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