By Jori Lewis
The cane rat is not your average subway rat. It can grow almost two feet long and weigh 20 pounds.
That’s about the size of a healthy cat or a small dog.
In parts of West and Central Africa, cane rat meat is considered a delicacy. People have traditionally hunted the animals in the wild, but in Cameroon there are efforts underway to domesticate them.
At Madame Peyo’s cane rat farm on the outskirts of Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, the rats live in concrete cages where they gnaw on big stalks of grass. The place looks less like an idyllic farm than an animal prison cellblock.
Madame Peyo said in the past decade her farm has grown from just a few cane rats to about one thousand.
“At the beginning, for about six years, I just did it with my children,” she said. “When the farm became bigger, I had to get workers.”
She has five workers on her farm now. It is one of the largest in the country.
Madame Peyo is the president of an association of cane rat farmers from across Cameroon.
She said that people who raise the rats can make a living doing it.
The Cameroonian government started promoting cane rat husbandry about a decade ago.
Alfred Bela, who coordinates the unconventional livestock project, said that historically Cameroonians did not depend on chicken or beef for their protein. They ate wild animals like duiker, bush pig, monkey, and cane rat.
He said the government’s program aims to reduce Cameroon’s reliance on livestock that originated elsewhere. “We can develop livestock from our own animals,” he said.
Cameroon suffers from excessive illegal hunting of wild animals, so the government wanted to help people raise wild game instead of killing it in the bush.
Cane rats seemed like a good choice for farming because the animal is renowned for its tasty meat — succulent and sweet — and because farmers from other countries like Benin and Ghana had been raising cane rats in captivity since the 1970s.
Cameroon’s government isn’t alone in promoting cane rat husbandry. The livestock charity Heifer International is also enthusiastic about the idea.
“It’s something unique that if it would be fully developed — like we have developed sheep, goats and cattle — it holds a high promise,” said Henry Njakoi, Heifer International’s country director in Cameroon.
Njakoi said he dreams that someday Cameroonian farmers will be able to export cane rat meat throughout Africa and beyond.
But that dream has been dealt some setbacks.
I visited a farm in the northwest region that was started a few years ago by retired lawyer Luke Sendze. On the day I arrived, a dead cane rat sat outside the door.
“Unfortunately you are coming to the farm after we had an actual disaster,” he told me. “We lost about 78 [cane rats].”
That was almost half the rats on his farm. They had died over the course of just two months.
Sendze suspected that his animals had been poisoned by pesticides in the corn or grass he had fed them.
Across Cameroon farmers have reported similar problems — and more. Some animals have died. Others have developed fertility troubles.
Simon Killanga, a cane rat husbandry pioneer who runs a demonstration farm at the Institute of Agricultural Research and Development in Yaoundé, attributed many of these problems to inbreeding.
Killanga said that Cameroon began its husbandry program with just handful of animals imported from Gabon and Benin, which resulted in a shallow genetic pool.
“The negative effect of inbreeding is that the species gets more and more weak,” Killanga said.
To strengthen the species, Killanga wants to increase the diversity of the breeding stock by introducing wild cane rats.
He said there is a lot more work to be done to understand the diseases of cane rats and their nutritional needs, and that could take a while.
Other common livestock — like cows, sheep and pigs — were domesticated thousands of years ago.
The domestication of the cane rat, Killanga pointed out, has just begun.
Jori Lewis traveled to Cameroon with support from the International Reporting Project.
Stewed Cane Rat
(from Bert Christensen’s Weird & Different Recipes)
Skin and eviscerate the rat and split it lengthwise. Fry until brown in a mixture of butter and peanut oil. Cover with water, add tomatoes or tomato purée, hot red peppers, and salt. Simmer the rat until tender and serve with rice.
Rats in the Mood
Place a dozen smoked rats (the small field-rat type) in fresh water and soak for 30 minutes. Prepare a sauce of tomato, onion, piment and palm oil in a large skillet. Drain the rats and remove skin and other inedible portions. (?) Fry for about 20 minutes, turning occasionally until well-cooked. A true connoisseur eats them piping hot, bone and all!!!
Serving tips: Usually offered as an hors-d’ouvre, they also are delightful arranged on a platter of carrots, lettuce, and cauliflower. Or just slide them on a hot dog bun.