Thai scientist promotes dung-beetle farming
By Peter Janssen Jul 10, 2006, 12:34 GMT
Bangkok - Ancient Egyptians revered the dung beetle, believing a divine scarab rotated the world like a giant dung ball, but in rural Thailand, the insect has traditionally been valued for its more mundane uses, primarily as a culinary delicacy.
Thai farmers in the past were known to stake claims to buffalo droppings as their private property to protect the valuable beetles burrowing away inside, making dung balls and, ultimately, baby dung beetles.
Dung beetles are best eaten as pupae, their inactive state when they have stopped being larvae munching on the inside of their dung balls, or as adults, after they have been purged in water for a few hours.
With the advent of mass tourism in Thailand, dead dung beetles have become a popular souvenir item, sold to foreigners on the streets of Bangkok and other major cities for as much as 400 baht (nearly 10 dollars).
Unfortunately, this excellent source of protein (100 grams of dung beetle has 17.2 grams of protein) and extra income for Thai farmers is swiftly disappearing, according to Leela Kayikananta, a senior scientist and expert on 'commercial insects' at Thailand's Forestry Department.
For the past three years, Leela, who studied termites at the Holzbiologie Institute in Hamburg and bees at the Forest Entomologie Institute in Vienna, has been devoting her time to understanding the life cycle of the Heliocopris bucephalus Fabricius, Thailand's biggest dung beetle.
'There are 237 dung-beetle species in Thailand, but this one is the biggest and most beautiful and most popular as a souvenir,' Leela said. The 'kudjee yak,' or giant beetle, can grow up to 57 millimetres and has a life cycle of nearly 20 months.
Although no scientific studies have been conducted on the declining numbers of the giant dung beetle, rural communities said they are getting harder to find in the wild.
To reverse the trend, or at least stop farmers from hunting the giant dung beetle to extinction in the wild, Leela has studied the insect's breeding and reproduction cycle and written an instruction manual on how to successfully raise dung beetles in captivity as a sideline for farmers or rural entrepreneurs.
'Actually, they are very easy to raise,' she said, 'Anyone who owns a buffalo can easily raise dung beetles.'
Owners of cows and elephants can also profit from Leela's dung-beetle-farming techniques. All that's necessary is an enclosed pen, mosquito screens to keep the beetles inside and plenty of fresh dung.
'During the first three months, you need to put fresh dung into the pen every five days, but after that, once a week suffices,' the manual advises. Leela said she is fielding 60 telephone calls a day from eager dung-beetle farmers since publishing her brochure.
Animal-protection groups in Thailand are supportive of dung-beetle farming and other insect-raising efforts as a means of protecting bugs in the wild while satisfying local tastebuds.
'Cricket raising has become a real big cottage industry in Thailand,' said William Schaedla, an entomologist who works at WildAid, a wildlife-protection group devoted to cracking down on illegal traffic in protected species.
Fried crickets, like dung beetles, are deemed a delicacy in rural communities, as are bamboo caterpillars, red ants and a host of other insects.
Schaedla noted that for dung beetles, there is also a growing Internet market in the souvenir and pet trade. Dead dung beetles from Thailand sell for about 25 dollars on eBay, and there is a huge market for pet beetles in Japan.
The trade in insects is remarkably unregulated as long as they aren't classified as pests.
There are 13 Thai insect species protected under Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and nearly all of these are butterflies or moths.
'There is almost zero protection for invertebrates under CITES,' noted Schaedla, who sees loss of habitat and the widespread use of pesticides as a much bigger threat to Thailand's insect population than exotic culinary tastes and the souvenir market.
'The real nuclear bomb for insects like the dung beetle in Thailand is pesticides,' said Schaedla, who is writing a soon-to-be published book on 'The Edible Insects of Mainland Southeast Asia.'
As to his own culinary preferences for insects, Schaedla admitted, 'They don't taste bad if they're prepared well, but I draw the line on dung beetles, or anything else that lives in shit.'© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur