Mopane worms have become so popular their harvest is threatening the environment

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By Farai Shawn Matiashe/

GWANDA – Primrose Dube owes the existence of her newly built family house in Gwanda, Zimbabwe, to a caterpillar. The mopane worm, may be quite large as caterpillars go – it can grow up to 80mm long – but it is still a very small creature to have such a big impact on a country.

In Zimbabwe, it has sparked much-needed economic activity in a poverty-stricken nation and, offered a valuable source of protein. But now its success as a commodity has become an environmental threat.

The cigar-sized caterpillars, known as madora in the local Shona language, are the larval form of the Gonimbrasia belina species of emperor moths. They eat the leaves of mopane trees and in Zimbabwe are usually found in southern parts of the country such as Gwanda, which lies about 130km south-east of Bulawayo, the country’s second city.

“I started harvesting madora in 2018,” Ms Dube, 54, told i. “In a good season, I harvest about 15 buckets, each weighing 20kg. We sell some in the capital Harare and to truck drivers who are en route to neighbouring South Africa.”

The live mopane worm is seen in the trees in rural Kezi before they are harvested by handpicking from the trees (Photo: Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images)

Gwanda’s location along the highway that connects Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa through the busy Beitbridge Border Post, makes it a prime spot for such business.

“We have built a family house with money from harvesting and selling madora,” the mother of six said. “It is almost complete. We just have a few basics left, like floor tiles.”

Mopane worms are harvested in summer after they hatch. A good rainy season means a yield. People pick them from the trees, remove water from inside them and dry them in firewood ashes as a way of preserving them.

“We used to harvest from the trees, but we later discovered that when you pick those that are still hanging in the trees, there is too much labour involved in preparing them,” said Ms Dube. “So, these days we harvest those that are down the trees and ready to go back under the soil. These will be clean and big. That is first grade.”

Statistics on income generated by the mopane trade in Zimbabwe are hard to come by, as it is highly informalised, but industry players estimate it at $500,000 (£400,000) a year.

During harvesting season, makeshift markets are created along the highway that leads to South Africa, where people trade the worms for cash and groceries.

Buyers come to areas such as Gwanda to buy the worms, but offer low prices there, forcing some locals to travel as far as Bulawayo and Harare to sell at a higher price. In Gwanda, 20kg of mopane worms sell at about $20; in other parts of the country, the same 20kg fetch as much as $40.

However, environmentalists are now concerned that the trade is becoming a threat to biodiversity. A recent rise in demand for the caterpillars has led people to come from as far away as Harare to cut down trees to harvest the caterpillars. This not only leaves the land barren, it also threatens the livelihoods of locals.

Climate change has also affected the availability of the worms: experts believe caterpillars are declining in the region, due to rising temperatures.

Mopane worm trade provides nutrition and financial sustenance to many families in southern Zimbabwe (Photo: Farai Shawn Matiashe)

Another local woman who is in the business of harvesting and selling the larvae, Nomsa Ncube, says they have been doing so for decades without harming the environment.

“When harvesting madora, we conserve our environment by not cutting down any trees,” she says. “We pick only those hanging on branches we can reach and wait for those hanging on tall trees to come down so we can pick them. This is done to avoid cutting down trees.”

The 43-year-old mother of three adds: “We also use only dry logs as firewood for the ashes we use to dry out the worms during the preservation process.”

It is people from other places, says Ms Ncube, who cutting down the trees and burning the forest.

Indeed, mopane worm harvesting is a major contributor to the rate of deforestation in areas such as Gwanda, Beitbridge and Plumtree, according to Violet Makoto, from Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission.

A canning and processing facility has been established in the border town of Beitbridge, about 195km from Gwanda.

Women are using this amenity to prepare the worms for sale in supermarkets and for export, says Joram Gumbo, minister of state for presidential affairs in charge of implementation and monitoring, who recently toured the facility.

“Those women involved make a good living out of the project and supplement their husband’s incomes,” he told i. “They can improve their standards of living.”

Ms Makoto says she is aware of what is at stake. “Local communities should be able to utilise their natural resources to improve their lives, and mopane worm harvesting and sale is a vibrant livelihood option.

“We, however, are seeking to create awareness through training programmes on the importance of following conservation principles, especially at harvest period, so that it becomes both ecologically and economically sustainable.”