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Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Sunday, 12 April 2009 13:09 UK

Venezuela's giant rodent cuisine

By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas

Capybara
The official hunting season is in the weeks before Easter

While in many countries the Easter dish may be lamb, in Venezuela a traditional delicacy around this time of the year is the capybara, the world's biggest rodent.

The capybara is a distant cousin to the common guinea pig but bigger and river-based like a beaver.

Many Venezuelans regard the semi-aquatic creature as more fish than meat - a useful description during Lent when it is eaten as a replacement for red meat in this largely Roman Catholic country.

High demand in the run-up to Easter, combined with widespread poaching and illegal hunting, means the "chiguire", as it is called in Venezuela, is now under threat in some parts of the country.

"It's not on the endangered species list yet," says Deborah Bigio of Fudena, an environmental NGO.

"But there are a number of factors putting pressure on its numbers," she says, first and foremost illegal hunting in the run-up to Easter.

"The main issue, here in Venezuela at least, is that this meat is being harvested especially in the days leading up to Holy Week... People don't eat beef during these days and so that's the main market which is pushing the demand for chiguire."

Some of the people involved in supplying that demand are Ricardo and his wife. They run a fishmongers in the Pinto Salinas market in Calabozo, a hot, sleepy town in the rural state of Guarico, some 300km (186 miles) from Caracas.

Ricardo has a steady supply of chiguire meat to sell to his eager customers. Like most chiguire vendors in Venezuela, Ricardo sells meat supplied by poachers. But he is well aware of the risks involved.

"We sell chiguires here in Guarico but it's contraband," he tells me, while producing examples of the dry, grey meat from a bag hidden under the counter.

"It's a species at risk so you can't sell it too publicly. The national guard could put me in jail."

Indigenous roots

Working in the illegal trade worries Ricardo's wife, but she says they have little choice.

"I do feel uncomfortable selling chiguire meat," she says "but I have to do it as I don't have any other work or source of income. We try to buy just a little so we can make a profit. But we've no choice - it's our livelihood."

CAPYBARA FACTS
Chiguires
Scientific name: Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris
Can grow to 130cm long (more than four feet)
Can weigh up to 45 kg (100lb)
Eats grasses and aquatic plants
Able to remain under water for up to five minutes

Her customers, however, were less reticent about their taste for the salted rodent.

"Of course I eat chiguire!" one man in his 70s said, "Who doesn't?"

"Have you never had a chiguire arepa (a typical regional dish)?" one woman asked me. "It's delicious, and part of our heritage, our indigenous roots."

Out in the llanos - the rolling plains of Venezuela which surround Calabozo - illegal hunting of capybara is widespread.

According to Deborah Bigio, it shows little sign of slowing down in the wake of tighter government laws on hunting. In Venezuela you need a special permit to hunt either for sport or for commercial purposes during the season which essentially falls in the month before Easter.

But she says a lot of people cannot be bothered to take the time to apply for the permit and prefer to take their chances that the authorities have more important things to worry about than prosecuting small-scale capybara poachers.

"There is a clearly defined hunting season for chiguires here. But the problem is that in order to enforce the controls you need a lot of people, a lot of staff and a lot of education to explain to people why they cannot go around any time of the year just killing chiguires at will."

Amazonian twist

There is also a new area which is creating further demand for chiguire meat: haute cuisine.

Chef Nelson Mendez
Why do we need to import expensive beef and lamb when capybaras make a perfect replacement?
Chef Nelson Mendez

In the centre of Caracas, the Biarritz Bistro is a trendy, sophisticated restaurant that would not look out of place in London or New York. But the menu has an Amazonian twist. Today's special is chiguire in a roquefort sauce.

The head chef at Biarritz is Nelson Mendez, a Venezuelan who is proud of his indigenous roots.

In his kitchen, Nelson tells me that there is a world of difference between the dried and salted illegal meat I saw on sale in Calabozo and the succulent, pink chiguire steaks and cutlets he was preparing for the lunchtime rush.

"You can see here the environment ministry's green tag on the meat," he says, holding up a hind leg of the animal with the government's sustainable-harvest mark on the back.

"That means that this is an adult chiguire of a certain size, which falls within the 20% earmarked for harvest every year. That's how chiguire should be bred and produced in this country."

Emblematic species

Nelson is sure that chiguires could be a viable and indigenous source of protein. He sees a comparison with the farm-reared production of other exotic meats elsewhere in the world, such as ostrich, emu or kangaroo.

"Why do we need to import expensive beef and lamb, when capybaras make a perfect replacement? We just need to follow the rules on sustainable farming and hunting more closely," he says.

"So far, the authorities place all the emphasis on punishing people for illegal hunting, whereas really they should concentrate on educating people on how they could do things better."

Deborah Bigio shares this view.

"Our main issue here in Venezuela is to promote more sustainable harvesting programmes around the country or even begin to raise chiguires, as they do in other countries, for example, Argentina," she says.

"It's a rodent, so it has a high reproduction rate. It's not on the brink of extinction by any means, but illegal hunting means we don't know what its numbers are anymore.

"This is a very important species for us, it's an emblematic species - especially in Los Llanos region. It's important to the ecosystem too. As a country, we need to make sure we know how to protect our national wildlife."



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