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

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

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.

(More below the fold…)