By Dr. Cornti Borgerson, Full Forests

Dr. Cortni Borgerson, with a view of rice farms in Madagascar.

I first came to Madagascar 18 years ago to study the incredible, critically endangered lemurs of Madagascar. While following red ruffed lemurs under 100-foot lush canopy, I sat upon a mossy hillside to eat lunch, and asked a local research technician about his favorite lemur species. “No, I don’t like that one; it’s too bitter…. yes, I love those, they’re nice and fat,” he replied casually as we shared a bowl of rice. This conversation led me to study lemur hunting on my next return to Madagascar and marked the beginning of my career in conservation.

That conversation marked the beginning of my career in conservation. My next return to Madagascar was to study lemur hunting—its causes and its impacts.

Since that day, I’ve had the honor of working in over 15 protected areas and 1,000 communities across Madagascar. In each of these places, my team and I work collaboratively with local communities to understand, develop, test, and select the most effective ways to save the forests of Madagascar.

Lemur conservation depends on making people’s lives better. Near each of the wild places we work across Madagascar, live communities of people who depend on the forests we work to protect. Many of these communities hunt wild animals to improve the health and nutrition of their families, quite literally, putting “meat on the table” within the world’s fifth least food-secure nation. Unfortunately, many of these species are threatened with extinction, including world’s most threatened animals: lemurs.

Sakondry insects Zanna tenebrosa, known as “bacon bugs” because of their flavor when fried.

Wild insects are an integral, but often limited, part of the diet around the world. When I first encountered the much beloved “bacon bugs” of Madagascar (sakondry Zanna tenebrosa), I was immediately excited. They are a deliciously rich meat (tasting like bacon) in a place where both fat and meat are limited. When I went to look up more information however, I found that no one had studied them—meaning that, while they had a name, we didn’t know what they ate, how long they lived, or even how to tell males and females apart!

We quickly got to work filling the gaps and developing methods to raise them with local communities, and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. Bacon bugs are rich in many limited macro- and micro-nutrients, easy to farm, and extremely popular across Madagascar. They can be cheaply and sustainably raised on common wild and cultivated pole-bean plants within gardens, and within unused or under-used community spaces, providing two sources of food, the bean and the insect meat.

Sakondry feed on pole-bean plants, which are easily cultivated and provide another food source.

Full Forests is working together with Wildlife Madagascar to use bacon bugs to improve the futures of forests and people alike. The first step of this collaborative effort is already underway, conducting an extensive socio-economic survey in communities living adjacent to Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve. This will allow us to better understand the realities these local communities are currently facing and provide us with a baseline with which to measure the effectiveness of Wildlife Madagascar’s community programs in the years to come.

In each of these rural communities, we are working together to set up experimental farms testing >25 plant varietals to identify the most productive, preferred, and climate-resilient beans for bacon bug farming in that region. These plants, once identified, will be central to our future work in the region to improve biodiversity conservation and food security by diversifying forest-food systems, increasing the supply of affordable micronutrients, protein, fats, and calories, and reducing nutritional reliance on the hunting of threatened vertebrates.

Dr. Borgerson and the team are conducting community surveys in villages surrounding lemur habitat.

It’s an exciting project that brings hope to both the people and the wildlife of Madagascar. You can read more about this work (and the incredible bacon bug) in this month’s issue of National Geographic Magazine or watch our feature in BBC’s Our Planet Earth.