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Mopani Worms

Have you ever wondered where mopane worms go after defoliating large tracts of mopane trees on the reserve? I did, and after investigation, found them to be quite fascinating little creatures.

The mopane worm is the larval stage of an emperor moth (Gonimbrasia belina) and feeds predominantly on mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane). With a wingspan of up to 13,5 cm, the adult mopane emperor moth is a magnificent and conspicuously large moth that can cause consternation amongst the faint-hearted as it flaps around in a bat-like manner.

The moth's lifespan is measured in days and it must not be distracted from its sole purpose in life - to find a mate. To achieve this, the male is equipped with large, feathery antennae, with which he can detect and trace to source over long distances, the delicate perfume given off by a virgin female.

Moths lay batches of about 150 eggs on the trees in spring and after a few weeks the young larvae emerge and begin to feed. When mature they are as thick as a man's finger and about seven succulent centimetres long and are an important part of the food chain for both man and animal alike. Birds and insects prey on them. The pupae are dug out of the ground and eaten by jackals, warthogs and antbears. 

Moths lay batches of about 150 eggs on the trees in spring and after a few weeks the young larvae emerge and begin to feed. When mature they are as thick as a man's finger and about seven succulent centimetres long and are an important part of the food chain for both man and animal alike. Birds and insects prey on them. The pupae are dug out of the ground and eaten by jackals, warthogs and antbears.
 

Mopane worms provide a nutritious supplement to the traditional Shangaan diet, as they are almost 60% protein, and contain significant amounts of phosphorus, iron and calcium. Our Shangaan staff collect the protein-rich larvae (worms) in copious quantities, remove the intestines and either roast them or squash them flat and leave them to dry, in which form they can be stored for months. Apart from its nutritional value as a food source mopane worms are also environmentally valuable. A mopane worm population produces a huge amount of natural fertilizer at the same time that the mopane tree is flowering and setting seed.

A "plague" of mopane worms can fuel tremendous tree foliage regeneration, providing that there is adequate rainfall after the infestation. New foliage helps browsing animals through the dry winter period and effectively increases the carrying capacity of the local environment.

The importance of mopane worms can therefore not be underestimated and as such uncontrolled harvesting not condoned. Ingwelala recognizes the traditional needs of the Shangaan work force and allows the utilization of this natural sustainable resource in a controlled manner. Workers are not allowed to roam the veld unattended since it is extremely dangerous. A couple of years ago, an elephant killed a woman whilst she was harvesting mopane worms on the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. In addition, a few days later, the wife of one of our  workers was charged by an elephant whilst harvesting mopane worms on Buffelsbed.

How to cook Mopani worms

Ingredients:
Dried mopane worms (seasonally available through barter trade in our staff village)
Tomato (sliced)
Onions (chopped)
Butter
Chilli sauce (to taste)
Salt, pepper and garlic salt to taste


Method:
Soak dried mopane worms in water until soft. Fry onions in butter. Add rest of ingredients and cook over slow heat until tender.
Serve with mealie-pap and ice cold Inyati marula mampoer available from our shop. I am told that the mampoer is the key to this meal's palatability.

by Emile Sprenger de Rover.