Beetle fights

The mettle of the beetle

Once a favoured form of entertainment, beetle fighting was dying out along with the insects themselves-until a man with many fond childhood memories of the ‘kwang’ returned to his hometown and brought the tradition back to life

Chompoo Trakullertsathien

In an attempt to restore the creature’s place in the Northern region and increase its population, Pairath Disthabamrung set up the Hercules Beetle Club of Thailand with members from seven Northern provinces. His plan is to breed this rare species in captivity and export it to Japan in the future.

Pairath Disthabamrung rises early as he has chores to do. He must clean the miniature wooden plates and vegetables, squeeze sugar-cane, peel bananas to feed the hungry mouths that await him.

During the day, he runs back and forth between his house and Papua Bhuka Resort to provide his charges with all incidentals they may require. When night falls, his duties are far from over-he checks the accommodation and tidies up. Before going to bed, the 61-year-old man softly says good night to all those he cares for.

“In the time I take care of my ‘kids’, I find great and calm happiness. And that makes me more concentrated. It is a special bonus in my life,” said Pairath, while squeezing syrup from sugar-cane. And those he loves so much are some 600 hard-winged insects or kwang-the great fighters of the mountain, or the Hercules beetle as it is widely known by foreigners. Already a father of three children, Pairath has adopted these cute creatures as his kids.

“They’re not naughty. And they live a simple life, just eating and sleeping,” said Pairath, smiling. Over the past decade, Pairath has devoted himself to preserving this rare species as well as breathing new life into the beetle fighting tradition unique to the Northern communities.

His efforts have resulted in a string of achievements. At his initiation, a beetle fighting festival was added to the annual tradition lists of Nan province. And the Hercules Beetle Club of Thailand-the first of its kind-was inaugurated in 1996 with members from seven Northern provinces (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lamphun, Lampang, Phayao, Phrae, and Nan). His next challenge is to breed this species in captivity and then export the insect to Japan where they will be kept as pets.

Various species of kwang, widely known as Hercules beetles: (from left) kwang kam, kwang sang and kwang kor.

Pairath’s passion for this charming insect started in childhood. His early experiences with the insect are still vivid in his mind. “Those days were full of fun and joy. Us kids had to get up very early to catch the insects in the dense forest. They go to feed in the late morning. Though I was frightened of the darkness, I was so happy,” recalled the kwang lover.

Kwang live on different trees-the ton ma ka mong, ton kham, ton rok fah, and ton mai ya rab yak.

“We had to shake the tree to make the kwang fall down to the ground. The louder the thud as it fell, the bigger the insect. We would rush over when we heard them drop and scramble for the biggest ones,” he recalled, reflecting on his childhood antics. Pairath believes this activity fostered positive habits. “We were the early birds. We were kind to the animals. We had to treat the insects with love and care,” he explained.

His fun-filled childhood came to an end when he left his hometown for Bangkok to pursue his higher education. Pairath returned to Nan in 1987 after having completed a degree in law. And the memories of his childhood often returned. “When I came back a decade ago, the kwang population had noticeably decreased. The creature had found its way into the frying pan. What saddened me most was seeing the vendors plucking the beetles’ heads off and throwing their bodies into the pan. The once-abundant creature was now a commodity. It is worth 100 baht a kilogramme.”Pairath’s sadness was aggravated as beetle fighting became a sport that was frowned upon. Teachers forbade their students to play with the insects. And authorities insinuated that beetle fighting was a form of gambling and therefore illegal, but if there is no gambling involved the activity is not prohibited.

“Unbelievably, villagers found to be in possession of the insects would be handed over to the police! The situation shocked me so much. Local entertainment treated as an offence! The authorities have never understood the people’s way of living. They judge everything from their own viewpoints,” lamented Pairath, while feeding a male beetle with syrup.

In an attempt to return the beetle to the scenic mountainous areas as well as to restore the beetle fighting tradition, Pairath started the Hercules Beetle Club of Thailand in 1996. The club has 1,000 members including 15 foreigners.

“The establishment of the Hercules Beetle Club was met with a lot of positive feedback. Like-minded people came to see me and recalled their childhoods when they had beetles as pets. One man from Chiang Rai phoned me and said he was upset because his wife and children criticised him as a childish man who enjoyed playing with beetles. But now, with the support of others who have the same interests, he is a new person, and proud to be a kwang enthusiast,” said Pairath. “Thanks to all kwang lovers who breed the insects, the beetle population is on the increase. Beetle fighting is also a popular tourist attraction,” said Pairath.

Inspired by the mythical figure of Hercules and his heroism, Pairath named the small black insect “Hercules’ Beetle”-a title now widely used by foreign media such as the Japanese news agency NHK, which documented the preservation project of the fighting beetle and its interesting nature.

The club also brought Pairath to a new frontier, and new friends were his reward. “Some Italian and French conservationists came to see me and exchanged their knowledge about the species. I gathered more information about the creature. Those kwang connoisseurs are now members of the Hercules Beetle Club of Thailand and we continue to develop a bond,” he said.

Pairath and other kwang admirers held the first Hercules Beetle Fighting Festival in 1996, in an effort to educate people about the rare breed. The Fifth Hercules Beetle Fighting Festival recently held in Nan province rested on the success of the previous festivals. “The objective of this event is to bring folk entertainment back. The festival is somewhat famous. A myriad of tourists participate in this event annually. It brings fun and joy to all kwang fans,” said Pairath with smiling eyes.

Pairath has many reasons to be proud of what he is doing to return the insect “boxers” to the ring. “While people of other countries train animals of different species to follow their orders, in Thailand we can train this insect to do as we want like turning left and right or moving backward and forward,” said the kwang connoisseur.

According to Pairath, there are kwang in countries all over the world including Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and as far afield as Latin America and Africa. “But none of these countries can train the insect to play some tricks like the Northerners do,” he beamed. The club also gives a certificate to those who play a crucial role in kwang conservation. And so far, there are 80 kwang conservationists across the globe who hold Hercules Beetle Club of Thailand certificates.

According to Pairath, the beetle, the scientific name of which is Xylotrupes gideon, has very distinctive characteristics-the male has a horn with a tip split into two parts.

A tradition of the indigenous Lanna people, beetle fighting regularly takes place from September to November-the three-month reproduction period of the creature. The mating season heralds the fighting games, and “war zones” erupt in the forests. The males battle against each another in order to win the favour of the female. The tug-of-war between the two fighters lasts for a few minutes and ends when one combatant surrenders.

“Like other kinds of insects, when it’s time for reproduction, the males battle against one another to get the females. The strongest wins. Those winners have the right to mate with their favoured females,” said Pairath.

Making note of this fighting drama, the Northern villagers eventually adopted it into their traditions. “People first embraced beetle fighting simply as entertainment. This form of enjoyment also helped maintain harmony among neighbours. Finally what started as recreation was passed down from generation to generation and so became an integral part of local tradition,” he said.

According to Pairath, the best beetles in the fighting arena are the two-horned kwang kam. The top horn, which is on the head, is immobile. The other horn, attached to its mouth, is the active part. “This horn is used for pinching its enemy,” explained Pairath.

Like the sport of boxing, owners of the insects try many ways to train their insect to turn left and right and move forward or backward. They also feed the beetles with syrup from sugar-cane-the syrup is believed to make them stronger.

The matches themselves are fairly elaborate. A one-metre piece of log, called gorn, serves as the fighting arena. A small hole is made to house female beetles-used as a catalyst to make the males fight with each other. Mai pad or pee kwang-the equipment used to urge the beetles to battle-look similar to a chopstick, loosely fitted with a small piece of galvanised iron. When spun, it makes a particular noise which incites the beetles to fight. Materials used to design mai pad are varied-ivory for the professionals, cattle bone for amateurs, and wood for kids.

In the fighting arena, each fighter has its own appealing name like “Black Tiger” or “Flashy Red”. Very often they are named after famous politicians like Chuan (Leekpai) and Taksin (Shinawatra). They come to fight for the title “The Great Fighter of the Mountain”.

“The two insects fight with each other by using their horns as weapons. The beetle that lifts the enemy up by its horn is the winner,” explained Pairath.

Nine fighting regulations are enforced. For example, if one beetle won’t fight, the match is cancelled. If one beetle’s horn is broken during the fight, it is assumed to be the loser. There are also special fighting rules for the losers-the losers mate with the females after the match. They are then set free to live naturally. Considered well-bred beetles, the winners mate with their favoured females and give birth to the next “Great Fighter of the Mountain”.

Though some see beetle fighting as a boon to the Northern people, many view it as a bane. Some consider it a torturous and cruel act. The beetles do not fight till they die but just until tired or exhausted. Pairath’s reaction to criticism is silence. “I keep silent and go ahead. I have done nothing wrong. We, the kwang lovers, are determined in our mission-to save the species and restore our local tradition,” he said.

And now Pairath has gone one step further ahead. He was approached by a Japanese entomologist who is considering the possibility of importing the insect to his country as a pet.

Designed with good ventilation, the kwang’s home is a 2.3-by-four-metre cement tank filled with sand, sawdust, and rice husks, its upper part fabricated with a fine-mesh net. Rotten logs, bananas and vegetables are littered here and there in the tank. Small trees thrive inside to keep the whole area verdant and fresh.

“I am trying to breed the insects in captivity. They need extra care. Birds and lizards are their enemies. I must keep their habitat clean all the time,” Pairath explained.

Caring for some 600 insects brings him much happiness. “It’s like returning to my innocent childhood, playing with and tending to the insects. I’m so happy to see them in good health and not being bitten by lizards or eaten by birds,” he said.

And Pairath would like to share his happiness with others.

“If my project is successful I will hand down all my know-how to other villagers. The breeding project can generate more income for them. And that will bring me real success and happiness.”

Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2000
Last Modified: Wed, Nov 29, 2000

Battle of the beetles a Chiang Mai tradition

Even bugs can lure bettors. Bouts involving rhinoceros beetles liven up rainy September days

September in Chiang Mai means heavy rain and at times gusty winds. It’s also time for newly planted rice fields to flourish while farmers rest and engage in an annual fling with their “winged gladiators” _ rhinoceros beetles.

Thailand is famed for cock fights, bull fights and fish fights, but not many people have seen a beetle fight, which involves a lot of goading and teasing before action begins.

Every September these chestnut-brown insects with black shining heads and bristled legs, converge on the North’s forested hills to mate. The males, with impressive horns on their foreheads, usually outnumber the females.

As with males of most species when women are around, they fight. When they get tangled up they become easy pickings for farmers and hill dwellers who catch them for sale to local enthusiasts.

For fight fans, one of the best places to watch the action is along Chiang Mai’s Charoen Raj Road near Narawat Bridge in the afternoon. Here you will see male beetles tied individually with brightly coloured woollen threads on their horns. These “beetle bridles” are pegged to debarked sugarcane sticks that serve as the insects’ food.

A dozen or more vendors will be selling beetles with accessories such as goads and “arena sticks”. Depending on size and appearance, a prize specimen can fetch 30 to 60 baht.

Acclaimed champs can carry price tags of 200 to 600 baht each. Recently caught beetles are stronger and better fighters; the instinct to fight wanes as the days go by.

When two beetle handlers agree to a showdown, a soft branch is used as the “arena”. This special branch has an indent in the centre, in which a female beetle is wedged. The scent of the female spurs the males to action.

Each beetle-handler has a small wooden goad, which he will roll on the branch to produce a drumming sound that enrages the male.

Once both handlers agree to release their beetles, the insects are brought to close quarters, facing each other with the female in between.

Both males will make a loud buzzing sound as they lock horns, pushing and pulling each other. The horns are powerful pincers that can even sever a beetle’s head.

As they push each other, their bristled claws dig into the branch, scarring it with tiny holes. Most of the action is strictly push-and-pull, but occasionally one beetle will lift another into the air and toss it from the branch to win the bout.

Most of the time, though, the loser simply runs away and the victor claims the female – but just for a short spell before the next fight.

Betting is common, with wagers fixed by silent gestures and nods of the head, since of course gambling is illegal in Thailand.

Before anyone rushes to condemn such bug battles as unseemly, it’s worth noting that rhinoceros beetles are pests. After mating in northern Thailand, they fly south and seek coconut and oil palm trees to lay their eggs. Egg-laden females bore into the trunk near the crown of a tree, and the larvae feed on the soft pulp, sometimes killing the tree.

Thus, the northern farmers who catch these beetles are doing their southern counterparts a favour, preventing the destruction of coconut and oil palm trees that are important economic plants in the South.

The beetles appear from late August to late September after rice planting is over. Beetle-catchers climb lofty heights to snag the insects near the tops of trees. After catching them, they feed the beetles on sugarcane for three days before selling them as “winged gladiators”.

Potential fighters are selected on the basis of strong, long horns, legs and sturdy thorax. They are also judged by the loudness of their buzzing when the goad is rolled on their horns.

The best are tied to debarked sugarcane sticks and wrapped with soft bark from banana trees during transport. Those not selected for careers in the ring are sold as “pets” to children and are transported in wooden boxes.

© The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. All rights reserved 1996
Last Modified: 19/9/1996; 11:06:26 AM