Protection of beetle habitats in Cameroon and regulation over their collection and trade could help lift rural communities out of poverty while conserving relic forest patches in the region, a new study says.
The hardy insects are the most diverse of all living organisms in terrestrial ecosystems, constituting nearly a quarter of our global biodiversity.
They have long been harvested by forest-dwellers in parts of Africa for local consumption, some having a nutritional value comparable to meat and fish and others a higher value proportionally of proteins, fat and energy.
And since the 1980s when enthusiastic beetle collectors arrived in southwestern Cameroon and started training people to identify and gather unique or interesting species, the bugs have been exported (usually after negotiations via the Internet) to Europe, Asia and the Americas.
John Fogoh Muafor, lead author of research carried out by the Center for International Forestry Research, the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD), and the Cameroon Association of Research on Biodiversity and Development (ACBIODEV), says beetles have tremendous potential to improve livelihoods.
"Though trade and collection techniques are very informal, in some parts of Cameroon, many rural people have come to depend on them," he said, noting money earned often complements main sources of income - cash crops such as cocoa or coffee - especially during the off-harvest season.
In cities, too, some business owners depend almost entirely on money earned through the local and international export of dead and live specimens.
"But in both cases," Fogoh Muafor was quick to add, "the potential is far from being reached."
That's largely because the lack of legislation regulating the collection or trade of beetles has made it nearly impossible to do so sustainably or to increase the earnings from exploitation, said Philippe Le Gall, co-author of the study, Making a living with forest insects: beetles as an income source in Southwest Cameroon.
Harvesting techniques by villagers are rudimentary, he said, collectors simply stripping the bark off trees and then picking out the beetles by hand or with sweeping nets. For bugs gathered at night, fires are often set inside the forests to make it easier to see.
Foreign collectors, meanwhile, have been known to travel to Cameroon and return home with large numbers of beetles without getting legal permits or paying any taxes or fees.
This has resulted in both the high-level trafficking and fragmentation of the beetle's habitats, threatening the survival of some of the rare and endemic species.
Fogoh Muafor believes, however, that changing mindsets, at least at home, should not be difficult.
Education about conservation of commercial beetle habitats would directly safeguard incomes, he said: "Consequently, protected and unprotected ecosystems areas could easily be promoted."
Forest people highly depend on mushrooms, fruits, nuts and other non-timber forest products (NTFPs) in developing countries as food, medicine and income sources. In recent years, there has been greater recognition of the role these products play in rural livelihoods in Africa. Both conservationists and policy makers are trying to find ways to utilise these resources and support sustainable exploitation.
Only a few of these actions, however, relate to forest insects, and there is insufficient information to alert conservation stakeholders on the importance of effectively integrating beetles and others into conservation and poverty reduction strategies.
Authors of the study, published recently in the Forestry Review, urged Cameroon to look to the insect trade model of Papua New Guinea.
In 1978, that government created an Insect Farming and Trading Agency (IFTA), which controlled the conservation and exploitation of butterflies. The agency acted as a clearinghouse for trade in Queen Alexandra's birdwings and other valuable butterflies (legally captured dead specimens can command more than US $2,000).
About 450 village farmers have associated with IFTA to farm butterflies by planting appropriate host plants that provide food plants for the birdwing and other butterfly species.
Depending on the species, the purpose for which they are being raised, and conservation legislation, butterflies are exported live, as pupae, or dead, as high-quality collector specimens. IFTA sells about $400,000 worth of insects per year to collectors, scientists and artists around the world, generating an income for communities of a poor country.
In Cameroon, many households and urban exporters are doing well collecting and trading beetles, said Patrice Levang, an IRD seconded scientist at CIFOR and another author of the study.
Though the trade cannot solve the many problems the rural low-income earners face, "it does improve the level of income of local exploiters, thereby allowing them to live in more comfortable conditions."
This new publication forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was funded by the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD).