From Stephen Ephraem in Checheche
THERE has been a huge decline in Mopane worms this season and this has been attributed to over-exploitation of natural resources in some parts of the South-Eastern Lowveld.
The mopane worm (caterpillar) is the larvae stage of the emperor moth (Imbrassia belina). The caterpillar is categorised as one of the Big Twelve African insects alongside the likes of giant dragonfly and beetle. In vernacular languages, the caterpillar is known as masonja, macimbi or madora. This caterpillar feeds on the leaves of mopane tree (colophospermum mopane) and is part of the food chain.
The life cycle of the mopane worm begins with the emperor moth laying small white eggs. When the eggs hatch, there comes the caterpillar (larvae). From the larvae stage, the worm develops in a pupa. At this stage the worm pupates underground (many people think that it goes underground to die). Later, it develops into the adult emperor moth.
Being edible, the mopane worm plays a major role in nutrition and income generation. It has 53,3 percent protein content when dry. That is the reason why locals harvest the caterpillar as soon as it grows bigger.
Things are different this current season. A survey contacted by The Manica Post revealed that the mopane worm did not come in large numbers. Areas which recorded a better caterpillar population include Sovelele and Dhombodhema in Mwenezi and part of the Bubi Conservancy in Beitbridge. Areas like Rutenga, Chikombedzi and Chiredzi were badly affected.
"Usually, the caterpillar emerges in November and gets harvested late December and early January. This season, peasants finished harvesting the worm by mid December. Most of the caterpillars were harvested before maturity," said King Garai Makonzo of Rutenga.
"The mopane worms just appeared for about two weeks. People pounced on them before they got mature. It is a sorry state of affairs here," said Patience Giga of BJB ranch in Chikombedzi.
The recurrent Lowveld drought and greed are affecting the mopane worm's population.
Crop farming is not paying as it used to do. Peasant farmers are suffering from reduced yields that even drought resistant crops like cotton are no longer doing well. Peasants are forced to look for other means of survival that include harvesting mopane worms. Traditionally, women and children were known to be the ones who did the harvesting but now they are heavily contested by men.
Greed is rife. Even those who receive better crop yields are putting pressure on the caterpillar harvesting. Instead of preserving the mopane worm for future breeding, most peasants collect as many caterpillars as possible in order to acquire large stocks of the worm which they will take to markets in urban areas or neighbouring countries. A few caterpillars that find their way to the pupa stage later surface in shrinking emperor moth population.
If this harvesting trend and greed is left on-going, the mopane worm may face extinction in the future. That is why areas like Chinyamukwakwa in Chipinge south, Chizvirizvi (Forty) in Chiredzi north, Buffalo Range in Chiredzi central and Chilonga in Chiredzi south, despite boosting mopane colonies, record little to no mopane worm population these days.