Beautiful wings, bitter tragedy

His wings are bluish-green, glistening in the sunlight. They have a black band in the middle. His abdomen is yellow. He is 20 cm in length, flying free in the rainforest canopies of New Guinea. He is the Queen Alexandra’s Wingspan, the largest butterfly on the planet. He is so beautiful that some are willing to pay US$10,000 for his wings[1]. And what do they do with them? Put them in a box, together with other wings of beautiful butterflies that come from all over the world to build up an eccentric collection of dead butterflies. My stomach turns at the thought, butterflies behind glass: beauty seen, beauty not felt … lifeless.[2]

Queen Alexandra's Birdwing Illustration by Camila Barrera Daza
Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing
Illustration by Camila Barrera Daza

For years, people all over the world have traded wildlife illegally. Their purpose is to meet consumer demands for trophies, exotic foods, decoration, traditional medicines and collections.[3] Wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar industry that threatens biodiversity and triggers ecological problems. For instance, one ecological consequence of wildlife trade is the cascading ecosystem-level effects of removing species[4]. Poaching tigers for their coats, for example, might drive them to extinction. Thus, if tigers become extinct, food chains will likely be severely altered because of the removal of a top predator. Wildlife trade also introduces invasive species. As an example, ornamental fish have been traded to meet the demands of aquarium hobbyists, but in some cases not all the fish in the market are sold. Many sellers release these unsold fish into aquatic habitats where they can potentially threaten the persistence of native species by outcompeting them[5].

Why is the story of butterflies an important example of wildlife trading? Illegal trade of butterflies has more demand than one might imagine, and it is linked to ecological problems such as the loss of pollination as well as social problems like drug trafficking and violence.

People often believe that collectors—particularly those collecting eccentric things, like butterflies—are few in number and spend lots of money maintaining their hobbies. But in fact there are many collectors from the United States, Germany, and Japan (where an estimated 1 in 10 males are serious collectors) interested in buying rare butterflies [6]. In her recent book ‘Winged obsession’, Jessica Speart showed that ‘illegal trafficking of butterflies brings around US$200 million a year to global economy’1. Moreover, harvesting and exploitation of butterflies has increased because they are now trendy and ‘used in greeting cards, paper weights and even jewelry’[7]. The illegal trade involves not just few butterflies, but many thousands!

So… What ecological and social problems are linked to the trade of butterflies? Among insects they are the second-most important pollinators globally[8]. Butterflies pollinate large, showy flowers, pink or purple in color and usually scented, such as hydrangeas or lilacs[9]. Thus, killing and trafficking them can lead to the loss of pollination as an ecosystem service in flower crops[10]. Butterflies are also at the base of food chains; a reduction of their populations would impact the populations of species that prey upon them, such as birds or bats. Moreover, each species of butterfly uses a specific plant or a group of plants for egg laying and larval development; therefore butterflies’ extinction can trigger a coextinction process between them and their host plants[11].

In addition to potential ecological and economic problems from butterflies’ removal, more complex social dynamics involving illegal activities arise from butterfly and wildlife trade. As a matter of fact, the primary actors involved in these activities are criminal syndicates, insurgency groups and terrorist groups4,[12]. In Latin America for example, there is evidence that the routes employed for trafficking drugs are the same as those employed for illicit wildlife and operated by the same criminal bands4. Thus, trafficking butterflies (as an example) may often be linked to violence, corruption and highly organized criminal groups (like the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia or the Italian Mafia)4. Thus, if someone buys a butterfly for a collection, they may be contributing to financing criminal bands that commit terrorist acts.

I know that this topic seems overly dramatic. Connecting butterflies trade with criminal violence? You may think this is too extreme. But the truth is, environmental problems are intertwined with social problems in one way or another. To finish, I want to share with you my ideas about how to deal with this problem:

  • Raise awareness. Did you know the prevalence and significance of the butterfly trade before? Go tell your friends!
  • Stop buying butterfly cards, bracelets, earrings, etc., and speak out whenever you see or hear  about it. We as consumers have the power to shape the market and reduce the pressures leading to illegal butterfly trade.
  • Work to prohibit rare butterfly collections, perhaps by sending letters to politicians or starting  campaigns. In that way we can better prevent extinction of certain species-at-risk.

These are some I can come up with, but what do you think we should do?

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[1] Speart, J.  2011. Winged obsession: The pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler(First edition). Harper Collins Publishers. New York: USA.
[2] Modified from quote by Andrew Hawkes (artist).
[3] Rosen, G.E. & Smith, K.F. 2010.  Summarizing the evidence on the international trade in illegal wildlife. Ecohealth, 7: 24-32.
[4] Wyler, L.S. & Sheikh, P.A. 2008. CRS Report for Congress, International Illegal Trade in Wildlife: Threats and US Policy. Congressional Research Service.  The Library of Congress.
[5] Padilla, D.K. & Williams, S.L. 2004. Beyond ballast water: aquarium and ornamental trades as sources of invasive species in aquatic ecosystems. Front Ecol Environ, 2 (3): 131-138.
[6] Webster, D. 1997 (February 6th). The looting and smuggling and fencing and hoarding of impossibly precious, feathered and scaly wild things. The New York Times Magazine, 6: 26-33.
[7] Sriram, J. 2010 (October 10th). Illegal trade of butterflies. Darjeeling Times. Available at: http://www.darjeelingtimes.com/opinions/general/1677-illegal-trade-of-butterflies.html
[8] Colleen, Z. 2011. Powerful pollinators. Maclean’s (Toronto), 124 (5): 7.
[9] Willmer, P. 1953. Pollination and floral ecology. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press. 778 p.
[10] Losey, J.E. & Vaughan, M. The economic value of ecological services provided by insects. Bioscience, 56(4): 311-322.
[11] Koh, L.P., Dunn, R.R., Sodhi, N.S., Colwell, R.K., Proctor, H.C. & Smith, V.C. Species Coextinctions and the Biodiversity Crisis. 2004. Science, 305(1632-1634).
[12] Zimmerman, M.E. 2003. Black Market for Wildlife: Combating Transnational Organized Crime in the Illegal Wildlife Trade. Vand. J. Transnat’l L.36: 1657.

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