Conservationists in South Asia are raising an alarm about a growing illegal trade in insects. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi that some exotic species, bought from unsuspecting village children for a couple of coins, can fetch big money overseas.
Poaching of tigers, lions and rhinos in Asia is a well-publicized problem. But now conservationists are expressing concern about smaller wildlife being caught in a criminal net.
Many of the region's insects are being killed to satisfy a demand for beautiful and rare bugs encased in plastic key chains and paperweights or enclosed in greeting cards. Extracts of some beetles are used in traditional medicines in parts of Asia and Latin America. Some of the insect species, dead or alive, can fetch thousands of dollars from wealthy international collectors.
Although only a few criminal cases of insect poaching are filed in India every year, wildlife experts here believe the total illegal trade is quite large. Analysts say smugglers can be in possession of thousands of insects.
"The illegal trade in butterflies or insects is becoming one of the major booming businesses," explained Khalid Pasha, the India coordinator for the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC.
The problem has been highlighted here by the recent arrest of two researchers from the Czech Republic. The scientists say they were unaware they were inside a national park in West Bengal when caught with hundreds of rare butterfly, moth and beetle specimens.
Indian forestry officials say foreigners use research expeditions as a cover for what authorities here refer to as lucrative bio-piracy.
In recent years, Japanese, Russian and French nationals have been nabbed for trapping similar species as far north as Nepal and the Indian state, Sikkim, and south to Kerala.
Collecting such insects without a permit is a serious crime, under Indian law, and those convicted can face prison terms.
Khalid Pasha, speaking from the state of Uttaranchal, says, unlike the organized poaching of large mammals, villagers who are rewarded for collecting the insects on behalf of foreign smugglers are unaware what they are doing is illegal.
"It's done in a very systematic way and targeting a very different group," Pasha explained. "People who are collecting insects come down here illegally. They would have photographs. They will call up these village children and they would show them photographs and give them a small amount of money, like five rupees or 10 rupees, if somebody brings back butterflies or insects."
Conservationist Suman Rai, in Darjeeling, says it is difficult to accurately gauge the impact of insect poaching on the environment because so little is known about the fauna of the region.
"A large part of the Eastern Himalayas is still unexplored. It's also very difficult for several of the species to ascertain whether they are endangered or whether they are threatened," Rai said.
Indian authorities say the battle against insect poachers is more challenging than intercepting smuggled mammal carcasses, because the small creatures are easily concealed in the personal baggage of travelers.