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Frogs leap from Indonesian swamps to tabletops in France
by Staff Writers
Bogor, Indonesia (AFP) March 3, 2013

German villagers bury 'Big Bad Wolf' fears
Rietschen, Germany (AFP) March 01, 2013 - Thirteen years after wolves returned to an east German village, its residents have not only overcome age-old fears to live peacefully alongside the predator but even come to enjoy the benefits of its presence.

Nestled in the forested Saxony countryside in the land that bore the storytelling Brothers Grimm, Rietschen boasts a human population of just 3,700 but also the vast majority of the wolves registered in Germany.

"Rietschen has lived with the wolf longer than anywhere else in Germany. Its presence here has now become normal," said Vanessa Ludwig, a biologist at the region's official wolf information office that monitors the animal.

With its vast pine forests and lakes, rich fauna, deer and boar as well as a huge military training site, the Lausitz region, about 200 kilometres (124 miles) south of Berlin, drew the grey wolf back.

Undeterred by the noise of diggers at nearby coal mines or military shots, 13 of the 19 packs -- classed as a pair of wolves having had at least one cub -- or wolf pairs currently registered in Germany live in this region.

But it wasn't always the case.

All but extinct in Germany in the mid-19th century, the fortunes of the wolf changed when it became one of the species protected under the 1979 Bern Convention, which Germany and most of Europe has ratified.

Nowadays, Europe has nine wolf population zones, including in Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, Poland, Romania, east and southeastern France, Italy and the Iberian Peninsula.

When, however, in 2000, images of a pair together with their cub crossing into Germany from Poland were shown on television, fears harking back to the image of the fairytale figure, the Big Bad Wolf, were aroused.

"Everyone has heard the story of 'Little Red Riding Hood' and the Big Bad Wolf. It stays with you," Jana Endel, a ranger from the information office, said, recalling heated community meetings about the wolf's return.

"People feared they would reproduce," she said, adding most were unaware that the animal leaves its parents between the ages of one and two to go in search of its own territory elsewhere.

"We had quite simply forgotten how to live with the wolf," she commented.

To allay fears, the information office and their counterparts from the LUPUS observatory of wild fauna organised hundreds of meetings to pass on information.

-- 'Wolf Town' --

Today locals are aware that wolves pose no danger to humans -- no one in Rietschen has been attacked by one of the animals in 13 years.

Sheep and goats have on the other hand fallen prey, with around 50 attacked in the region in 2012.

But, paradoxically, a farmer who lost 33 animals in two attacks in 2002 helped calm the waters by passing on his expert knowledge and experience in security matters to others, Endel said.

Farmers also benefit from subsidies to erect electric fences.

Having come to be known as "Wolf Town", Rietschen has reaped the benefits of its association with the animal too, using it as a marketing tool to attract tourists who track wolves on foot or by bicycle.

"The wolf has brought us more than it has damaged us," mayor Ralf Brehmer said.

Nevertheless, even if the wolf is no longer the main talking point among villagers, it still has opponents. "Some hunters complain that they eat their game," he added.

And some desire their pelts to the extent of killing the animals for them, with three such cases reported in the region since 2000 where the perpetrators have not been tracked down.

The Indonesian frog vendor closes her eyes, asks Allah for his blessing, and with one swift strike of a cleaver, beheads the trembling creature.

Though diners in white table-clothed French brasseries may not know it, their frogs legs most likely come from the murky swamps of tropical Indonesia, caught by hunters in the dead of the night to be slaughtered and sold at local markets.

As mechanically as a factory worker, Sri Mulyani rips off the frog's skin, pulls out its innards with her bare hands and flings the amphibian onto a mountain of others that have suffered the same fate.

"If I feel disgusted and sick of frogs, I just think about the money," the smiling 41-year-old told AFP at an early-morning market in Bogor, on the outskirts of the capital Jakarta.

Mulyani and her frog-hunter husband, Suwanto, 48, make up to 500,000 rupiah ($52) a day -- well above the local minimum wage of around $200 a month -- chasing and selling frogs to restaurants or middlemen for export.

Devoured for their fleshy chicken-like taste, frogs legs are a known delicacy in France, Belgium and Luxembourg, but are also prized in Indonesia and China.

Indonesia has become the world's biggest exporter of frogs, providing more than 80 percent of Europe's imports, almost all caught in the wild by village-style frog hunters like Suwanto.

But conservationists are concerned the lucrative trade may see the end to certain frog populations that help keep ecosystems healthy by preying on pests. Their tadpoles also help stabilise aquatic environments.

Much of the demand comes from France, where an estimated 80 million frogs are consumed every year. France was forced to place a ban on commercial frog hunting and farming in 1980.

The trade moved mostly to India and Bangladesh, but those countries too banned exports in the late 1980s as their frog populations drastically depleted.

"We fear that over the years the frog population, at least the large body of frogs in Indonesia, will collapse," said Sandra Altherr from German group Pro Wildlife, which co-authored a report on the frog trade last year.

"History has given us a lesson and we should learn from it."

-- "Free-range frogs" --

But for Suwanto the work is too lucrative to give up, and frog hunting, he said, is in his blood.

"I've been hunting frogs since 1992, and my father before me was frog hunter," Suwanto said, adding he was unsure if the tradition would continue in his family as he only had daughters, explaining frog hunting was men's business.

From behind his home, Suwanto and a group of fellow frog hunters set off into the darkness each night at 8pm, tip-toeing through the the rice paddies and streams.

The men often hunt into the early hours of the morning, with no talking in case the noise scares the slippery creatures away.

Their modus operandi looks simple -- barefoot and armed with small handlamps, they use nets attached to long wooden poles to scoop up the frogs they find in the muck of the fields and riverbanks.

But beyond their basic tools, the frog hunters seem to have a sixth sense for the amphibians, gathering dozens in just minutes from what would otherwise be an indistinguishable patch of dark swamp.

The men catch 50 to 70 kilograms (110 to 150 pounds) of Asian brackish (a crab-eating frog) and giant Javan frogs each night, much of which will feed the domestic market, estimated to be two to seven times the export volume.

While the thought of eating frogs from the unregulated Indonesian wild may make some shudder, Chinese-Indonesian Ferdian Zhang, 37, wouldn't have it any other way, buying all his frogs legs from Mulyani for his Bogor restaurant.

"They're free-range frogs, caught in the wild like free-range chickens. You just can't compare the taste," he said.

The local market is dominated by the Chinese-Indonesian minority, as many in the Muslim majority believe eating frogs legs is "haram" (forbidden).

Altherr's conservation group hopes to draw attention the issue at this month's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in Bangkok, aiming to get several frog species on a protected list.

But Sri Mulyani has faith the frog population will continue to flourish.

"God will protect us and be fair to us, and make sure there are always frogs," she said.

That is of course, if she stops kissing the creatures, as she did on a recent delivery to Zhang's restaurant.

"Sri Mulyani kissed a frog and it turned into her husband!" Zhang said, laughing. "Suwanto is the frog prince."


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