Masoala Peninsula, Madagascar: It’s a lovely walk from the village of Ambodifohara to BeNoel Razafindrapaoly’s field. Nestled at the foot of the mountains of Masoala National Park in northeastern Madagascar, the rainforest tumbles down toward the sea, a fringe of smallholder plots the only barrier between these two elements. Everything seems to grow here: fruit trees (mango, papaya, guava), cash crops (clove, coffee, vanilla), staple crops (rice, yam, sweet potato). Everything is luminescent green, courtesy of the abundant rain and even more abundant sunshine.
Here, Razafindrapaoly has planted tsidimy, a native bean plant, to attract a small hopping insect called sakondry. Hardly anything is known about this insect, except that it’s edible, and most importantly, delicious.
That was enough to grab the attention of Cortni Borgerson, an anthropologist at Montclair State University in New Jersey, who has been studying the interactions between ecosystems and human health in Madagascar for 15 years. Her work has included the question of why people hunt endangered species, which conservationists have struggled to remedy. She is now leading a three-year programme titled Sakondry to see whether farming the insect and therefore increasing its consumption, could solve the twin challenges of malnutrition and biodiversity loss.
For despite the appearance of abundance and the stunning primordial landscapes, Madagascar faces serious human and environmental challenges. Three-quarters of the population live on less than $1.90 a day, and nearly half of children under the age of five suffer from stunting due to malnutrition, one of the highest rates in the world. In desperate times, “people turn to what they have, which is the forest,” said Borgerson. Her studies show that in some villages, 75% of animal-source foods come from forest animals, including lemurs. With 94% of lemur species threatened with extinction, this is unsustainable.
Borgerson also found that child malnutrition was higher in households that hunt lemurs, a strong indication that bushmeat is a last resort for families who have little else to eat. Another study by Christopher Golden, assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, shows that removing access to wildlife would lead to a 29% increase in the number of children suffering from anemia and a tripling of anemia cases among children in the poorest households.
“You can see that there is a clear correlation between malnourishment, food insecurity and lemur hunting,” Borgerson said. “But that also makes it very solvable: we just need to solve what you put on top of your rice. If we can fix this, people will shift off,” she said.
Local people are also becoming aware of the value of wildlife protection for tourism: “It’s important to keep lemurs for tourists,” said Lorien, a resident of Ambodifohara. The village is the gateway to Masoala National Park. Most of the 3,000 or so tourists who make it to Masoala each year, therefore, pass through the village. There are a handful of lodges nearby and the village has benefited from employment opportunities, financial support for the school and even the installation of a micro-hydro turbine, which provides free electricity.
Insects are widely eaten in Madagascar, locusts and beetles being the most popular. In Masoala, Borgerson found that 60% of households have eaten insects in the last year, with sakondry the favourite. Insects also happen to be incredibly nutritious, containing high levels of protein, minerals and vitamins (see graph).
Borgerson’s project, which is funded by the IUCN’s Save Our Species initiative, will, therefore, plant tsidimy, the sakondry host plant, hone farming techniques and monitor nutrition indicators as well as wildlife hunting at three test sites on the Masoala Peninsula. Its stated goal is to improve rural nutrition and food security in ways that reduce targeted lemur hunting by at least 50%. The project started last December, with villagers at the test sites planting more than 4,200 tsidimy plants. Early estimates suggest that more than 52,000 sakondry have now taken up residence among their leaves.
Borgerson said the priorities over the next few months are to understand the limitations of the current traditional farming system and to study the insect. “It’s amazing how much we don’t know,” she said. “We’ve established the genus, a Fulgorid planthopper, but we can’t tell male from female; we don’t know when females lay their eggs. We want to look at the life cycle, parasites, diseases etc.”They don’t even know what it eats: although sakondry lives on the native bean plant, it doesn’t feed on it. All this information will help Borgerson and her team develop and test enhanced farming techniques.
The Sakondry programme 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 organisations that provide free school meals in the capital and famine relief in the south of the country
The farmhouses 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.”
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 programme. Lorien said he liked the idea of planting tsidimy to attract sakondry. “It’s food growing over food,” he said.
Be Denis, a neighbour, 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 troubleshooting,” 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 organisation 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 northeast Madagascar, Golden found that wildlife was widely hunted, with 16% of the population hunting bats, 23% hunting bush pigs, 40% hunting endemic carnivores like mongoose, 49 % hunting lemurs and 91% hunting tenrecs, small mammals that resemble shrews or hedgehogs. Golden also ran taste preference studies and found that although bushmeat ranked high, people’s favourite meat was, in fact, chicken.
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 US 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 programme: 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 immunised chickens didn’t succumb to the disease.
His only concern is the price. During the trial, the vaccine was sold at just 100 ariary (three US 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.
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 ten 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.”