Rise in Smuggling of Insects in India

By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

There is a type of “tourist” who comes to India to steal our treasures. Not the same one who takes away old statues from temples, coins and antiques. This one takes our insects. We have not bothered to acknowledge this theft or plug it. Twenty five seizures have been made since 1995. This is probably less than 1% of the insects going out every day. Insect species are of great ecological value in the Indian ecosystem. Unfortunately, no one in the government or academe is studying the population trends of insects. Everyone is concentrating on pests and pest management. Insect stealing is not done by a few people. It is large gangs from a few countries that descend on us, go into the mountains or tribal areas and pay local people a pittance to collect live insects, which are then skewered or drugged and taken out in suitcases, checked into the airlines as private luggage or sent to themselves through parcels and international couriers.

One insect in severe danger is the stag beetle. India is home to the Giraffe Stag-Beetle (Prosopocoilus giraffa) the world’s largest saw-tooth stag beetle with long and sharp jaws. Stag Beetles are good for the environment. They eat rotting wood, returning important minerals to the soil, but don’t eat living plants. Male Stag Beetles have large jaws that look like the antlers of a deer, hence the name. These are used in courtship displays and to wrestle other male beetles. They spend most of their life underground as larvae, only emerging for a few weeks to find a mate and reproduce. Stag beetles and their larvae are quite harmless. They are among the rarer beetles – and now even rarer because of the Japanese. Till now the Japanese have been known for their single minded destruction of whales. Now they have emerged as the single source for the world’s destruction of beetles, especially stag beetles.

The “beetle mania” in Japan has led to a multi-million dollar industry that revolves around the import of exotic beetle species. This mania originated with a hit arcade game by Sega called Mushi (insect) King, in which players collect cards of virtual stag beetles as ?ghters in tournaments. From card and virtual beetles, the passion led to collecting real insects as pets or for staging fights for gamblers or dead ones as collections. The Japanese started interbreeding their own beetles and producing different shapes. However it didn’t take long for the Japanese public to be bored with their own native species and by the 1990s people were illegally importing over 700 species. Trade in stag beetles has reached $100 million annually. And an entirely new mafia of insect traders was born that reached its hands all over Australasia to bring in millions of insects. Japan has 1200 species of beetles in its shops – only 35 are Japanese.

Japan has made beetle smuggling easy. Pandering to the craze for these insects, the Japanese government revised the law in 1999 and legalized the import of foreign beetle species. 34 foreign species were legalized in 1999 – and 505 species in 2003. Today, buying foreign stag and rhinoceros beetles is as easy as buying groceries, because beetle shops are common – even being sold through vending machines. Stag beetles can be purchased at pet stores, department stores and shops that specialize in beetles. Credit card holders can order them through the Internet. Most pet shop beetles sell for five dollars. High-priced ones go of as much as $2,500. The bigger, the more valuable.
The countries that are losing their beetles to Japan are Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, China, South America, France, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Australia. There are group tours organised to the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia whose sole purpose is to collect stag beetles. The Japanese tourists that we make fun of because of their obsession with photography, may not be as harmless as we think. This could be simply a cover for picking up creatures that we are not selling.

Big beetles cost more, the most attractive being the larger Lucanidae species. The prices of these dead insects rival those of major artwork or antiques, so very strenuous efforts are made to collect them, regardless of the ecological cost. In 2001 Japan imported 680,000 stag and rhinoceros beetles. This has now gone to over a million annually and the market sells more than $100 million worth. Export of beetles is formally banned in most countries. Dorcas antaeus beetles are absolutely prohibited in Bhutan , India and Nepal, but since Japan allows their import, smuggled specimens from these countries command much higher prices.

In 2001, two Japanese were arrested at Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport for attempting to smuggle 542 stag beetles out of the country. In 2000, forest rangers in southern Nepal caught a Japanese Web designer and his two Nepalese guides bagging stag beetles. This did not deter another set of ‘wildlife entrepreneurs’ from collecting over 200 specimens of 6 species in 2002, which were also confiscated. Violations involving stag beetles have also been reported in Taiwan. Bhutan has also apprehended Japanese tourists who had collected a large number of stag beetles from Mongar dzongkhag. The insects were later released back in the forest.

In September 2000 a complaint was filed, against a local tourism company who brought in insect collecting tourists, by the Ministry of Agriculture. Australian customs arrested two Japanese trying to smuggle 1,300 native beetles out of Australia’s Lord Howe Island. More and more large beetles from the jungles of Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Nepal and India are being taken. More than 500 different species of stag beetles, a third of the world’s known species, have been imported to Japan from Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia. A group trying to leave Turkey by car was apprehended with thousands of bugs hidden in boxes and tubes. Biology professors who examined the cache identified 6,014 bugs from 48 different species, including ladybugs, cockroaches, and various types of stag beetles, grasshoppers, flies, and bees from the Black Sea region and the northern part of Central Anatolia. The haul was worth $300,000.

The Eastern Himalayas and Western Ghats of India are prime hunting grounds for smugglers of rare Rhinoceros, Longhorned and Jewel beetles. The trade has increased in recent years and Japanese have been caught in West Bengal with beetles. Hundreds more have escaped the lax and inefficient – and illiterate- net of the wildlife department. Thanks to the inadequate law enforcement, our insects, particularly beetles and butterflies, are being sold all over the internet. Two Czechs were caught recently bringing out rare beetles and butterflies from Singalila National Park. These were to go to Japanese collectors through their website. Many foreigners pose as scientists to get admission into the parks.

According to ecologists, lack of awareness is at the heart of the problem why insect smuggling is allowed to continue unchecked. Insects are crucial to forests’ survival: The population of frugivorous and insect-eating birds and bats dwindle when large insects begin to disappear, as do those of forest creatures like small carnivores and rodents, who depend on insect larvae for food. Beetle collectors do a great deal of damage to the environment – tree barks are stripped, old logs are rolled over, moss is uprooted – many other insects and birds lose their lives. Forests dwindle. Local populations of insects disappear and all the life dependent on them.

India is seen as an easy target. While rangers are ignorant and easily bribed, police do not see insect smuggling as an important crime. Smugglers know that customs and airline authorities, who scan baggage at ports of exit, ignore bags stuffed with insects and butterflies. Japanese beetles face extinction as they have been hunted down all over the islands and are cross bred with non-native stag beetle species from Southeast Asia. So the craze for non native species will only increase.

Is it not time for India to start training its enforcement authorities on insect smuggling?


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