/ 14 July 2004

The bug deal

Three years ago John Assimwe knew almost nothing about Africa’s insect life. Like most Ugandans, he was more preoccupied with the tall task of making a living in spite of the country’s crushing poverty and sparse employment opportunities.

But then he stumbled upon a dream money-spinner: collecting rare insects from the country’s lush tropical forests, pickling them and exporting them to wealthy private collectors.

Foraging in Uganda’s dense jungles for everything from stag beetles to centipedes to rare butterflies, Assimwe (25) said his buyers live in such diverse places as the United States, Spain, the Czech Republic, China and Japan. About 20 customers in total, they include entomologists doing research on rare species as well as gift shops selling insects on mounted frames as collectors’ items.

The bugs are caught in the traditional fashion, with insect nets, and then pickled in waraji (a local gin), packed in discrete boxes and posted by conventional post to the clients’ respective countries.

‘When I started I just needed money,” he said. ‘My family is from a very poor village and I had been out of work for almost two years.”

Assimwe stumbled upon an elderly man from his village, Aziz Matovu, preserving dead beetles in waraji and he asked the old man what he was doing. Matovu told him all about the global market for insects that he had discovered after a chance meeting with a Japanese buyer in Kampala.

Assimwe is now quite an expert on nature’s creepier creatures, rolling the polysyllabic Latin names of the various species off his tongue and talking in detail about their habitats and mating seasons.

The prices of the bugs vary, depending on who wants them for what. A spider is never more than $3, ‘not worth the trouble because they’re poisonous and I fear them”, said Assimwe. A butterfly can fetch up to $20; a stag beetle, up to $30. But the most sought-after catch is the Mercynorrhiny ugandesis, a rare beetle that, if well preserved and in good condition, can fetch $100.

‘The Americans always pay the most. In a good afternoon, I could put together a package for between $300 and $400,” he says.

With the proceeds he has been able, among other things, to move his parents out of their thatched mud hut and into a brand new, three-bedroomed brick house. He doesn’t yet have a wife and children to feed, but he thinks that when he does he’ll be in a strong position to support them.

Steve Le, a commercial entomologist for the New York-based Eastern Pearl Home Furnishings — Assimwe’s biggest client — said: ‘The price of an insect is determined by the quality, the size and the rareness of the insect. Ugandeses are valuable because they’re so rare and have so many collectors. Like everything else, if the demand is higher than supply, the price will be higher.”

Le said catchers like Assimwe are trained by being sent pictures of the species in demand and told where to find them, in what season and which time of the day is best.

Trade in rare insects is restricted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), to which Uganda is signatory. Cites is a voluntary international agreement between governments. Currently 164 governments are members.

The convention aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. About 5 000 species of animals and 28 000 species of plants are protected by Cites against over-exploitation through international trade.

Barbara Musoke, the spokesperson of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), said no concessions had been issued by her government for trade in insects. ‘The most desired insects are technically endangered. We are not supposed to deal in them,” Musoke said, adding that the UWA is aware of a small group of Ugandans who have traded insects.

Assimwe said he knew of no one else involved in the trade. Conservation experts, however, claim significant numbers of insects and other species are regularly exported from Uganda owing to a lack of monitoring, though it is hard to estimate how many.

Dino Martins, chairperson of the Insect Committee of Nature Kenya, said: ‘Uganda’s insects are exported both live and dead. Most exporters do not breed them, but rather catch them from the wild.”

But Assimwe said he has a permit to collect insects, which he got by starting up a local research and conservation group, Nature Africa. A small NGO of about six people, the group professes to promote ‘sustainable management of Uganda’s forest resources” and Assimwe said he is now ‘a dedicated conservationist”.

He and Le are looking into setting up an insect farm in Uganda that would enable them to increase exports of Central Africa’s more valuable species ‘in a sustainable manner”.

‘I don’t want to collect insects any more,” Assimwe said, ‘The real trade is in sustainable farming. We have big plans for insect farms.”

Last October another Ugandan, Olipioana Oba, started the country’s first butterfly farm, which now exports live pupae (at about $2 per pupa) to Britain, the US and The Netherlands.