Illegal trade of butterflies

Several species of butterflies have vanished as a result of illegal wildlife trade in India. Jayant Sriram reports.

Published: 24th October 2010 11:56 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 05:12 PM   |  A+A-


Smugglers come in all shapes and sizes, and they deal in all sorts of goods, so it is no surprise that there are those that are smuggling butterflies. But what is often a surprise is that this happens so openly.

Some two years ago, S Guruvayurappan saw mounted butterflies for sale in a Calicut supermarket. They had been imported from countries like Thailand and China. Out of curiosity, the south India project coordinator for the Wildlife Protection Society of India asked the shopkeeper where he might find rare Indian species. At first, the man was unwilling to talk, saying only that he took special orders. Guruvayurappan investigated and found that the supply came from a small hill station called Nadukani, on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.

It wasn’t really an undercover operation, but when Guruvayurappan went there with friends, posing as a student who wanted to collect rare butterflies, several locals offered to sell. He identified a familiar pattern. Tourists, particularly from Southeast Asia, were coming to Nadukani to take butterflies, mostly to sell on the international market where the trade in butterflies, unlike in India, is legal.

“The people who sell the butterflies are mostly plantation workers. They do this for additional income as they are paid well for each butterfly they collect. Among the butterflies being smuggled out were the Southern Birdwing, Common Blue Bottle and the Malabar Tree Nymph which are all on the endangered list. It is almost impossible for Customs or forest officials to catch these foreigners as they simply wrap the butterflies in white paper or tracing paper, and place them in camera bags or other containers.”

Though he had documented evidence which he offered to authorities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the latter denied the operation ever existed. In Kerala, though, five arrests were made. “The cases are still pending because the people pursuing it are demoralised by the magistrates. They don’t believe such a fuss should be made over one or two butterflies.”

The trouble is that one little insect here and another one there soon adds up to formidable numbers. The illegal wildlife trade in India is estimated at several thousand crore, the third most lucrative after arms and drugs, and it isn’t just tiger skins and penises. A major part of it includes the small things people don’t notice — such as butterflies and other insects — until they have vanished. As for catching the culprits, over the last 20 years or so, a handful of cases have been registered. They involve foreign collectors or scientists trying to smuggle butterflies and other insects. But the majority, as in the case of Nadukani, simply fly under the radar or are not treated with the seriousness they deserve.  

Butterflies have been called ‘nature’s jewels’, but they are far more than pretty little insects. They are indispensable to successful farming. Butterflies have immense economic value as pollinators — globally their value to agriculture per year is estimated at $200 billion, second only to the honeybee. And to fragile ecosystems, like the Himalayas where the summers are relatively short, the removal of a single species like the Kaisar-i-Hind could have a devastating chain effect. For instance, apple producers in the Himalayas complain of a decline in yield and quality due to the lack of insect pollinators, including butterflies and moths, in the flowering season.  

With its varied climatic zones, India is a haven of diversity, and this extends to butterfly species as well. According to Ashok Kumar, a former IAS officer who has worked for the Andhra Pradesh Wildlife Advisory board and is vice president of the Butterfly Conservation Society, the North East alone has about 900 species, compared to 56 in the whole of the UK. The sheer diversity of species is mind-boggling, he says. No wonder the ‘bio-pirates’ are dazzled by the wealth they confront, literally.

Some species are worth astronomical sums. For instance, high-altitude butterflies like the Bhutan Glory, Kaisar-i-Hind, Pale Jezebel, Atlas Moth and the Ladakh Banded Apollo, fetch up to Rs 20,000 apiece in the international market. That is a staggering sum by the standards of the workers who do the actual collecting, and a reason why they are paid well for their labours.

Today’s market for butterflies is a bit like the shark fin craze, everyone wants it because they can all afford it.  Earlier, only collectors bought butterflies but now it’s a business that’s diversified as it expands. In Southeast Asia, Kumar says they are used in greeting cards, paper weights, even jewellery. And in Europe and North America many people planning to start butterfly farms are always looking for exotic species. All this has put serious strains on many butterfly populations in the country.

Arjan Basu Roy, vice president of Naturemates, an NGO in Calcutta which does butterfly surveys in and around West Bengal, says the problem is that butterfly collection is not outlawed in other countries. While collection in India is clearly banned by the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the global trade in butterflies is worth something like $200 million. Those unfamiliar with this concept need only check out websites like to see the scale on which it happens.

During a recent survey around the Darjeeling area, Roy was amazed to find that most of the major species had almost disappeared. Perhaps one or two of each species were spotted. Ironically, it was on a visit to Japan that he spotted a Bhutan Glory that was up for sale. It had been collected in 1999. His inquiries turned up stocks of other Indian species, available since 2003.

The key to this operation is the local factor. “They form an essential link in the smuggling route, because after collection the butterflies are sent either to Nepal or Myanmar where Indian laws don’t apply. From there they can be transported out. Locals who cross the border on foot are never even questioned or searched so it’s almost impossible to detect,” says Roy.

Experts in the conservation business rue the fact that more attention isn’t paid to the depletion of insect populations, both through smuggling and environmental degradation. According to Tej Kumar, president of the Butterfly Conservation Society in Andhra, wildlife conservation in India has come to focus almost exclusively on the tiger. “More awareness is needed among customs and forest officials because that’s one major reason why insect smugglers get away — these officials are not able to identify when they are taking away rare or endangered species.”

He also says the laws need to be looked at again. “We have a complicated system. The Wildlife Protection Act has four schedules under which different species are included. And it’s only if someone is found with one of these that action can be taken. Also, while some common species are included in the Act, certain species endemic to the Western Ghats, for instance, and thus more important, will not be included.” The question is, will everyone wake up to notice only after the butterflies are gone?

The Indiana Jones of butterfly smuggling

In 2006, a Japanese man in Los Angeles called Hisayoshi Kojima who described himself as the world’s most wanted butterfly smuggler was apprehended and sentenced to 21 months in prison. He was caught after an undercover operation that lasted nearly three years.

Officials began investigating Kojima in 2003 after an insect dealer in Texas told agents of his reputation within the trade as the world’s top smuggler of rare and protected butterflies. Investigators learned Kojima’s smuggling network spanned the globe. He routinely produced for sale endangered butterflies from the South Pacific, Caribbean and Spain, including one pair of Queen Alexandra’s birdwings, an endangered species that is the largest butterfly in the world.  Kojima sold the pair to an undercover agent for $8,500.

Special Agent Ed Newcomer, who led the three-year investigation, said that Kojima was able to produce butterflies for sale that are almost never seen in commercial trade, or even made available to university collections. 

Included in the list of rare butterflies Kojima offered for sale was the endangered Giant Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio homerus, the largest butterfly in the western hemisphere. The species is depicted on the $1,000 Jamaican banknote.

Case histories

1994 — Two German tourists called Heckar Hermann Henrich and Weigert Ludwig, who came to India as tourists were detained at the Indira Gandhi Airport as they were found with four cartons that contained nearly 45,000 insects, including butterflies. These were confiscated on the spot and sent to entomologists for identification.


July 1996 — 1,773 insects and 1,268 butterflies were seized in Darjeeling. They were being smuggled out by Kawamura Shunchi, a Japanese tourist and his Indian accomplice Bhotto Singh Chepri. They were given one month imprisonment. On the same day, a local in Darjeeling was arrested with mounted butterflies.


October 2001 — Two Russians — Victor Siniaev and Oleg Amosov — were arrested in Kanchenjunga in Sikkim for collecting over 2000 beetles, moths and butterflies. They claimed that they were scientists and didn’t know that it was a National park. The Russian consulate in Calcutta took up the issue and petitioned for their release. The Forest Department found in their possession a petrol generator, ultra violet bulbs, killing and collecting jars, chemicals, wires and nets.


2008 — Two Czech nationals, Peter Svacha and Emil Kucera came to India on tourist visas and were apprehended in Singalila National Park in West

Bengal with nearly 2,000 specimens of larvae and adult insects. They claimed they were from the Czech Academy of science.

Svacha was fined Rs 20,000 and Kucera Rs 60,000. Meanwhile, the BBC reported that Kucera was running a website that offered to sell rare insects to collectors. The two men were given conditional bail and the incident caused great controversy as scientists, from India and abroad, filed numerous petitions demanding that the duo be released.



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