Mon, Dec 01, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Tarantulas become crawling cash crop in Nicaragua drought

AFP, MANAGUA

An employee handles Costa Rican Tiger Rump tarantulas, Cyclosternum fasciatum, at the Exotic Fauna Store in Managua, Nicaragua, on Monday last week.

Photo: AFP

His corn and bean fields ravaged by drought, Nicaraguan farmer Leonel Sanchez Hernandez grudgingly found a new harvest: tarantulas.

He gets a little more than US$1 for each of the hairy critters, which breeders sell overseas as pets.

His take might not seem like much, but in Nicaragua, US$1 buys a kilogram of rice or a liter of milk, and in just two weeks, Sanchez Hernandez, his aunt Sonia and cousin Juan caught more than 400 of the spiders.

The hunt is playing out in northern Nicaragua, which experienced a severe drought from May to September. Sanchez Hernandez’s fields were a total loss.

The 27-year-old was skittish at first about poking around in underground nests, under rocks and in tree trunks in search of the feisty arachnids.

However, he donned thick gloves and mustered up the courage, because the alternative was to see his family go hungry.

“It is the first time we have gone out to look for tarantulas. We were a bit afraid, but we sucked it up and did it because of the drought,” he told reporters.

Sanchez Hernandez has a wife and four kids to feed. His aunt is not well off, either, as a single mother of five children who was also hit hard by the drought.

Their prizes secured, the pair traveled more than 100km to the outskirts of the capital, Managua.

There, they handed the tarantulas over to Exotic Fauna, a firm that started this month to breed the spiders for export. With approval from the Nicaraguan Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, the company is hard at work, setting up glass cases with sawdust beds as part of a project to breed 7,000 tarantulas.

“We plan to sell them at a price even higher than that of boas,” which go for up to US$8 each, Exotic Fauna owner Eduardo Lacayo said.

Lacayo has invested more than US$6,000 in the business. He got the money from selling turtles.

Tarantulas are carnivores that eat crickets, worms and newborn mice that breeders drop in their tanks — one tarantula per tank, so they do not fight and injure or kill each other.

“It is easier to handle a boa than a spider,” Lacayo said.

Tarantulas are territorial and when they feel threatened, they bite and secrete venom that can cause allergies and pain, he said.

The spiders abound in tropical and arid parts of Central America. Despite their widespread presence, lots of people remain afraid of them.

Females lay about 1,000 eggs when they give birth. The spiderlings are born in sacs that the mother places in a web. Of that clutch, anywhere from 300 to 700 typically hatch.

“We have customers who have confirmed that they want this kind of species,” Lacayo said, referring to clients in China and the US.

Trade in tarantulas, which can live many years in captivity, is one of the ways Nicaragua is trying to diversify its exports by taking advantage of its rich biodiversity. The nation is the second-poorest in the Americas, after Haiti.

The first to get the bug was Ramon Mendieta, owner of an exotic animal farm in Carazo, south of the capital. He sells about 10,000 tarantulas a year to clients in the US and Europe.

Mendieta, who has been at it for three years, says profit margins are thin because production costs are high. These costs include special care that the tarantulas need to protect them from parasites while in captivity.

However, there is competition out there. Chile sells a species of tarantula that is less ornery than the Nicaraguan ones. Colombia and the US are also market players.

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