On Insects, Protection and Conservation Strategies
A number of countries are today attempting to "protect nature". They use different methods, with different results, but in most cases insect protection is a smokescreen to cover up for the devastation caused by themselves, and to find scapegoats, even insect collectors, to try and pass on the blame to.
Should insects be protected, and if so, what is the best way? Why do some governments persist with tokenistic protection of insects? Are there conservation policies for insects that are of any real value? There are many interesting questions, and many answers are given. Some may have a degree of validity, while other reasons have no scientific validity at all, for example, simply because a particular species is large and attractive it may be perceived as being of value.
Many governments at present are showing better attitudes towards conserving nature by using different methods and different environmental laws to try to cover up or make up for the devastation of nature. On the other hand, other governments actually make it illegal to enter areas of forest that are being destroyed by logging activities, to prevent the gathering of scientific information on the biota being wiped out wholesale.
So what does the term "tokenistic" conservation mean? As an illustration, I will use the following imaginary scenario:
The Pampudella "Cuddly" is a small bear which only eats wattle. I, as an imaginary government, can protect the species, as best as I can, but I will pass a death sentence on the species if I decide to clear all of its wattle forest. In the meantime, rich farming companies which support my government financially are continuing to burn off the wattle forest to use the land for farming. So, what do I do to make it appear that I am protecting the Pampudella while allowing my rich farming friends to continue their destruction unhindered?
Instead of stopping the clearing, first I forbid the keeping and breeding of Pampudellas amongst hobbyists and amateurs, claiming falsely that the hobbyists and amateurs are depriving the (bred!) bears of their freedom. From now on, I have full control over the extant populations of Pampudellas.
The second step has an number of options. I can stop access to the public lands the bears inhabit and "guard" the Pampudellas, providing 5 soldiers for the protection of each Pampudella. However, the guards disturb them so they do not breed, or catch them and sell them off for meat and fur. The bears quickly become extinct. I can then allow the wattle forests to be destroyed with a "clear" conscience, conveniently ignoring everything else that lives in the forest as well.
Alternatively, I can hire scientists who are willing to say anything to protect their careers or lives, and in the name of research, collect all the Pampudellas and mark each with a dye on the right ear. Then, months later they are killed off, and an official explanation issued saying "sorry, all the Panderellas were unexpectedly sensitive to the dye and died" or some such nonsense.
Fanciful? Maybe, but how about the following real-life example of tokenistic protection. In Western Australia there was a keen and dedicated amateur entomologist - let's call him "Collector A". He collected only Buprestidae (jewel beetles). One day he fell out of friendship with someone who had good friends and contacts in a certain institution. The contact in the certain institution lobbied for the protection of the insects, falsely blaming collector A for overcollecting, and the government was duped into passing a law to protect all Buprestidae throughout all of Western Australia, with no scientific basis for doing so other than the say-so of that person. No scientific studies were conducted to support the assertions. In the view of the government, it cost nothing to protect the beetles, and it made the government look as if it was doing something to protect nature. But nothing was mentioned at the time of a massive scheme to clear for farming three million hectares of mallee and heath, prime habitat for many Buprestid species and numerous other endemic plants and animals. Fortunately, someone in eastern Australia heard about the clearing scheme just in time, and instigated action to stop the clearing by writing to politicians and entomologists, and urging conservation groups to become involved. Very fortunately for us, and for the three million hectares of mallee-heath, that person eventually succeeded.
Another collector, Collector B, created a small museum of a spectacular collection of Jewel Beetles he has made over the years. The children from schools visit the museum, which is a good local tourist attraction. Not long afterward, Collector B was visited by a government Minister. The Minister was very impressed with the beautiful collection. Collector B told the Minister that he is not permitted to collect any more specimens, and hence the collection cannot get bigger and better. Thereupon, the Minister arranged permission for Collector B to collect Buprestidae for the rest of his life, with no need to submit annual reports. Anyone else, however, who wishes to collect these insects, must provide a valid scientific reason for doing so, and must submit annual reports. Meanwhile, habitats in other areas in Western Australia are still being cleared for housing and farms.
In fact, no species has ever been scientifically proven or otherwise shown to be under any threat from amateur collectors.
The stories of Collector A and Collector B are real-life examples of misguided and "tokenistic" conservation. With vast areas involved, the possibility of any threat to a species from collectors is non-existent, however as the area concerned has still not been incorporated in any nature reserve or similar protected area, the threat from future clearing schemes remains to this day.
Turning back to conservation in entomology, how can we genuinely protect insects? We have to understand that the populations, bionomy and dependence of environment differ from all other animals, whether mammals, birds, reptiles or fish. Insect life cycles are carried out as eggs, larvae or pupae in very small areas, mostly less than 1 square metre, and these cycles may be completed in as little as a few weeks or may take many years.
The clearing of several hectares of a forest wipes out nearly all insects dependent on that forest, and wipes out more insects than can be collected by a single entomologist during his tens of years of collecting. Thus protecting the environment is the only way to conserve a forest's living insect fauna. Many specimens of insects which are extinct today became so not through overcollecting, but by devastation of their habitats. So-called cases of overcollecting have been cited, for example the Large Blue butterfly in England, however if its habitat had not been so devastated, there would still be plenty alive to this day.
The large 10-15 cm longicorns from Fiji, Xixuthrus heros or Xixuthrus heyrovskyi, appear to be extinct, not by overcollecting, but inadvertently because the British government strictly forbade cannibalism on the islands. To compensate, the native inhabitants took to eating the 20 cm long larvae of this beetle, literally ripping out all the available habitat of rotten wood while searching for the tasty larvae.
Another cause of extinction is where new species have been introduced into a country. Rats and cats are the only reason for extinction of some of the biggest insects on the world, the New Zealand crickets such as Wetta Deinacrida heteracantha and Hemideina crassidens.
The deliberate unscientifically-researched introduction of the cane toad Bufo marinus into Queensland may well be the main reason for the future possible extinction of large beetles such as the large carabid Mecynognathus daemelii. The cane toad is also dangerous to many of Australia's animals. Mammals, birds, reptiles are killed by the poison of this creature, a species which has spread from northern Queensland to much of the country.
The prohibition against collecting insects affects not only entomological science but can prevent the detection of important changes to environments. Already, around the world, environmentally sensitive animals such as frogs and birds are disappearing, and overall numbers of animals are dropping dramatically. Regular monitoring by the collection of insects can help to show up changes in the insect fauna as well, and in this area it is usually amateur collectors who collect in the field on a regular basis who are best able to carry out this important monitoring function.
The decrease in numbers or extinction of common species, or increases in the numbers of rare species, means that there may be something seriously amiss, and perhaps something can be done to save affected areas before it is too late, or, on a larger scale, accumulations of such events will indicate serious problems in the world's insect fauna.
Amateur collectors can play a very important role. Amateurs have a better chance of detecting such changes than researchers in museums and institutions who are limited in the scope of their collecting aims. The professionals can, however, help amateur collectors by teaching and supporting them in their activities, and utilising the raw data gathered by amateurs and publishing appropriately.
It is time to change "protection" laws from tokenistic protection of individual insects to protection of their habitats. We have to do away with ridiculous prohibitions against collecting, perhaps having reasonable controls on overcollecting for commercial purposes. In many countries, healthy export industries are being built up from the sale of wild collected and bred stock with no evidence of other than inconsequential damage to wild insect populations. Logging activities are destroying not only trillions of insects, but are also wiping out forever potential permanent income from those forests in the form of insect specimen sales.
One collector during his life cannot collect more insects than are lost in a flood or an ordinary storm, or by one car during a week's driving through forested areas (for example moths and beetles killed hitting the windscreen). One bird collects more insects during one day than an average entomologist.
There are many papers about what species should be protected, but none mention what you can personally do to help. Do not hesitate to write letters to governments, institutions or politicians in other countries. Letters are one of the best ways to support conservation policies which protect nature.
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Last modified on Monday, 9 June 2014