly difficult in places where regulation and enforcement of conservation measures are inadequate and local resource users are disenfranchised from management and benefit decision-making. In Zimbabwe, over-exploitation threatens the viability of these caterpillars and there are fears they could even become extinct:
"Villagers say the steady decline in the supply of (caterpillars) began three years ago when groups of women from Bulawayo and Harare began invading the area to buy the mopani worms, leading to over-harvesting of the delicacy. Traders from Zimbabwe's main urban areas export the caterpillars to Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Africa and Zambia. The caterpillars were initially taken to the DRC in 1998, where they were an instant hit, with Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia also becoming major consumers.
The absence of regulations or legislation to control the harvesting of the mopani worms has made it impossible for rural communities in Matabeleland to limit the trade in the delicacy, some villagers told The Daily News.
Canaan Ncube, a ward development committee member in the Donkwe area, said: that the harvesting...had become so commercialized that the mopani tree, the caterpillar's habitat and source of food, was endangered every rainy season.
Mopane trees coppice very regularly, and in many parts of northern Namibia the demand for their hard, termite resistant wood has been so great that what was once a high canopy forest is now mopani scrub land. Livestock can therefore browse more of the surface area of the tree in competition with the hungry caterpillars, which have nowhere to climb beyond the reach of collectors. Desertification is a real problem in these areas where deforestation and excessive grazing have turned mopanifeld into barren land.
The are reasons to be hopeful, however. In the part of northern Namibia where I once lived, the local people have established the Uukwaluudhi communal area conservancy. King Shikongo Josea Taapopi, who I had the pleasure of meeting when I was a volunteer teacher at a Roman Catholic mission located within his kingdom, plays a strong role in helping the conservancy manage and benefit from its wildlife and natural resources and requires that mopane worm collectors register with his Tribal Authority.
Usually people harvest mopane worms from March to April, but according to the king, the worms in his area are still immature.
'We have to control our forest and our traditional fruits,' Taapopi said.
Those who register with the Traditional Authority have to pay an unspecified amount of money, Taapopi said.
The exact amount would be announced when the worm-collecting season was declared open, he said.
Some of the mopane forests where worms are harvested are in the Uukwaluudhi Conservancy, where community members earn an income from the sustainable use of their natural resources."
The Uukwaluudhi conservancy has its own "mopane worms fund" financed from the sustainable harvest of this resource. King Taapopi authorized the donation of N$20 000 (currently valued at 2,728.14 USD) from this fund for a regional education initiative. The benefits of community-based natural resource management for livelihood diversification, as well as sustainable use and conservation, are well established here.
So if you find yourself out of trail mix on a hot and dusty road in Uukwaluudhi, chances are you will find a ready source of sustainably harvested protein, locally managed and protected by royal authority, for sale in a newspaper cone of lowly worms.