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     Volume 5 Issue 95 | May 19, 2006 |

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Food for Thoughts

All Creatures Great and Small...

Farah Ghuznavi

With a striking lack of consideration for all other species, humanity has quite casually taken over large chunks of the planet for its own use (and frequently, abuse). Quite apart from the environmental consequences, the destruction of forests and pollution of ocean resources has had dire consequences for many animal species. Not to mention the significant levels of "collateral damage" from some human activity. Such as dolphins trapped in tuna fishing nets, primates who have nowhere to live as their forest homes are cut down for timber, etc...

One inevitable consequence of the shrinking habitat for many animals has been to bring them into uncomfortably close proximity to human habitation. Sometimes the consequences can be tragic; at other times, simply bizarre. The increasing tension between honey-gatherers in the Sunderbans and the endangered tiger population is no laughing matter.

But the sight of urban foxes in London does have a kind of charm. Even if they are notorious for damaging gardens in their search for left over dinner scraps, there is something quite amazing about seeing a fox running along the pavement in Baker Street at nine o'clock in the evening as we did last year!

In southern Africa, the burgeoning elephant population is good news for tourism in countries like South Africa and Zambia. But it is less exciting for farmers, who often find that herds of wild elephants have few inhibitions about ravaging their carefully nurtured crops. While it is easier (if exhausting and time-consuming) to scare off other types of animals who may have designs on the farmers' fruit trees and bean crops, wild elephants don't scare easily!

But one project in Zambia has come up with an innovative method of addressing this problem. Elephants have highly sensitive nasal passages (as indicated by the size of their trunks!) and are known to hate chillies. So the farmers put up simple string fences around their precious crops, rubbing the string with a potent concoction of pulped chillies. Amazingly enough, this low-tech but ingenious solution has proved sufficient to deter the rampaging behemoths!

And, as an added side benefit, the excess chillies are used to produce the "elephant brand" chilli sauce, which is sold to raise additional funds for the farm communities…

Presumably the Australian government has a similarly "simple but ingenious" strategy in mind in order to address the nemesis of cane farmers, the large and hideously ugly cane toads. An Australian state government is offering $12,000 for the best means of eliminating around 100 million toads, which are currently devastating the country's sugarcane crops, and are also killing off a variety of animal species.

The Venezuelan cane toad seems to have a weakness for sugarcane Elephants hate chillies--a fact that has been used by a project in Zambia to keep them from ravaging crops

Of course, the background to this lies in further human interference in the indigenous eco-systems! In 1935, around 100 Venezuelan cane toads were introduced in the State of Queensland, in an attempt to eradicate cane beetles, which were damaging crops. In a truly spectacular example of strategies that can backfire, the toads ignored the beetles, preferring to eat everything else in sight! To make matters worse, they proved to have a particular fondness for sugarcane, inflicting a significant amount of damage on this valuable crop...

Currently, the toad is classified as Australia's worst pest. It breeds prolifically, and is capable of colonising large areas within a short period of time. And apart from its strikingly unnattractive appearance and large size, the cane toad's charms include its ability to exude a powerful poison that can kill wild dogs, and even crocodiles!

So far, some of the ideas that have emerged in response to the government's incentive include the "Toad Buster", which involves setting up loudspeakers to send out the toad's mating call, thereby luring females to their death (and presumably preventing the further propagation of the species...)

Another proposed solution is to set up a spring trap door that drops unwary toads into buckets which are buried in the ground. Lights around the trap are used to attract insects, and thereby also draw the toads to the spot. This option is known as the "toad in the hole", after the delightfully named dinner dish…

But in the end, perhaps it's best to just stick to the tried and true methods, such as the less sophisticated option that involves motorists swerving across highways and punching the air in a mature fashion each time they "squash a toad" - apparently a very popular game in certain parts of Australia!

One solution to such pests (but not the cane toad, for obvious reasons) might be another time honoured human tactic and one which has wrought havoc on many an animal population. Just eat it! And sometimes, you may even end up killing two birds with one stone…

According to a South African expert, part of the answer to food security issues may lie in the whole scale consumption of creatures found crawling on the ground, or buzzing in the air. Entomologist Dr Robert Toms of the Transvaal Museum in Johannesburg says that edible creepy crawlies which are abundant in Africa should be added to the daily diet.

"The most pleasant eating experience I've had was fresh mopane worms" Toms says (raising some inevitable questions about what his parents fed him as he was growing up!) These worms, about 3 cm in length, appear in the spring in massive numbers throughout southern and central Africa. So, if one were willing, they could easily be harvested and preserved for consumption purposes.

But wait, Dr Toms takes his idea even further! He feels that there is scope to export these munchies as a delicacy to overseas consumers.

Perhaps he's not that far off. As he points out, "In Japan, I really enjoyed eating wasps with their larvae and pupae, prepared with rice". And he is backed up by Dr Lucinda Blackwell, a bug expert at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, who agrees with him about the insects' nutritional value. Apparently, in comparison to 100 g of fish which contains 75 calories, and an equivalent amount of rump steak which has 300 calories, 100 g of termites provides a whopping 560 calories! This is a factor worth taking into consideration in a region where malnutrition is a serious issue.

But perhaps Dr Blackwell takes it too far when she points out that "Termites are pure fat and protein and taste quite nice. They are much healthier than eating red meat"! She may well be right, but I suspect it will take more than that ringing endorsement before those who are more squeamish can be persuaded to be more adventurous in their culinary preferences…

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