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Coming in from the wild October 29th, 2013 by

When I first heard about “bush meat” being served in West African restaurants, I was alarmed that endangered species were being driven to the dinner table. After travelling in West Africa, I see it’s more complicated than that. While I have been served an antelope’s nose in an outdoor restaurant in Ghana, by far the wild animal most likely to be on the plate is the grasscutter (Thryonomys swinderianus), also known as the greater cane rat, a big, pudgy rodent that fills the ecological niche of the rabbit, and actually expands its range with agriculture. The creature lives up to its name and eats grass, as well as tubers, and loves nothing as much as a field of ripening rice. So the grasscutter is among that most off-beat class of crop pests: the vertebrates.

Grasscutters are such pests that extension agents in Sierra Leone once asked me to help them write fact sheets for farmers on how to manage the “cutting grass” (as it is called in Sierra Leone) with fences and by hunting. In parts of Nigeria hunters bag enough grasscutters to offer them for sale, hanging from stalls by the side of the highway, along with the occasional rat. If the carcasses are not sold when they are fresh, the hunter can smoke them into a kind of rodent ham.

In Benin, fewer grasscutters are killed, but are avidly eaten. I once had lunch in a roadside café in Central Benin. A man and two women, all well dressed in sweeping West African garb, lingered over lunch while another man, fresh from the field, tantalized them with his freshly killed cane rat. The trio said barely a word as they eyed the trophy. The hunter stoked its soft fur and gently turned it from one angle to the next. He never stopped talking.

“That guy really has a story to tell about his grasscutter,” I said, not understanding a word.

“He’s trying to sell it, but the people at the table think he wants too much money for it,” said my Beninois friend Florent Okry. Benin is a patchwork of languages, but Florent had done thesis fieldwork near here, and happened to speak the local language.

As we got into the car to drive north, the trio was strapping the grasscutter onto the back of their motorcycle, obviously pleased with it.

A new video called “Feeding grasscutters” explains that hunters have thinned out the creatures just a bit too much in Benin. Pest control has been too successful. So now people are starting to raise the animals in hutches, feeding them cut grass and other plants.

In the video, local farmer Pierre Sessinou looks into the camera and says that he went to Cotonou to become a motorcycle-taxi driver, but he failed, so he came back to his village to make a good living raising grasscutters.

Farmers invariably learn some of the natural history of their pests, especially large ones that are easy to observe. Another farmer in the video, Aguemon Ahoundhode, tells the audience how he noticed that in the field, grasscutters peel manioc tubers before eating them, so Mr. Ahoundhode peals manioc tubers before serving them to his furry livestock.

After a lapse of thousands of years, humans are once again domesticating new animal species. In his book Farmers’ Bounty, Stephen Brush writes that farmers add to the genetic diversity of the crop species they domesticate (2004, Yale University Press). The same is true for animals, and sometimes the wild version continues to run free in its original range.

Guinea pigs were domesticated by ancient Andean peoples, and one of the charms of living in Cochabamba, Bolivia, is that occasionally we still see wild guinea pigs grazing on the lawn, or at the edge of a field, until the startled animals see the humans and dive into the safety of a hole in a stone wall. Wild guinea pigs look a lot like scaled down grasscutters and are smaller, and leaner than pet guinea pigs. The wild one is called k’ita qoy in Quechua (“k’ita” meaning wild and “qoy” meaning guinea pig, probably in imitation of the sound the nervous little animals make). All of the k’ita qoys are all the same grey-deer color of the grasscutter. All of the crazy colors of pet guinea pigs (and the long haired varieties) were selected by human breeders. One wonders what the domestic grasscutter will look like in 1000 years, but for now they are all grey.

Learn about feeding these new domesticates in this video in English Feeding grasscutters

In French Alimentation des aulacodes

And in Fon, a language of southern Benin, http://www.accessagriculture.org/fr/node/938/fon

“Feeding grasscutters” was made by Betty Khoury, Gilbert Démbé, Issiakou Moussa, Justin Lekoto, Josephine Rogers, Marcella Vrolijks and Paul Van Mele. Production was sponsored by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

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