Bush crickets are an important source of food – and income – in Uganda.Loss of forest and wetland habitat, as well as intensified harvesting, may lead to overexploitation.Entomologists at Makerere University are studying techniques to farm the insects. MASAKA, Uganda — “The harvest season was good when the forests were not yet cut down, but now they don’t have any food,” says John Mulindwa, 58, sitting behind a timber frame stacked with empty oil drums and metal sheeting. The roadside is crowded with similar structures for catching nsenene — crickets — a delicacy across Uganda, but especially here in the small city of Masaka. Twice a year, the rains bring swarms of nsenene, primarily Ruspolia differens — a bush cricket or katydid but commonly referred to as a grasshopper — migrating in search of food and a mate; and twice a year, traditionally, people across the country would painstakingly catch nsenene by hand. “During that time we were capturing them in bedsheets and using reeds that we could shake so that the nsenene follow,” Mulindwa says. Then, in the mid-1990s, some residents of Masaka had the bright idea of using powerful electric lights as a trap, attracting vast swarms of nsenene and a new source of income. But in recent years, with the loss of the crickets’ habitat and a rapidly changing climate, Masaka’s fortunes are also turning. “The cutting down of trees reduced the catch in Masaka, especially around Kalangala where they have oil palm plantations,” says Tom Lubega, 42, chairman of the country’s biggest nsenene market, in the Katwe neighborhood of the capital, Kampala. He said that this year the swarms are coming mostly from the west of the country, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo, where natural water bodies and tropical forests are still intact. “The wetlands and lake shores are an important habitat for grasshoppers as they lay their eggs in these areas,” says Jeconious Musingwire, an environmental scientist at the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA). “The habitats which are nearer to us have been destroyed. It’s worrying us.” Uganda’s wetlands coverage has shrunk by more than 40% since 1994. Near Masaka, sand mines, rice paddy fields and construction projects have gradually encroached on the surrounding wetlands. Smallholders, too, are seeking out new fertile land as climate extremes harm crop harvests. “The weather is changing,” says Rose Nakyejjwe, the Masaka district manager for NEMA. “People are moving onto the wetlands in order to cultivate for survival.” On the island of Bugala, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Masaka and the largest island in Kalangala district, tropical high forest cover fell from 57 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2017. In the same period, grassland cover was reduced from 27 percent to 6 percent. “In Kalangala they removed the tropical forest and planted palms. This uses chemicals and fertilizers which kills the young ones and the eggs,” says Nakyejjwe, noting the importance of these environments as a source of food for nsenene. Buying nsenene in Mbarara. Image by Thomas Lewton for Mongabay. Everyone likes the taste of nsenene “Oh, aha! Everyone likes the taste of grasshoppers,” says Fadson Mugisha, 33, a harvester who prefers to eat his nsenene fried with onions and a little salt. Mugisha began catching nsenene as a child. “When our exams started, we knew that grasshoppers were going to come. We used to climb in the hills and the mountains to catch them,” he remembers. Soon powerful electric lights also arrived in his home city of Mbarara. “These lights, the bulbs are not the ones we use at home. The rays move very far and attract insects. Even the old people were excited,” he laughs. Through most of his school years Mugisha helped a local businessman to work his nsenene sites, and after graduating he started out on his own. Now Mugisha is the leader of 200 local cricket harvesters, and owns seven sites spread across the region. Despite the changing migration patterns, this year’s season has been good to him, with the wind carrying swarms to his sites from the far west of Uganda. “It’s my favorite food, my favorite business. I love nsenene so much,” he says. Since the 1990s, the biannual nsenene harvest has become a vital business to an increasing number of Ugandans. Impressed by Masaka’s bumper harvests, entrepreneurs began to build light traps wherever they could find nsenene. “In Uganda there is no job that makes the profits like grasshopper catching,” Lubega, the chairman of the Katwe nsenene market, says with a smile. “When the season has been good we become so happy,” Mulindwa says. “They provide jobs: from the ones catching them, to the ones preparing them and the ones selling. People get to pay off their debts and school fees.” But in recent years, with a changing environment and a growing number of nsenene harvesters competing for the same catch, it’s become harder and harder for harvesters to make a profit on their investment. The sun sets at one of Mugisha’s sites in Mbarara. Weaver birds perch on a nearby fence and pick off the first few crickets to arrive; even now they are attracted by the silver reflection of iron sheeting. Then darkness falls, and the bulbs hum into life. To catch nsenene, the conditions have to be just right. “When we get rain and then we receive some little sunshine, our hopes of getting a good catch are very high,” Mugisha says. But if the wind blows in the wrong direction, more rain falls, or the moon is too visible, then all this can change in an instant. Crickets navigate by the moon, and on clear nights its luminous glow outshines the electric bulbs on the ground. The hours tick by, and hundreds of crickets become thousands — and then hundreds of thousands. A thick cloud hovers above the bulbs. The space echoes with a sound like large raindrops hitting a tin roof as crickets fly into the sheeting and then slide into open oil drums. “It is not easy to harvest grasshoppers,” Mugisha says. “Installing all these drums and iron sheets, eh eh, it takes a lot of labor, and you have to invest a lot of money. But if you are determined, you can harvest.” Looking to the skies, Mugisha estimates he’ll catch about 30 sacks tonight, worth three million shillings ($800) in total. Workers wear sunglasses to shield their eyes against the lights as they scoop nsenene out of the oil drums by the bucketful. Their arms and faces are scarred by the corrosive juices of Nairobi flies, beetles that are also drawn to the lights.