Worst year on record for grasshopper lovers in Uganda

Worst year on record for grasshopper lovers

Karim Damba goes to work in the industrial zone of Masaka as dusk falls. He moves massive corrugated steel sheets into position and fastens them to empty  oil drums that have been filled with black polythene bags and are supported by long  wooden poles.

He turns on the fluorescent lights at eight o’clock in the evening and waits for the  grasshoppers to come.

“I have been engaged in this since October 25th,” Damba remarks, fiddling with his  skullcap. In central Uganda, Damba is a grasshopper trapper.

Between October and December his nights are spent waiting for the insects to hit the metal sheets and fall into the drums. The protein-rich bugs are wrapped and transported to market. If the wind settles, it could be a good night for Damba and his fellow trappers.

“Sometimes they come at midnight, sometimes at 5 am,” he says.

The insects are a welcome part of Ugandans’ daily diet: they are high in fibre and omega-3 fatty acids and when fried and sprinkled with salt, make a nutritious crunchy snack. The insects, locally known as nsenene, appear twice a year, in April and May and from October to December. During these months, professional catchers set up their traps while excited children run around trying to catch the bugs before they fly away.

This year has been different, however. November is known as “musenene” in Luganda – the month of the grasshopper – because swarms are seen, and caught, almost every day, particularly in central Uganda, their main breeding ground. But the insects appeared for just seven days last month. The no-show prompted concern at the highest levels in the country.

Grasshopper populations have been dwindling for years as the forests, grassland and swamps in which they feed and breed are destroyed.

The country has lost almost a third of its forests in the last three decades. The central region has seen the most intense clearance of protected habitats. This year has been the worst on record for grasshopper populations. By 6am, Damba has only managed to fill half a sack.

On a good day during Musenene he can fill up to 80 sacks, which can fetch about 60,000 Uganda shillings (£12.50) each. He has got nowhere near that number this year.

After paying council taxes, rent for land to erect the traps, employing casual labour and using electricity every night, Damba is worried he may not get a return on his investment this year. Quraish Katongole, head of the Old Masaka Basenene Association, which represents grasshopper trappers, says he is worried that one day the grasshoppers will disappear for good.

The grasshoppers’ extinction may be looming. The environment has become hostile for them. When they are gone, it spells doom for people who can’t afford alternative sources of protein but could easily access grasshoppers.

Traders haggle with harvesters over the price before settling at 400,000 shillings for each half sack – shortages have pushed up trading prices. The buyers sell the few insects in small cups for 15,000 shillings apiece. In abundant times, a cup would sell for about a quarter of that price.

Fewer grasshoppers mean less work for the market’s casual labourers whose job it is to clean the insects and pluck off their wings and legs before they are sold.

Worst year on record for grasshopper lovers

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