How bug collecting affects world ecosystem
It looks like an insect invasion. Desert wasps that can kill tarantulas, beetles from deep in the jungle whose horns alone are bigger than any bug you’ve seen, and literally hundreds of thousands of butterflies. For some, this many creepy crawlies in one place is their worst nightmare.
But Calgary bug collector Anshul Fernando wouldn’t mind—in fact the scene just described was his house. With no brothers or sisters to pester him, his insects have been his lifework since he began collecting dead specimens at only five years old.
Since then, Fernando has grown from eclectic collector to an impassioned breeder, dealer and artist. As owner of what he says is one of the largest private collections in the world, he has used his status to sell bugs to others who share his passion, and create custom art pieces made from the very insects he loves.
While he has taken the necessary steps to ensure his specimens are being raised and caught in an environmentally sustainable way, some have concerns about the global impact of the bug trade.
Photo by Roxy Secara
Ken Thorne, an insect-dealing veteran of 38 years based in London, Ont., estimates that the dealers in Canada combined, including international sales, would earn an income close to $1,000,000 per year.
But Thorne—who sold insects to Fernando when the latter was a child —says that “in order for an insect business to survive in this country, you have to ship out of the country, just because of the small amount of people that are interested in Canada.”
He also says there are two main markets for selling bugs. There is the market for insect collectors and the artwork market, which is the “bread and butter” of the industry because it plays on the attraction that many people have towards bugs.
For Fernando, that attraction to bugs began as a child by learning the hard way that wasps are venomous, and watching spiders catch prey in their webs. He would find joy in “watching the whole life cycle take place.”
With butterflies “It’s the colour,” he says. “There are no other creatures in this world that matches the colour that are found in butterflies.”
The market price of those butterflies can range from a few dollars for some specimens, to up to $8000 for the rarest male and female pair in Fernando’s collection, and anywhere in between. This range enables everyone from children, to seasoned lifelong collectors to get in on the action.
In fact, fellow collector and dealer Calvin Hall says in his shop, his best customer was once “a seven year old girl who would come in every week.” Because he sells specimens that are visually appealing, yet not rare, he can sell them at prices between $25 and $75.
“This is a business that people love, the collectors are fanatic collectors, they want the product, and it really doesn’t matter what the cost is sometimes. They just want it really bad,” said Hall, laughing.
The Environmental Impact
But how is that addiction affecting bug populations?
According to Thorne, a single, disease-free butterfly can produce 200 to 300 offspring. As a result he says if a hobbyist collector were to come along with a net and capture some, they would be acting just like any other predator that a butterfly may have.
Photo by Roxy Secara In fact Greg Pohl, an entomologist with the Canadian Forest Service, said in the Newsletter of the Biological Survey of Canada that, “For the vast majority of insects that are not yet well enough known to make accurate assessments of their rarity, we need more collecting, not less, in order to gather that information.”
But issues arise when commercial collectors go into an ecosystem that already has other pressures on it such as deforestation, and start hunting down as many specimens as they can to re-sell.
Fernando says there are areas in the world where “the prices of the butterflies are so high that it motivates a lot of people to go there, and take from the environment,” causing entire species to be threatened.
And it’s not just butterflies that people will go to such ends to obtain.
Since the 1980s European collectors have been venturing into Cameroon to collect the extremely diverse and equally stunning array of beetles there.
Fogoh Muafor, a forestry engineer with the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife in Cameroon, says that the beetle trade is worth an estimated minimum of $62,000 per year locally, in an economy where the average yearly salary is $2,600.
One of the beetles, the White Goliathus, is localized to only a tiny region in the southwest of the country, and is heralded by Muafor as “The most demanded insect in Cameroon, if not Africa.”
Photo by Roxy Secara
As a result of that demand, he says its native area is being destroyed from poor harvesting techniques, and the population is decreasing due to exploitation.
According to research done by Muafor, in the southwest, bug-concentrated region of Cameroon, “82.3 percent of people periodically exploit beetles in times of high species occurrence and demand.”
In order to strike the balance between profit and sustainable collection, Rosmarie De Clerck-Floate, past president of the Entomological Society of Canada says, “If there was some sort of regulation on who collects, and then if they could rear them somehow, that would be the best thing.”
One of the main reasons Muafor says they don’t rear them in Cameroon is that, “people in Cameroon prefer depending more on the forest, on exportation from the wild for their income and their livelihood.” He also cites incomplete research on rearing, and the large investment it requires as reasons.
Fernando on the other hand, has made that investment. In 1998 he established a butterfly rearing operation with families in Sri Lanka that yielded him 40,000 butterflies, while enabling him to release an additional 72,000 back into their natural habitat.
Since 1998 he says his operations have expanded to include “over 125 families in more than 23 countries.”
Fernando says butterfly rearing has made a difference in the lives of those families.
For example in Papua New Guinea, they would get $200 from a butterfly Fernando would sell for $1000. That’s a large amount when the average person in Papua New Guinea is earning about seven dollars per day and 37% of the people are below the poverty line.
“They’re producing 200 of these every year at $200 a pop; you can imagine the amount of money that is flowing into these villages and how it is helping their standard of life,” Fernando says.
Even in Cameroon where there are damaging harvesting techniques, Muafor says, “The contribution of these resources to local well-being in southwest Cameroon cannot be ignored.”
Thorne says you can’t know specifically if your bugs are caught in the wild “because they’ll never tell you,” and despite of the damages to the environment some collection practices can have; he says the demand for the bugs that result remains steady.
With this in mind, De Clerck-Floate cautions collectors that bugs are “not just objects of beauty.” That, “they’re interesting as well, and they have a role to play in the ecosystem that they’re being taken out of.”