Kolkata: The arrests of two Czech nationals two months ago for collecting more than 200 rare beetles, butterflies and other insects from the Singalia National Park in Darjeeling, north Bengal, have exposed a flourishing illegal trade in insects. The poached insects, say experts, typically end up inside key chains and paperweights.
The two foreigners—Petr Svacha and Emil Kucera—were booked under various sections of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), and were arrested on 22 June. They have since been released on bail, but have been ordered by a district court in Darjeeling to remain in India. Svacha, a well-known entomologist, and his associate claimed they were researchers, and might well have been, but their arrest highlighted the growing trade in insects in eastern India.
“Since 1995, 24 cases of insect poaching have been registered all over India, and 12 of them were in West Bengal,” says Tito Joseph, who manages a crime database at the Wildlife Protection Society of India, or WPSI. The number of unreported cases nationwide would be many times that number, and according to Joseph, the situation is particularly bad in the eastern Himalayas—West Bengal, Sikkim and the Northeast—and Kerala.
“In the Nilambur area of Malappuram district (of Kerala), there have been reports of Japanese collectors handing out pictures of the insects they want to local villagers, who get a few hundred rupees for every specimen they turn in,” says Joseph. The greatest demand for butterflies, say conservationists, is among collectors from Germany and Japan.
Experts say world trade in insects run into many millions of dollars. “The total world illegal trade in wildlife is worth about $10 billion (Rs43,400 crore) and if insects make up even a tenth of this, you have a substantial sum,” says Joseph. Exotic species sell for anything between $20 and $200.
The police claim to have seized from the Czechs endangered species of butterflies and beetles. They say the Czech scientists were arrested for removing protected insects and unlawful entry into a national park but they wouldn’t give more details ahead of a hearing that is scheduled to start on Monday.
“The Czechs were arrested after the forest department lodged a complaint. I think, they (the forest department) would be in a better position to explain the nature of their offence,” said Kundan Lal Tamta, inspector-general of police, North Bengal.
Scientists from across the world and the Czech embassy in New Delhi have pledged support to the detained entomologists. Jan Kreuter, political secretary at the Czech embassy in Delhi, said, “We are trying to help them in every possible way and hope that they are allowed to return to their country.”
But, not everyone is convinced they were collecting insects for research alone. “A researcher wouldn’t need so many specimens, 15-20 would do,” says Isaac Kehimkar of the Bombay Natural History Society, author of The Book of Indian Butterflies. “I have seen many Europeans collecting Apollo butterflies in Ladakh or employing locals to do it for them.”
Conservationists say India should legalize butterfly farming. It would end poaching on the one hand, and generate employment, on the other. “Locals could be used as an effective line of defence,” says Suman Rai, a conservationist.
Experts says India’s wildlife protection Act also needs to be reviewed. Getting permission for legitimate collection of insects is very difficult for foreigners, according to scientists rooting for the Czech duo’s release in blogs on the Internet. They also say it’s impossible to understand the boundaries of national parks. Kehimkar and Rai agree, but maintain that these constraints couldn’t be used as an excuse.