Helping nature: a weevil farm

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  09. 10. 2021

Prior to my last trip to Cameroon, one of the things I noted was that we should find out more about African palm weevils and their production. I wrote about them here a while ago: almost as thick as a finger and sometimes two index finger phalanges long, the larvae of Rhynchophorus phoenicis are a popular delicacy in some regions of Cameroon. I won’t hide the fact that I wanted to taste other ways of preparing them than I had known so far – after all, I had already presented Insectivore Days at our zoo several years ago, where people could taste insect meals – but I was no less interested in whether their breeding might be interesting from a conservation point of view.

Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo

In Central Africa, hunting, or rather poaching, is the second biggest conservation issue after deforestation. The meat of wild animals, bushmeat, is still very popular with probably all social classes. Apart from this, it is a source of livelihood for a certain section of the population. But how can the consumption of bushmeat, and hence illegal hunting, be curbed? Three ways: 1. By enforcing the law. 2. Through awareness and education. 3. By offering an alternative – both an alternative to bushmeat itself and the income it brings to local people.

For a long time, it was believed that an exemplary alternative could be to breed greater cane rats (Thryonomys swinderianus), which resemble “our” coypus. They are commonly hunted in Central Africa and their meat is really delicious. This is why there have been many attempts to breed them for meat production. In fact, we too have undertaken one, albeit small in scale. However, in my opinion, this form of farming is too demanding and the meat production too low to be truly economically viable in the long-term. By the way, when I bought a cane rat from a similar farm in Yaoundé in August, the price was incomparably expensive to the cost of buying a pangolin on the market.

And so, other ways are being sought to provide alternative incomes for people near the forest, from beekeeping to agroforestry. One small contribution to this effort could be the breeding of Rhynchophorus phoenicis weevils. In recent years, forester and entomologist Fogoh John Muafor has been working with the Forest Living Trust to achieve this. What’s more, “his” weevil larvae are even on sale in Yaoundé, cooked to a special recipe by the well-known chef Émile Engoulou.

We picked up John just outside Yaoundé and drove with him to the family who breeds weevils under his watchful eye. As we drove we passed children by the roadside offering weevil larvae they’d collected in the forest, and John explained to me that when villagers get them from the wild, they destroy the growth of the main food plant, the raffia palm, in an alarming manner. The villagers usually don’t bother simply looking for the weevil larvae; they cut down the raffia and then pick the larvae from the plant. This is, of course, highly inefficient. In contrast, when raffia palms are used in artificial breeding, as in John’s project, there are up to 10 times more larvae harvested. So, it would be very expedient indeed to specifically grow raffia for production.

When we arrived at the site, John proudly showed us the weevil farm. Inside the wooden building, a small hall, there were long rows of wooden benches bearing plastic crates covered with lids, and in them larvae of various sizes were feasting on pieces of raffia. After about three weeks, when they have grown to a suitable size, most of them are sold for consumption. However, a few are pupated for the next generation. Put like this, it all sounds quite simple, but setting up this project has meant years rather than just months of work for John and his students. Even keeping it running is not without its challenges. Naturally, this doesn’t change the fact that the farm now supports a large family. And what’s more, John is now thinking about even better ways to get the larvae to market, including how to preserve them. I was very impressed by his work, especially by its results. So, we decided to support John’s efforts, at least to the tune of funding the purchase of a motorcycle to make it easier to transport the larvae to customers.

Naturally, when we were at the farm, we tasted the larvae it produced. When cooked with spices and some vegetables, they were absolutely delicious! Only the heads with the large mandibles were a bit crunchy.

Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague ZooPhoto: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo 

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