Leap in de­mand

Frog farm­ing is a risky busi­ness but the re­wards are there for those who per­se­vere.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - Sto­ries by ABBY LU star2@thes­tar.com.my

Din­ers’ in­sa­tiable ap­petite for frog meat has fanned a lu­cra­tive global trade that stretches from China to Chile. Just how vi­able is frog farm­ing in Malaysia?

IT WAS the strangest place to hear the wail of a cat in heat: a former pig farm with still-in­tact con­crete pens con­tain­ing hundreds upon hundreds of hopping frogs. And these are bull­frogs, to be pre­cise. As its name sug­gests, they croak like a bull, not meow like a cat. Just what is go­ing on? The owner of the 1,018sqm bull­frog farm, who wants to be known as just Pang, grins know­ingly. “That is the call of a sick frog – it is cry­ing out in pain,” he says. Amaz­ingly, of the dozens of pens filled with thou­sands of four-legged am­phib­ians, Pang was able to sin­gle out the frog that was caus­ing the ruckus.

His knowl­edge is un­der­stand­able. Pang has been farm­ing frogs for more than 10 years in Sepang, Se­lan­gor, fol­low­ing the Ni­pah virus out­break in 1999. Like other pig farm­ers in the af­fected ar­eas, Pang saw his en­tire live­stock – and liveli­hood – be­ing de­stroyed in a sin­gle stroke.

Sub­se­quently, the de­cree that there was to be no more pig farm­ing within an 8km ra­dius of the af­fected ar­eas was made. Pang had no choice but to look for a vi­able al­ter­na­tive.

Dr C.K. Lim, a res­i­dent of nearby Sun­gai Pelek, says that many pig farm­ers, un­sure of what to do with their land and ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture, ven­tured into new en­treprises. “Some con­verted the (pig) pens into tanks to rear fresh­wa­ter fishes, while oth­ers tried crab farm­ing. Most of them failed,” says Lim.

A vet­eri­nar­ian by train­ing, Lim was spurred to do some re­search on his own. “I felt for the farm­ers who have lost their liveli­hood and looked into the things they could do to re­place the loss of in­come,” says Lim.

He found that bull­frog farm­ing was a vi­able al­ter­na­tive and in­tro­duced it to a num­ber of pig farm­ers – and that was how an agri­cul­tural dis­as­ter be­came a cat­a­lyst for the bull­frog farm­ing in­dus­try in Malaysia.

How­ever, frog farm­ing is noth­ing new. “Peo­ple have been try­ing to farm them since the 1950s but met with lit­tle suc­cess,” re­veals Lim. “Frogs live in the wild. They don’t sur­vive or breed well in cap­tiv­ity. They have to be fed live in­sects and fresh cock­les; some­times it is nec­es­sary to ag­i­tate the water to make them be­lieve the cock­les are alive!” he re­calls.

It was only af­ter years of se­lec­tive breed­ing that the Amer­i­can bull­frogs reared by the Tai­wanese started ac­cept­ing pel­lets as food. This makes the Amer­i­can bull­frog the am­phib­ian of choice at many frog farms, not only in Malaysia, but in China, Brazil and Thai­land.

Back in the 1970s when Lim was a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Not­ting­ham in Eng­land, a pair of breed­ers sold for 500 Malaysian dol­lars then. Now the mar­ket price is cheaper at RM11 per kg. “Most peo­ple will start off with, say, 10 male and 50 fe­male frogs,” says Lim. A breeder is a frog that weighs be­tween 300g and 500g. In Malaysia, it takes four to seven months for bull­frogs to reach that size. In Tai­wan, it may take up to 14 months as they hi­ber­nate dur­ing win­ter. “This makes our weather very con­ducive for frog rear­ing,” says Lim.

Nev­er­the­less, frog farm­ing is hard work and many bull­frog farms have since ceased op­er­a­tions. For start-start- ers, even species which have been iden­ti­fied as rel­a­tively do­mes­tic take time to set­tle in. Lim de­scribes frogs as “ex­tremely ner­vous crea­tures” – they are fright­ened eas­ily.

At Pang’s farm, for ex­am­ple, sev­eral scare­crows hang atop the frog en­clo­sures to scare away king­fish­ers that may swoop in for a quick snack or two. How­ever, Pang says that be­ing eaten by the bird is not too bad – at max­i­mum, they eat a cou­ple. “More deaths will come from them crush­ing each other!” he ex­claims.

When fright­ened, the frogs will hop on top of one an­other, form­ing a lit­tle am­phib­ian hill. The ones at the bot­tom of the pile are crushed or suf­fo­cated, while oth­ers be­come sick from the stress.

Pang, who earns about RM3,000 a month, was once hit by a six-month lull dur­ing which he had noth­ing to sell.

These mas­sive losses have made frog farm­ers ex­tremely su­per­sti­tious and wary. When con­tacted, many of them re­fused a visit. A sup­plier who wishes to be known as Ah Keong says that these frogs “can­not stand the sight of peo­ple” and that out­siders may be car­ri­ers of un­wanted dis­eases.

It wasn’t al­ways that way. Thomas Koh from Jo­hor, for ex­am­ple, started out on a pos­i­tive note. In 1999, Koh headed over to Tai­wan to learn the ropes of the trade. He sub­se­quently built a frog farm with

200 con­crete ponds stretch­ing over a hectare. Ten years ago, those ponds cost about RM1,000 each.

How­ever, af­ter be­ing in the busi­ness for six years, he de­cided to call it a day even though he says the mar­ket is not bad. “Sin­ga­pore alone re­quires about 200 tonnes per month,” Koh says. Still, the fre­quent out­break of dis­eases be­came too much to bear.

“Amer­i­can bull­frogs thrive in tem­per­a­tures be­low 30°C. Our weather can get too hot some­times and be­cause they live in the water, dis­eases spread very quickly,” he says.

Sim­i­lar prob­lems have been ob­served in many South-East Asian coun­tries. In In­done­sia, com­mer­cial farm­ing of na­tive frogs has failed. Bull­frog farm­ing, which was ini­tially en­cour­aged by the Govern­ment in 1982, has seen lit­tle suc­cess.

The Chi­nese, Thais and Viet­namese are not the only ones who love frog meat. Greek and Ro­man culi­nary tra­di­tions have long con­sid­ered frogs a del­i­cacy.

In sev­eral Latin Amer­i­can, Asian and African coun­tries, frogs are con­sid­ered an im­por­tant source of pro­tein.

The French, who con­sider them­selves pur­vey­ors of haute cui­sine, have long held frogs’ legs ( cuisses de grenouilles) in high es­teem and have been heartily tuck­ing in, for at least 1,000 years.

So much so that by the late 1970s, frog numbers be­came so dan­ger­ously low that the au­thor­i­ties took mea­sures to shore up the pop­u­la­tion. In 1980, com­mer­cial frog har­vest­ing was banned. Ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle in The Guardian by Jon Hen­ley, poach­ers can be fined up to €10,000 (RM42,000) and have their ve­hi­cles and equip­ment con­fis­cated.

How­ever, this lack of lo­cal sup­ply does not mean that frog legs have leapt off the menu. Ev­ery year, an es­ti­mated 4,000 tonnes of frog legs still find their way to the din­ing ta­ble, thanks to imports from Asia. This makes France one of the largest mar­kets for frog legs.

High de­mands from other Euro­pean Union coun­tries such as Bel­gium, Italy and the Nether­lands, have made the EU the largest im­porter of frog legs in the world.

Ac­cord­ing to Canapés To Ex­tinc­tion: The In­ter­na­tional Trade In Frogs’ Legs And Its Eco­log­i­cal Im­pact, a re­port com­mis­sioned by three wildlife con­ser­va­tion bod­ies, the EU im­ported a to­tal of 46,400 tonnes of frog legs, mainly from Asia, be­tween 2000 and 2009. This num­ber may rep­re­sent about 928 mil­lion to 2.3 bil­lion frogs.

Close on the heels of the EU comes Amer­ica. In the last decade, the United States im­ported a to­tal of 43,137 tonnes of frogs and frog parts.

Frogs are pop­u­lar amongst peo­ple liv­ing in the former French colony of Louisiana as well as the south­ern states of Texas and Arkansas. Mem­bers of the Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties love it, too. Even US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has been pho­tographed munch­ing on frog legs.

Like France, the frog pop­u­la­tion in the United States has been de­pleted; de­mand is met by sourc­ing from other coun­tries.

Iron­i­cally, it is a home­com­ing of sorts be­cause the bulk of the frogs that they buy com­prises the Amer­i­can bull­frog. Most of these frogs come from the top ex­port­ing coun­tries of In­done­sia, Viet­nam, Tai­wan and China.

In Malaysia, sev­eral sources put our lo­cal pro­duc­tion at 40 to 80 tonnes a month.

Al­most all the frogs that are pro­duced lo­cally are ab­sorbed by the lo­cal mar­ket and a small amount is ex­ported to Sin­ga­pore.

Apart from that, there are also in­di­ca­tions that there is a short­age in the lo­cal mar­ket. For ex­am­ple, farm­ers are no longer re­quired to sell their frogs ac­cord­ing to grades.

“There used to be Grade A and B frogs, but due to the short­age, this grad­ing is no longer ob­served,” adds Pang.

Ray­mond Ooi/The Star

Cho­sen one:

Fe­male amer­i­can bull­frogs are dull green in colour. this one has been se­lected as a breeder. but ex­perts say that frog farm­ing is no panacea for the de­plet­ing frog pop­u­la­tion in the wild.

Former pig pens which have been con­verted into frog ponds. a scarecrow hangs atop the ponds to dis­cour­age birds from swoop­ing in and lit­er­ally scar­ing the frogs to death.

Frogs are eas­ily fright­ened and will hop on one an­other to form a pyra­mid, of­ten killing those at the bot­tom.

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