Other insects

The Sakondry program is part of broader efforts to boost entomophagy in Madagascar to reduce malnutrition and protect biodiversity. In Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, Valala Farms has been selling its cricket powder since 2018 to humanitarian organizations that provide free school meals in the capital and famine relief in the south of the country. The farm houses about a million crickets at any given time, and produces around 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of powder per week, in a facility of just 100square meters (1,076 square feet).

If this sounds like a small footprint, it is: pound for pound, insects require less land, less water and less feed than other meats (see graph). They also produce fewer greenhouse gases.

Brian Fisher, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences and one of Valala Farms’ founders, said that although the farm’s cricket powder will ultimately serve a predominantly urban market, the community element is fundamental to its work. “You need breakfast before conservation,” he said. “We want to provide tools for conservation activities … We are thinking about replicability for local people, about community initiatives like Sakondry. Perhaps they could raise crickets for us to process or for their own consumption. It’s a much more powerful story if we can get local people involved.”

A cricket cage in Valala Farms. The Antananarivo-based group produces cricket powder as a “green” source of protein and nutrients. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.
A cricket cage in Valala Farms. The Antananarivo-based group produces cricket powder as a “green” source of protein and nutrients. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.

Back on the rolling fields of Ambodifohara, Razafindrapaoly, who is Borgerson’s project manager, is head-deep in his tsidimy (“never five” in Malagasy, because you only ever find four or six beans in the pod) looking for sakondry. These “wild fields” currently produce around a cup of insects per household every few days, but Borgerson reckons this could increase significantly once the plants get bigger and they tweak the rearing system.

Razafindrapaoly picks juveniles (the tastiest, he said), which are covered in a bizarre-looking plume of white dust. Once home, he washes off the dust, pinches their head to kill them and pops them in a pan with a little water and salt. “You can eat them in sauce, fried, with leaves or with rice but this is the best way,” he said. To Western palates, sakondry tastes like bacon or peanuts.

Virtually every household in the village is taking part in the program. Lorien said he liked the idea of planting tsidimy to attract sakondry. “It’s food growing over food,” he said.

Be Denis with his chicken in front of a large tsidimy plant. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.
Be Denis with his chicken in front of a large tsidimy plant. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.

Be Denis, a neighbor, said that although he’s eaten sakondry before, it’s always been quite opportunistic. “It’s not like fishing where you think, ‘the sea is calm, let’s go out,’” he said. “But it will become a bit like [fishing] with tsidimy because you go pick beans and you look for insects at the same time.”

Borgerson’s goal is to develop a system that is productive but doesn’t require much money or monitoring. “We’d like to produce a pictographic user manual, maybe one in the local language, with everything from best practice to trouble shooting,” she said.

A new chicken vaccine

Ambodifohara is also the test site for another conservation and nutrition initiative: a new poultry vaccine against Newcastle disease, a virus that decimates chickens. The vaccine is the brainchild of Madagascar Health and Environmental Research (Mahery), a research organization set up by Golden.

Golden, like Borgerson, has been working on the intersection of human health and the environment in northeastern Madagascar since 2004. Over the course of his research in Makira Natural Park, another protected area in northeastern Madagascar, Golden found that wildlife was widely hunted, with 16 percent of the population hunting bats, 23 percent hunting bush pigs, 40 percent hunting endemic carnivores like mongoose, 49 percent hunting lemurs and 91 percent hunting tenrecs, small mammals that resemble shrews or hedgehogs. Golden also ran taste preference studies and found that although bushmeat ranked high, people’s favorite meat was in fact chicken.

BeNoel Razafindrapaoly feeds his chickens. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.
BeNoel Razafindrapaoly feeds his chickens. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.

Yet because of the presence of a virulent strain of Newcastle disease, chickens were not readily available. A vaccine does exist but it requires a cold chain and a trained veterinary technician to inject it, two major obstacles for its use in remote areas such as Masoala or Makira. Mahery, in partnership with the Malagasy Institute of Veterinary Vaccines and vets from the U.S. and Australia, therefore developed a vaccine tailored to the realities of rural Madagascar. The new vaccine, called I-2, is thermostable and administered as an eye drop.

“Thermostable doesn’t mean you can keep it in a hot truck for days but it’s definitely better than the other one,” said Golden. Its big advantage is that eye drops can be administered by community vaccinators, basically local people who have been trained in the procedure. “That’s a gamechanger when there are only about 100 vets in the whole of Madagascar,” said Golden. Unlike its competitor, I-2 offers the potential for herd immunity, meaning that if a high enough percentage of animals are vaccinated, even those that aren’t vaccinated are protected.

Mahery has been vaccinating chickens at eight test sites since 2016. Razafindrapaoly is a master vaccinator for the program: he vaccinates and also trains community vaccinators. He said that although some families were initially reluctant to get their birds vaccinated, they quickly came around when they saw that immunized chickens didn’t succumb to the disease.

His only concern is the price. During the trial, the vaccine was sold at just 100 ariary (3 U.S. cents) per chicken, but its real price is likely to be 600 to 900 ariary (16 to 25 cents). With families having on average 15 chickens and the need to vaccinate every four months, it adds up quickly. “Livelihood is low around here; if the price increases, perhaps fewer families will vaccinate or they won’t vaccinate all their chickens,” Razafindrapaoly said.

Lorien with one of his chickens. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.
Lorien with one of his chickens. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.

Golden said that one of the ways they’re trying to mitigate that is by embedding the vaccine into a larger chicken husbandry program that will give people a better understanding of how best to rear chickens.

Ambodifohara residents aren’t concerned, however. “Nine hundred ariary is nothing compared to losing a chicken,” when a fully grown bird sells for 20,000 to 25,000 ariary ($5.50 to $7), said Lorien, who lost 10 chickens to Newcastle disease a few years ago. Be Denis agreed, going so far as suggesting that “people might forget to eat sakondry if chicken becomes plentiful.”

Razafindrapaoly said he thinks both initiatives are important: “Sakondry and chicken are parallel because you can’t eat chicken every day, they need time to grow,” he said. Both also offer income-generating streams on local markets, with the sale of eggs, beans, and insects.

The question is whether these initiatives will have an impact on bushmeat consumption. It is too early to tell with empirical data for Mahery and Sakondry. But the villagers, for their part, are convinced. “The reason people look for bushmeat is that there is nothing to eat: if there is bad weather, you cannot go fish,” said Razafindrapaoly. “But if there is sakondry and beans, you’re OK and you don’t need to go to the forest.”

Lorien agreed. “People eat lemur to put on top of their rice; if there was plentiful meat through sakondry, chicken and fish, people would not need to eat lemur,” said Lorien. “Eating lemur is a sign of poverty.”

Cooking sakondry, an insect scientists are promoting as a way to improve nutrition and reduce the pressure to hunt lemurs and other wildlife for food. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.
Cooking sakondry, an insect scientists are promoting as a way to improve nutrition and reduce the pressure to hunt lemurs and other wildlife for food. Image by Emilie Filou for Mongabay.

Banner image: Sakondry, ready to eat. Image by Brian Fisher.

Emilie Filou is a freelance journalist specializing in business and development issues in Africa. She tweets at @EmilieFilou.

Citations:

Borgerson, C. et al (2017). Links between food insecurity and the unsustainable hunting of wildlife in a UNESCO world heritage site in Madagascar. The Lancet, 389(2), S3.

Golden, C. D. et al (2011). Benefits of wildlife consumption to child nutrition in a biodiversity hotspot. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(49), 19653-19656.

Golden, C. D., and Comaroff, J. (2015). The human health and conservation relevance of food taboos in northeastern Madagascar. Ecology and Society, 20(2), 42.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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