insects and conservation

Bug drugs

TRADITIONAL MEDICINE: For centuries, Northeasterners have used insects in potions and remedies to cure a host of ailments. Now researchers plan to systematically record them

Story By Pongpet Mekloy

Who knows, certain insect remedies might prove to be as worthy as the herbal versions. And they will be another good reason why we should respect our roots and safeguard certain traditional ways of life rather than blindly joining the globalisation bandwagon which will eventually rob Thailand of its self-sufficiency.
Wasp lavae mixed with a little bit of its nest serve as effective antidote to wasp sting. The pain will be gone in a few minutes after you rub this on the wound.
Researcher Kanvee Viwatpanich.

The above remedies do not belong to witches in fairy tales; they exist in real life. Although it’s true their efficacy has never been proven in medical labs, it has been tested by time.

For generations, rural villagers in many parts of Isan-Thailand’s northeastern region-have been relying on such traditional cures. And it would be a pity if today’s Thais let such precious wisdom die away without taking a good look at it.

Researcher Kanvee Viwatpanich, of The National Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine, observed such folk healings a few years ago while he was researching the use of insects in the Isan diet (his paper was entitled Insects: A Nutritional Anthropological Study). Now he is part of the institute’s team formed to study the relationship between the insects and health of rural people. The new research project, entitled Medicinal Insects: A Study of Thai Wisdom in Traditional Medicine, was recently approved for funding by the National Research Council.

“Upcountry people still live in natural surroundings. Among other things, insects are a part of their lives. And that’s especially true for Isan villagers-insect dishes and insect hunting are part of their way of life,” explained Mr Kanvee. “And they don’t just eat the bugs to cure hunger but to fight against ailments as well.”According to the researcher, use of insects and their by-products-honey and beeswax, for example-are common in traditional medicine. In some cases, these little creatures are used singly while in some others they are mixed with herbs and other natural ingredients. Sometimes they are used when still alive and sometimes only after being heated in a specific fashion.

In many cases, the insect medicine has to be consumed. But, said Mr Kanvee, there are also some treatments which are designed only for external use.

“Like when red ants are used to treat cuts,” he gave as an example. “Sometimes villagers happen to get cuts in the paddy fields or in the forest where alcohol is not available, and they need something to disinfect the fresh wound. What they do is simply drop a few red ants onto the wound. The alarmed ants then react by secreting acid which, although it adds a great deal of pain to the existing injury, is believed to help keep the wound clean.””This kind of practice may sound outrageous to most city people, but sometimes it really works,” said Mr Kanvee, adding he had experienced the miracle of some of these insect remedies himself.

“Once during a visit to a village in the Northeast I was stung by a wasp and the village medicine man helped rid me of the pain by applying some sticky stuff on the wound. It was a mixture of crushed wasp lavae and material from the wasp nest,” he said. “Normally, this kind of pain would take a balm at least 15 minutes to make me feel better. But using the wasp grubs I felt fine within five minutes!”Mr Kanvee said the study on medicinal insects was initially set to start next year but with the funding approval the research team is likely to begin their work earlier.

“The first thing to do is to compile all the recorded medicinal recipes that involve insects and their products,” he said, adding this is done by going through texts copied from old palm-leaf inscriptions. “These texts are already available at the National Library. But what makes it tough is that old documents like these are not just difficult to read, but also they have no index-so the only way to find what you’re looking for is to carefully check every page. And there certainly are a lot of inscriptions waiting for us.”The other part of the study is field work. “By spending time with traditional doctors and villagers we will have the chance to learn about the medicinal use of insects in real life situations,” he said. “We plan to cover all the four regions within two years-six months for each region. Definitely, that’s going to involve a lot of travelling.”While gathering the information, Mr Kanvee and other researchers will also have to collect specimens of the insects and have them identified by entomologists. “Some insects have different names depending on the place they are found. This is the only way to get things straight,” he said.

Once finished, the study will bring together a wealth of wisdom Thai people have developed throughout centuries. Putting the knowledge to the scientific test will be the next step.

© Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2000
Last Modified: Sun, Mar 12, 2000

Banpot’s bugs

BIOLOGICAL CONTROL: Insects might be a viable solution to Thailand’s agricultural war against pests and weeds, a solution which won’t poison the environment

‘I love insects. Their different colours, shapes and forms attract me, and when I take a closer look at them, I’m totally enthralled by these small creatures.’ — DR BANPOT NA POMPETH; Entomologist (PHOTO: SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT)

It was meant to be just a casual stroll, when Banpot Na Pompeth entered an insect museum in Udaipur University in India, where he was a first year student.

But when he re-emerged from the museum, he realised that his life would never be the same again.

He was mesmerised by the world of insects, the sight of thousands of stuffed bugs in kaleidoscopic colours and fascinating shapes. The experience inspired the young student so much that he decided to relinquish forestry study and pursue entomology, the study of insects.

More than two decades have passed since Banpot’s first encounter with insects, and he has achieved more than he ever dreamt possible.

Not only does he work with insects as he wished, but he also has them work for him in a biological control project that aims to protect Thailand’s deteriorating environment.

With a PhD in entomology, he is Thailand’s expert on insects and an executive director of the National Biological Control Research Centre at Kasetsart University. Recently he gained worldwide recognition during the International Congress of Entomology held in Italy where he was chosen to be one of the 20 permanent committee members of the congress.

In 1983, he was nominated to the permanent committee of the International Plant Protection Congress. He is the first Thai entomologist to be appointed to these positions.

Ilove insects,” Dr Banpot said. “Their different colours, shapes and forms attract me, and when I take a closer look at them, I’m totally enthralled by these small creatures.”

In his eyes, insects are a wonderful artistic creation of nature. “I never fail to be amazed whenever I look at the details of the insects’ wings. The myriad patterns on the wings as well as the body are truly magnificent,” said the entomologist.

It is not only their appearance that captures Dr Banpot’s interest. The variety of sizes, especially the tiny little bugs, fascinate him.

“It is always enjoyable and challenging for me to find small insects in their habitat. To do so requires much patience. Some species of insects hide themselves in their environment so well that it is very difficult to see them.”

Dr Banpot recalled his days at Punjab Agricultural University in India where he studied the various species of insects, including their anatomy, habits, life cycle, migration patterns, and their relations with other animals and plants.

Back in Thailand, he faced a new challenge. Thailand then had little knowledge of biological control, while the environment was being polluted by overuse of hazardous chemical pesticides. There was an obvious urgent need for an alternative.

Dr Banpot was confident insects might be a viable solution to the country’s war against pests and weeds, a solution which wouldn’t destroy the environment.

“I would not use any pesticide which had an adverse effect on the natural environment,” he said adamantly. “Biological control is more effective since it is environmentally friendly.”

Ten years after his research was put to use in biological control in Thailand, Dr Banpot has achieved some success in eradicating pests and weeds in certain areas of the country without using one drop of pesticide.

Though the concept of biological control has been around since the mid-1960s, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that any results were seen. Since then, research and development activities in biological control in Thailand has made considerable progress.

Working as a team, Dr Banpot and his army of insects make the journey together every weekend to problem areas throughout the country. Banpot’s bugs include Neochetina eichhorniae, Neochetina bruchi, Sameodes albiguttalis, and Orthogalumna terebrantis. The insects are released in places where hazardous weeds are abundant. Common weeds that cause environmental problems are alligator weed, water hyacinth, hydrilla, mimosa and water lettuce. The relationship between Dr Banpot and his insects has gone beyond academic research. He has a great respect for the tiny creatures.

Unlike others who are fascinated by insects, he refuses to make displays of dead insects and keep them in a glass showcase for decoration.

“I would prefer to appreciate insects in their natural habitat,” he explained. “I will keep them in the cabinet only for educational purposes. Dead insects in a showcase teach me nothing.”

It’s been a long time since he decided that he would not take the life of a bug for any reason. “When I was young, I used to torture insects just for fun. I used to pour water into the cricket’s hole so that it would creep out and then I would catch it for playing. Or I would poke a stick into the sandy hole of the antlion. It was once an enjoyable game for me,” he recalled. While children love torturing insects in their play, adults kill insects for no other reason than the belief that they might be harmful.

In fact, out of over a million insect species, only about 500 are hazardous. The rest are “good” insects that need protection.

“Most people have the preconception that insects are harmful. That is why they kill them on sight. However, since most people do not recognise what kinds of insects are rare and should be preserved, they unintentionally eliminate some species,” lamented the entomologist.

Insects are beneficial for humans and for the environment. Most importantly, they are an indicator of ecological change.

While insects have been increasingly recognised by scientists for their role in ecological balance, there are few people in this country to pursue the study.

“Many students think that the entomological subjects are difficult,” Dr Banpot said. “Some fear the visual study of the insects, not to mention touching them. In reality, insects are the most interesting animal. They are also abundant in every part of the world.”

Apart from teaching at the Faculty of Entomology at Kasetsart University, Dr Banpot works to eradicate hazardous weeds effecting agricultural crops at the universoty’s Biological Control Research Centre. The centre, open since 1975, is the only national research institution in Southeast Asia devoted to biological control and integrated pest management.

According to Dr Banpot, study of biological control in Thailand is scarce. Documentation, if not scattered, is not readily accessible.

“Relevant literature and documentation are not properly preserved or available. Sometimes it is ignored by the professionals involved,” he said.

It’s not just weeds that Dr Banpot has to fight in his efforts to promote biological control. The influence of the pesticide manufacturers is another obstacle in his path.

Thailand is one of the few developing countries capable of exporting agricultural products, so it relies heavily on the use of agrochemicals, including pesticides. Thus, pesticide is big business in this country as farmers are heavily dependent on chemicals despite the fact that they have an adverse effect on human health and the environment.

“The concept of IPM – ‘Integrated Pest Management’ – in Thailand should be translated as ‘Integrated Pesticide Mismanagement’ since it is fully supported by the chemical companies and the government agencies,” Dr Banpot said cynically.

“It has been in this difficult situation that biological control has developed in Thailand. People working in any biological control activity are labelled ‘natural enemies’ by the chemical dealers.”

Fortunately, the failure of chemicals to effectively control most pests, as well as the increasing concern among members of the public about the safety and quality of the environment, have led to the promotion of biological control and other “non-chemical” methods as an alternative to conventional pest control which relies on the use of pesticides.

Dr Banpot feels that the success of biological control is often overlooked as some of the results are invisible, that is, the natural environment is not poisoned.

“Biological control has failed to capture the interest of the general public or even the non-biological control workers,” he said.

“Biological control in itself is highly dynamic in nature. But a lack of knowledge of natural control factors still prevails among farmers, as well as policy makers, administrators, researchers, and the public,” he noted.

“When control has been achieved and the problem no longer exists, the contribution of biological control is neither recognised or appreciated.”

Despite the obstacles, however, biological control is developing in Thailand and become more and more competitive with chemical pest control.

During the past decade, explained Dr Banpot, biological control has received considerable government support, although it is still inadequate in terms of research and funding compared with the support provided for research into pesticides.

“In developing countries such as Thailand, strategies in biological control have to be developed and designed according to the need and limitations of available resources,” he said.

“Biological control in Thailand is in the infancy stage. It takes time to grow up and reach maturity. In the process, there exists a number of obstacles in terms of inadequate, untimely support and assistance from the government. They eulogise much about environmental preservation, but they are are addicted to using chemical pesticides.

“I, for one, will keep on fighting.”

Dr Banpot’s victory will be to see Thailand regain its natural green enviroment, free from chemicals, and safe for everyone — humans and insects alike.

Rare insects sell for up to Bt100,000

Published on Sep 17, 1998

RARE species of Thai beetles and butterflies are in danger of extinction, officials fear, as hunters go deep into jungles to catch them to sell to collectors abroad.

Dr A-ngoon Liwwanich, an entomologist at the Department of Agriculture, revealed on Wednesday that some species are close to becoming extinct.

”They live in the jungle and high areas and can hardly be found now. Chiang Mai is one of the best habitats for them, especially Doi Pha Hom Pok area,” he said.

A-ngoon said local tribal villagers, hired by a Thai middleman in contact with foreign insect collectors, are mostly involved in catching the rare species.

”The villagers sell each insect for Bt100. But this figure rises enormously. Some rare species cost as much as Bt50,000. A very rare one can cost Bt100,000,” he said.

Dr Chawan Tanhikorn, director of the Wildlife Conservation Division of the Royal Forestry Department, said the department has tried to protect the creatures by declaring them protected species under the Wildlife Conservation Act. It has now declared 13 species of butterfly and beetle, which are popular with insect collectors, as protected, he said.

The 13 species include the night butterfly, the Golden Birdwing butterfly, the Jungle Queen butterfly, all kinds of Kaiser butterfly species, the Spangle butterfly, the Bhutan butterfly, the Fivebar Swordtail butterfly, the Band Peacock butterfly and several species of beetle, including the rhinoceros beetle.

”Foreign demand for these insects is not only for collecting, but also for studying their life cycle and reproduction. As far as we know, the American market needs the pupa of the butterfly now,” he said.

However, some Thai butterfly collectors disagree with butterfly protection. Amnuay Pinrat, a teacher of St Gabriels School and a butterfly collector, said butterfly catching has been going on for two decades and their numbers haven’t decreased.

”The butterfly is a species which reproduces easily. There is no reason to list it as a protected species like foreign countries do because we have many more butterfly species than them,” he said.

”Moreover, the species which are needed by the foreign market are found only in neighbouring countries like Bhutan, Burma and India,” he claimed.

Kriangkrai Suwannaphat of the Nature Lover’s Club said the decreasing forest area and deteriorating forest conditions are the major causes of the decreasing number of insect species in Thailand.

”So, the number of some insect species is much less than the demand from the collectors,” he said.


The Nation


The Forestry Department has unveiled a plan to crack down on the trade in insects in response to a decline in rare species as a result of their popularity among collectors.

Forestry officials soon will visit markets in and around Bangkok to spread the word and hand out pictures of 15 protected species, including butterflies.

People possessing, selling, importing, exporting or transferring the species will face a 40,000 baht and/or a four-year jail term.

The 15 species are listed under the 1992 Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act. There are four species of bug and 11 of butterfly, three of which are listed under the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species. The bugs include cheirotonus parryi, cladognathus giraffa, mouhotia batesi and mormolyce phyllodes. The butterflies include lyssa zampa, papilio protenor, meandrusa gyas, papilio palinurus and all of those classified as Kaiser and long-tailed night butterflies.

All species in Genus Actias, Troides, Stichopluthalma, Bhutanitis as well as day butterflies in Genus Trogonoptera and Ornithoptera are also protected.

Thanit Palasuwan, head of Wildlife Protection Division 1, said fancy butterflies and rare bugs have become much sought after in the past few years. “Traders and collectors usually hire local people living in forests or up on high mountains to catch them for a few hundred baht per insect,” he said.

Sightings of once hard-to-find butterflies are now abundant particularly at tourist spots including Chatuchak Market, Sukhumvit Night Bazaar, Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Phuket Night Bazaar and other weekends markets.

Mr Thanit admitted the department was a bit late in taking action but blamed this on lack of personnel and budget. There was not much preventive organisation when it came to insect trade, unlike wildlife trade, he said.

Despite the fact these insects were listed eight years ago, forestry chief Plodprasop Suraswadi has only recently appointed six experts on insects to help, after years of dealing with unqualified staff. “Even the brochures to be handed out to the public were helped in design, story and pictures by the Department of Agriculture.

Source: Bangkok Post Jun 7, 2000