China's hunger for sea cucumbers reaches islands of Sierra Leone

Fri May 2, 2014 3:19am EDT
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By Tommy Trenchard

DUBLIN Sierra Leone (Reuters) - As evening falls over Sierra Leone's Banana Island archipelago, bats stream from their beachside roosts to circle in their thousands over the jungle village of Dublin.

    Below them a struggle is playing out over an unexpected commodity - the lowly sea cucumber, a fleshy, sausage-shaped creature that scavenges for food on the seabed.

    It is a struggle that is familiar to many in the West African country.

Sierra Leone's resources - diamonds, gold, fish and more recently iron ore - have been extracted and exported in great quantities throughout its history, yet the country remains one of the poorest in the world.

While the Banana Islanders have no use for sea cucumbers, in China they are prized for their medicinal properties and as a natural aphrodisiac.

Growing demand - currently estimated at around 10,000 tonnes per year – has depleted stocks around the world, leading traders to search ever further afield for new harvesting grounds.

Locals say when the first Chinese traders arrived in Sierra Leone four years ago to harvest the island’s little known, red-spined variety of Stichopus sea cucumbers, they called themselves investors.

    When prices skyrocketed, the islanders hoped the windfall would both make them wealthy and bring development to the village.   Continued...

Sea cucumbers are seen at the biggest seafood market in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Alex Lee