Mopane worm facing extinction in Mat South province

Left: Mr Zibusiso Ndlovu, Forestry commission Beitbridge,  Mr Patson Makwiramiti (SAFIRE)  (centre) and Mr Honestly Ndlovu  (SAFIRE) (right) training natural resource and lead collectors committee in Beitbridge Ward 12

By Nesia Mhaka

THERE was a huge decline in mopane worms last season (December, 2021) and this has been largely attributed to over-exploitation of natural resources and climate change in some parts of the Matabeleland South province, a survey conducted by the Southern Alliance for Indigenous Resources (SAFIRE) has unearthed.

The survey conducted in Gwanda and Beitbridge on the contribution of the Mopane worm to rural livelihoods and the effects of environmental change on Mopane worm harvesting in rural households revealed that, Mopane worms were not available in large numbers in the previous season.

Areas which recorded better Mopane worm populations were in ward 15 in Gwanda while in other areas like Garanyemba ward 13 and Mathulungundu in ward 16 were badly affected and the availability of the worm was very limited.

Results from the survey showed a decline in the density of Mopane trees, vegetation change, lower than normal rainfall and higher than normal temperatures as the main factors contributing to environmental change that had a significant impact on the availability and abundance of Mopane worms to the communities.

These outlined environmental changes are becoming more evident, rendering rural people more vulnerable as it threatens their livelihoods. Apart from being an important source of food, the Mopane worm is also a valuable trading commodity.

Trading was found to be an important form of employment for rural people who have limited prospects of formal employment and had the potential to generate higher income levels.

There is need for improved co-operation between traditional leaders, harvesters and local government for better management of the communal harvesting areas to ensure that mopane worm populations don’t dwindle any further.

To promote sustainable harvesting of Mopane worm in Matabeleland South province, SAFIRE under Resilient Waters project has facilitated the establishment of community-led natural resource management committees and lead collectors of more than 300 collectors.

The community participated in the selection of committee members who were selected among community members drawn from five wards, two in Beitbridge (wards 10 and ward 12) and three in Gwanda (wards 13, 15 and 16)
The designated committees will supervise and monitor the collection of Mopane Worms whilst working in partnership with the project on raising awareness and educational campaigns on climate change and the importance of sustainable management of natural resources.

The groups received training on how to use natural resources (Mopane forests) in a way and at a rate that maintains and enhances the resilience of ecosystems and the benefits they provide.

The teams were also trained about the life cycle of Mopane worms and the apparent time of harvesting. Mopane worm outbreaks are seasonal, during the early months of the rainy season (December) and a second harvest occurs between April and May. Mopane worms are the larval stage in the life cycle emperor moth.

As the larva grows, it moults four times in its five larval stages and that is when the Mopane worm is desirable for harvesting. These are the Mopane worms seen crawling on the ground or down the trees.

Their readiness for harvesting is also evident through the lack of fruss in the gut and sharp spikes. A matured Mopane worm is big, fully round and black with red or yellow stripes.

People are often impatient and harvest the Mopane worms while they are still in the trees, brown to pale black in colour or while they haven’t fully matured and this has significantly contributed towards the decline in the availability of Mopane worms.

Surveys have shown that people cut down trees and conduct their harvest prematurely which has put the natural production of Mopane worms under threat. Mopane worms mainly feed on Mopane tree leaves. In the absence of Mopane trees, the occurrence of the high value caterpillar will decline.

Massive deforestation of the Mopane woodlands has been registered in the communities mainly because the Mopane tree also has many desirable properties which makes it subject to over exploitation.

Wood from the Mopane tree has high calorific value which makes it one of the preferred firewood species. Its durability also makes it suitable for construction timber in rural communities where it is used for pole and dagga houses as well as fencing poles and this diverse need for this tree species highlights the importance of its sustainable utilisation.

Although regulatory measures are in place in some communities of Matabeleland South, the major challenge they face is the rapid increase of Mopane worm harvesters who come from other parts of the country and disregard local authority by-laws, sustainable harvesting practices and culture; as a result, Mopane worm occurrence has become unpredictable.

Speaking during the sustainable harvesting training meeting recently in Gwanda ward 13, Councillor Miclas Ndlovu promised to work with traditional leaders and the selected committees in protecting natural resources.

“I don’t participate in the collection of Amacimbi because of my religious beliefs (church named) but, as a councillor of this community I am very concerned with the willy-nilly cutting of trees especially by gangs of people who invade our forestry without our knowledge to tap into our natural resources (Amacimbi) most of whom are foreigners. As a community we want to thank SAFIRE for bringing in this program which seeks to address the unsustainable harvesting of Mopane worm in this community.”

“Communities must jealously guard their resources and as responsible authorities we disapprove some of the unorthodox methods that include the cutting down of trees during collection period. We will work closely with traditional leaders, the ‘custodians’ of the area and also with these recently selected committees and see how best we can protect our forests. “Communities must therefore conserve these forests knowing fully that Amacimbi are the corner-stone of their livelihoods.”

With climate change and the increase of pressure on forest resources, the benefits which communities derive from sale of Mopane worms cannot be sustained if environmental management practices to regulate poor harvesting methods are not enforced and also adhered to at all levels of the value chain, a thing SAFIRE is trying to address.

Extreme weather conditions affect the cycle of Mopane worm production hence when it is extremely hot, eggs and larva which have just been hatched are destroyed. In cases where it is extremely hot and there are low rains, trees delay producing leaves and when eggs hatch there is limited food and shelter for the Mopane worms which shelter under the leaves and feed on the leaves.

This was evident in Gwanda wards 13 and 16 where the worms were scarce and people had to harvest in other Wards.

A ward 13 resident, Mr Tapson Sibanda revealed in an interview that they had to travel outside their community to wards 20 and 21 to collect the worm.

“…..this year Masonja were very few in our area, we managed to get them outside this ward. People travelled to commercial farms in Ward 20 and 21 which are about 10 Kilometres from here. This area is very hot as you can see and last year the rains came a bit late so I think the eggs were affected by the scorching sun,” he said.

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