The Dangerous World of Butterflies: More dangerous for butterflies than for humans.

June 20th, 2009 11:50 am by Kelly Garbato

On Wednesday, journalist Peter Laufer appeared on The Daily Show in order to discuss his newest book, The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists. While the material might seem rather lighthearted – especially in comparison to his previous subjects, which include neo-Nazism, illegal immigration and the Iraq war – the illegal butterfly trade is nothing to scoff at, as he explains:
 

 
Naturally, even the so-called “butterfly huggers” (e.g., the North American Butterfly Association, the International Butterfly Breeders Association) view butterflies as a collection or a part of nature or ecology as opposed to the many individual beings that they are. Or, put another way, butterfly conservation is more about environmental protection than animal rights – or even welfare. Even so, The Dangerous World of Butterflies sounds like an interesting read, since butterfly collecting isn’t normally a “hobby” that’s equated with danger (nor are butterflies the first group of animals to come to mind when one thinks of wildlife “poaching”).

During the interview, Jon wonders why one might want to collect butterflies, due to their short life spans of a week or two. According to Wiki, this is a bit of a misconception:

It is a popular belief that butterflies have very short life spans. However, butterflies in their adult stage can live from a week to nearly a year depending on the species. Many species have long larval life stages while others can remain dormant in their pupal or egg stages and thereby survive winters.

Butterflies may have one or more broods per year. The number of generations per year varies from temperate to tropical regions with tropical regions showing a trend towards multivoltinism.

Not that the butterfly’s life span really matters – for, as Laufer explains, it’s not the aim of collectors to house a population of living butterflies. Rather, collectors view butterflies as objects to be exhibited, much like artwork. In this way, the appeal of “owning” the corpse of a butterfly belonging to a protected or endangered species is much like that of owning a stolen piece of art.

As morbid as this attitude is, I’m not sure it’s all that different from that of butterfly conservations, who view their objects of admiration as pieces of a whole, cogs to be manipulated and controlled in order to achieve a desired result. A thousand Schaus Swallowtails, for example, aren’t significant as a thousand living beings, but as representatives of an endangered butterfly species. To conservationists, the beings are all interchangeable members of a species, much as their corpses are interchangeable pieces of valuables and artwork to poachers and collectors.

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Videos in this post

The Daily Show – June 17, 2009 – Peter Laufer
Peter Laufer sheds light on the villainous subculture of poachers who steal endangered butterflies and sell them for big money. (5.13)

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5 Responses to “The Dangerous World of Butterflies: More dangerous for butterflies than for humans.”

  1. suzanne endsley Says:

    theres a butterfly place here in chicago. I wonder if it is humane? It is grant park.
    sorry I cannot remember the name.

  2. Olivia Says:

    Houston has a live butterfly garden/exhibit at the natural science museum. Like Suzanne (above), I now wonder about its motives and methods.

    The butterfly is a symbol of freedom and beauty, and to enslave one, much less “collections” of them, is selfish and ugly.

  3. Kelly G. Says:

    Here in Kansas City, Powell Gardens hosts a “Butterfly Festival” every summer (I think) in their indoor “conservatory.” I happened to catch it last year, when I visited to see the Chapungu exhibit in their outdoor gardens.

    Powell Gardens rotates many of its exhibits on a yearly basis; unlike the Chapungu (and related) statuary, however, butterflies are living creatures — and especially sensitive to handling.

    When Powell describes its butterfly “exhibit” thusly:

    We have imported nearly 2,000 butterflies from Florida, Texas and Costa Rica for our annual Festival of Butterflies. The conservatory is filled with their favorite nectar plants and set with high humidity to mimic the climate of subtropical Florida & Texas as well as the tropical rain forest of Costa Rica. Five hundred butterflies are in flight at any given time from now through Sunday, August 17.

    one can only imagine how many butterflies died in transit.

    Then again, Powells titles that particular blog entry “Flying Flowers grace the Conservatory,” so I don’t think they’re all that bothered by the annual death toll: butterflies are just “flying flowers,” here for our amusement.

    Damn. Does this mean I have to add Powells to my list of local boycotted attractions?

  4. Papa Papillon Says:

    Butterflies are not imported as butterflies, but as eggs. No butterfly dies in transit.
    Butterfly exhibitions are not the problem of these endangered species. No, these breeders call our attention to these fantastic insects, mostly killed in acriculture or on highways.

  5. Animallover Says:

    We have a local Musuem that has a butterfly house for endangered and threatened species, and externally for local species to thrive, since the butterfly population is delicate and by the pesticides used on local flowering species of plants. Its doubtful to me since the attempt to educate adults and children on the delicacy of such magnificent creatures is inhumane considering the numbers seem to decrease as the construction of our cities and towns increases in our state, where once we had many wooded areas and natural plants for insects to thrive on

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