The butterfly effect

The butterfly effect

ENTOMOLOGY: Taking the Kingdom’s insects from their natural habitats might not seem so important. But it could have chaotic consequences. Experts warn it puts the country’s rich biodiversity at risk and may have other influences we have yet to understand

The Kaiser butterfly(Teinopalpusimperialis)has earned the nickname “motorbike insect” among villagers living in the area of Doi Pa Hom Pok in Chiang Mai province.

It’s not that the Kaiser flies at high speed or makes a roaring noise like an engine. It’s because these exotically-patterned, delicately-winged creatures are such collector’s items, any villager in this northern province lucky enough to catch one will earn enough money to buy a motorcycle!

The export of rare species of butterflies, moths and beetles, as well as more common insects, has been going on, relatively unnoticed, for years.

“They are traded at an alarming rate,” cautions Dr A-ngoon Lewvanich, an insect taxonomy expert with the Department of Agriculture’s Entomology and Zoology Division.

“I’ve discovered orders placed by foreign insect traders and was shocked by the amounts,” she continued. “Some species are wanted in their thousands.”

As part of her work Dr A-ngoon collects samples of insects for the Insect Museum at Kasetsart University. She spends time with the villagers who earn a living as insect hunters.

“I often learn from the [butterfly] catchers where they find their butterflies,” Dr A-ngoon said, adding “I’m always amazed by the number of insects trapped for commercial sale.”

According to Dr A-ngoon, most of the villagers work with well-equipped traders. The traders provide the villagers with pictures of the insects they want and a price list. The villagers are also taught how to collect and preserve the insects without damaging them.

Villagers are paid 50 to a few hundred baht for a common species. Rare, exotic varieties, like the motorbike butterfly, are often sold to collectors for more than 100,000 baht.

When Dr A-ngoon started making her field trips more than 10 years ago, she noticed a shortage of some species. She voiced her concerns to various agencies, including the Royal Forestry Department.

Initially, she claims, the department was too busy battling “bigger” problems to take her worries seriously.

“The insect population is huge and their life spans are short. People don’t regard them as endangered species,” explained Dr A-ngoon.

A few years later, however, 13 species – four beetles, two moths and seven butterflies (see graphic) – were included under the 1992 Wildlife Protection Act.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t appear to have stopped the trade in insects. On the contrary, said Dr A-ngoon, business is booming.

Some of the rare species can only be found in the Kingdom’s rich forests which are reserved as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

According to Sanan Sriwattanakan, director of the Forestry Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Office, all forms of life in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries under his care are protected by law and anybody found taking them out of the forest boundary will be subject to a fine or jail.

He admitted, however, that insect hunters, unlike those who hunt bigger animals, are rarely caught by the forest guards.

“The possession of the 13 protected species is illegal, no matter where you keep them,” he explained. “As for all other insects, there are no laws to protect them outside the forest.”

Some believe the boom in the insect trade is the result of the recent economic slump.

“The economic crisis has put people out of work,” explained Professor Visut Baimai of Mahidol University’s Biology Department.

“When they return to the fields, they find their farms yield poor crops as drought and floods hit them due to El Nino. Many have turned to catching insects because there is such high demand,” he said.

“Insects are wanted for food, for medicine and for collectors,” he added.

Prof Visut believes better controls should be introduced to protect these insects.

“It would be a great loss if we were to let these rare species disappear from our country.”

According to Anan Dalodom, director-general of the Department of Agriculture, insect conservation is a slow process.

In days gone by, with Thailand an agrarian country, research emphasised the destruction of pests to save crops. However, such a strategy not only destroyed unwanted pests but also their natural predators.

“The policy has changed now. More bio-controls have been researched, tested and introduced,” explained the agricultural chief.

“More budgets will be provided so that researchers can study and promote a public awareness of rare species of insects,” he added.

Breeding in captivity could boost numbers, added Dr A-ngoon. But a lack of staff and budgets limit any intensive study on the matter.

“In order to breed some rare species, we need to know about their habitats, what they eat and their life-cycle. More research is needed.”

Dr Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, assistant Secretary of the Forestry Committee for Convention on Biodiversity agrees.

According to Dr Theerapat, research into the Kingdom’s biodiversity is currently being conducted by both forestry officials and university academics, in cooperation with the Forestry Department.

“Research work is important because before we know what we’ll lose we’ve got to first know what we have,” he said. “At the moment, several researchers are studying indicator species, insects included, which are important to the health of the forests,” he said.

And until we know more about the country’s biodiversity Dr A-ngoon believes more species should be included under the 1992 Wildlife Protection Act. As for collectors: “Exotic insects decorate nature, making it lively and beautiful,” she said. “Let them roam free in nature. Don’t trap them in a frame.”

© Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 1999
Last Modified: Sun, Mar 7, 1999