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Getting out of rural poverty by exporting rare insects

For many people in Uganda, an impoverished, war-torn country, escaping the harsh conditions of rural poverty is a daunting task. But a young Ugandan seeking to do just that recently stumbled upon a dream money-spinner: he collects rare insects from the country’s lush tropical forests, pickles them and exports them to wealthy private collectors.

Foraging in the dense jungles for anything from stag beetles to centipedes and butterflies, John Asiimwe, 25, said his buyers lived in such diverse places as the United States, Spain, the Czech Republic, China and Japan. They include entomologists researching rare species, as well as gift shops selling insects on mounted frames as collectors’ items.

TRADE RESTRICTIONS

Trade in rare insects is restricted under the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which Uganda is signatory. CITES is a voluntary international agreement between governments. Currently 164 governments are members.

The convention aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Roughly 5,000 species of animals and 28,000 species of plants are protected by CITES against over-exploitation through international trade.

Barbara Musoke, the spokeswoman of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), told IRIN that no concessions had been issued by her government for trade in insects. "Most of the highly desired insects are endangered. We cannot even consider dealing in them," Musoke said.

Conservation experts, however, said significant numbers of insects and other species were regularly exported from Uganda without being monitored. The trade in rare insects, for example, needed to be closely monitored in order to avert the depletion of naturally occurring species, thereby upsetting the ecosystem, they warned.

UGANDA LACKS MONITORING CAPACITY

"Uganda's insects are exported both live and dead. Most exporters do not breed them, but rather catch them from the wild, especially the bright, big, beautiful insects like Goliath beetles, which sell for up to US $100," Dino Martins, the chairman of he Insect Committee of Nature Kenya, told IRIN. "Because Uganda is a signatory to CITES, it is bound by conventions against uncontrolled trade in species. At the moment, it lacks the capacity to monitor such trade in the country," Martins said. "It needs to encourage potential exporters to breed them, then license the trade."

Musoke said the UWA had tended to focus on the bigger animals, rather than the small species, because there was a sense that the former were more endangered. "We tended to focus on the bigger animals, like crocodiles, but there are researchers who are studying insects in various parks at the moment," she added. She noted in this context that the UWA was aware of a graduate student at Uganda's Makerere University who had collected a large number of insects and sold them on the export market. "We are handling the matter" she said.

Three years ago, Asiimwe knew almost nothing about Uganda’s insect life. Now, he fancies himself to be quite an expert, rolling the polysyllabic Latin names of the various species off his tongue and talking in detail about insect habitats and mating seasons. "When I started, I just needed money," he said. "My family is from a very poor village and I had been out of work for almost two years."

His starting point had been when he had stumbled upon an old man from his village, Aziz Matovu, who was preserving dead beetles in waragi (also known as Nubian gin). Thinking at first that this might be "some kind of witchcraft", he had asked the old man what he was doing.

GLOBAL MARKET

Matovu, Asiimwe said, had told him all about the global market for insects that he had discovered after a chance meeting with a Japanese buyer in the capital, Kampala. He had even given Asiimwe some contacts, since he was having problems keeping up with demand.

The prices of the insects vary, depending on who wants them for what. A spider was never more than $3, "not worth the trouble, because they’re poisonous and I fear them", said Asiimwe; however, a butterfly could fetch up to $20; a stag beetle up to $30. One of Uganda's most sought after rare beetle, the Mecynorrhina ugandesis, if well preserved and in good condition, fetches $100.

"The price of an insect is determined by the quality, the size and the rareness of the insect. Uganda's insects are valuable, because they’re so rare and have so many collectors. Like everything else, if the demand is higher than supply, the price will be higher," Steve Le, a commercial entomologist for the New York-based Eastern Pearl Home Furnishings and Asiimwe’s most important client, told IRIN.

Le said catchers like Asiimwe were trained by being sent pictures of the species in demand and told where to find them, in what season and which time of the day was best.

"The Americans always pay the most. In a good afternoon, I could put together a package for between $300 and $400. The weirdest request I had was from a Chinese man wanting to pay $150 for a gramme of African bees venom," Asiimwe said. With the proceeds, he has been able, amongst other things, to move his parents out of their thatched mud hut and into a brand new, three-bedroom brick house.

DANGERS OF UNSUSTAINABLE HARVESTING

Commenting in this context, Gordon Boy, the editor of Swara, the magazine of the East African Wild Life Society, told IRIN that "the unsustainable harvesting of insects for export may, in some cases, rob certain areas of essential pollinators. This in turn could affect the propagation of many plant species, including even that of some food crops. Falling crop yields, brought about in this way, might trigger needless food shortages and suffering among human communities."

He also noted that "other insect species, as decomposers of organic matter, play a crucial role in soil enrichment, so helping to maintain the fertility of farmland. Their elimination, too, can adversely affect food production. Moreover, many insects have surprisingly long life-cycles, meaning that their reproductive success can very easily be compromised by unsustainable collection, resulting in elimination."

FARMING PROJECT

Asiimwe said he had a permit to collect the insects. In order to get it, he had started up a local research and conservation group, which he called Nature Africa, and asserted that he was now "a dedicated conservationist".

Asiimwe and Le said they were examining the feasibility of establishing an insect-breeding farm to enable them to increase exports of central Africa’s more valuable species in a sustainable manner. Last October, another Ugandan, Olipioana Oba, launched the country’s first-ever butterfly farm, which now exports live pupa (at around $2 per pupa) to the UK, the US and The Netherlands. Similar farms exist in Kenya, like the Kipepewo project on the coast.

The World Conservation Union estimates that the annual international wildlife trade is worth billions of dollars. The trade is diverse, ranging from live animals and plants to a vast array of wildlife products derived from them. But the Union warns that levels of exploitation of some animal and plant species are high, and trade in them, together with other factors, such as habitat loss, is capable of heavily depleting their populations and even bringing some species close to extinction.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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