‘It’s hard to be satisfied with just one’: What’s driving the black market for butterflies in Asia?
Some species are protected in Indonesia, but the black market for them persists. Collectors who pay thousands of dollars for a specimen say only they truly know the butterflies’ value. The programme Undercover Asia finds out what is at stake.
TOKYO and SOUTH SULAWESI: At the Tefuya pub in Tokyo, which has been around for over 40 years, owner Kiyomi Kakizawa serves up more than booze and food.
He also has about 5,000 dead butterfly specimens, all for sale.
Over the years, the pub has become a draw for butterfly enthusiasts and collectors, who gather to pore over maps, admire the multicoloured specimens from all over the world and add some to their collections through convivial auctions.
“One day when I was 45, there was a butterfly that passed right in front of me,” a Tefuya patron shared. “When I saw it, I became obsessed with it. And I knew that this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
“You’ll look up butterflies in the books and target some species. And when you catch the actual one in the forest, you get excited and scream,” Kakizawa told the programme Undercover Asia, breaking into a smile.
Butterfly collecting began centuries ago in Europe and was a popular hobby in the 1800s. Today, a major proportion of buyers and collectors are from the United States and Europe. In Asia, many collectors are from Japan.
Jun Hase, supervisor at The Butterfly Science Society of Japan, estimates that there are about 10,000 butterfly enthusiasts in the country. Many serious collectors have cabinets in their homes dedicated to storing hundreds and thousands of specimens.
It is a hobby that, for many, stems from childhood. “In the past, the homework for summer vacation was often insect collecting. We had to bring insects that we’d collected … to school and research them,” Hase said.
But studies have found insect species to be going extinct, with many populations on the decline.
There are about 17,500 butterfly species in the world. And threats to their survival include habitat loss, intensive agricultural practices such as pesticide use, and climate change. In Singapore, nearly half of the butterfly species have disappeared.
Then there is poaching, where hunters catch butterflies to feed demand from local and international collectors — hunters such as 33-year-old Joyo (not his real name) in Bantimurung, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, who has been in the trade since he was 10.
He now manages a group of hunters around the Bantimurung Bulusaraung National Park, most of whom are of school-going age.
“The kids here catch butterflies because they want to get an allowance,” said Joyo. “They feel happy when, every day, they can get around 10,000 rupiah (S$0.88) or 20,000 rupiah.”
CONSERVATION AREA, YET HUNTING GROUND
Some of the world’s rarest and most popular species of butterflies are protected under a treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
WATCH: Wings of desire — Asia’s illicit butterfly trade (46:54)
Of over 40 protected species, more than half can be found in Indonesia, home to about 2,000 butterfly species.
In Indonesia, it is illegal to catch protected species of butterflies — except those derived from ranching or captive breeding — and to catch any butterfly in conservation areas like national parks.
Yet, it is not difficult to find protected species being traded online, domestically and abroad. Most sellers do not attach evidence that the specimens were captive-bred, bringing their legality into question, cited a study published in 2021 by researchers from IPB University in Bogor.
And despite being a conservation area, the Bantimurung Bulusaraung National Park is a known commercial centre where butterflies are hunted, then turned into souvenirs or sold abroad to collectors.
Documentary film-maker Arfan Sabran, who was also the Undercover Asia episode’s researcher, remembers his first trip to the park as a child. “My first reaction was definitely like all the other children: ‘Wow, (the souvenirs are) so beautiful,’” he said.
But when he grew up and saw many butterflies being traded, he started wondering “how many butterflies have died for us, for our hobbies, for collecting”.
Joyo, however, holds a different view: “Even if we don’t catch the butterflies, they’ll still die. (They) only live for around one month anyway.”
“Have you ever been arrested?” Arfan asked Joyo, whom he met during his investigation of the butterfly trade. “Far too often,” Joyo replied. “By people from the forestry department — until my nets were confiscated.”
Prices of butterflies are dictated by how rare they are and not “the size or type”, Joyo said. A specimen of a rare species once netted him a million rupiah, and its resale price would be “much higher”.
The dead butterflies could be mounted in glass-topped frames as colourful souvenirs. They could also be folded and slotted into folded glassine sheets, then sent to collectors.
“They ship it overseas, like to Japan,” said Joyo. “There are many collectors from overseas who come here, trying to find rare ones.”
A LIFETIME OF PAINSTAKING SEARCH
In Shikoku, 80-year-old doctor Haruki (not his real name) has amassed about 10,000 butterflies over a lifetime. He bought 80 per cent of his collection, paying upwards of US$7,500 (S$9,900) for his most valuable specimens.
He still hopes to expand his collection. “I accumulate so many of these butterflies in my house as a collector because it’s hard to be satisfied with just one (of each species),” he said.
He is driven to make his collection of various species as complete as possible by, for example, obtaining a rare female of a particular species. Some butterfly species are sexually dimorphic, which means the males and females differ in size, shape and colour.
One such species, the Ornithoptera croesus or Wallace’s Golden Birdwing, lives only in North Maluku.
It is highly sought after, but since 2017, the Indonesian government has specifically suspended all trade in the species — unlike other Cites (Appendix II) species, in which international trade is generally allowed with an export permit or re-export certificate.
Haruki has specimens of three sub-species of Wallace’s Golden Birdwing from the Bacan, Halmahera and Morotai islands in Maluku.
He has tracked down over 50 butterflies from the genus Ornithoptera, each from a different year and location. “I write to dealers in Japan who’ll make the arrangements to deliver the specimens to me. I can’t buy them directly,” he said.
In Japan, the only legal requirement for importing an Appendix II species such as the Ornithoptera croesus is an export permit or a re-export certificate. Once it has been imported, it is not a crime to buy it, said Hase.
But authorities globally face huge challenges in curbing the illegal trade of protected species. This is due to the sheer volume of travellers and luggage, the knowledge required of enforcement officers and the falsification of permits.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as changing a date, changing a logo, falsifying a signature on a document,” said Elizabeth John, communications manager at wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic Southeast Asia.
“The system is very, very dependent on documents like permits. And it’ll depend on the diligence of the enforcement officer, who’s going through hundreds of parcels, to find a document that may have been falsified.”
Hase, however, disagrees that butterfly hunting is a major driver of population declines. He points instead to the disappearance of host plants on which butterflies depend.
Many more butterflies are killed in this way than by hunting, he said, adding that “the ones who really know the value of butterflies are the collectors”.
‘DON’T JUST TAKE SELFIES, TAKE SOME BUTTERFLY PHOTOS’
Indeed, some scientists do not advocate stopping the butterfly trade, but rather for sustainable use of the insects.
In a study published this year in the journal Biological Conservation, titled “One in five butterfly species sold online across borders”, researchers said collecting or ranching butterflies in the wild is sustainable if their natural habitats are preserved.
This applies to insects that produce numerous offspring and contribute few resources to each offspring.
They suggested that rural collectors could potentially earn an average local wage by selling around three specimens per day if they trade directly with other collectors and buyers, instead of relying on intermediaries.
“We suggest that the scale and extent of global butterfly trade is best seen as a practice of sustainable, targeted resource extraction that has considerable potential in promoting the conservation of insect habitats,” wrote the authors.
In another study, which surveyed 455 visitors to the Bantimurung Bulusaraung National Park, researchers noted that the butterfly trade was “quite long-standing and complicated”, and so “solutions such as simply stopping the practice might not be easy”.
Most park visitors received wrong information and did not know some species should not be caught or bought, said the authors of the 2019 study, titled “Sociopsychological aspects of butterfly souvenir purchasing behaviour at Bantimurung Bulusaraung National Park in Indonesia”.
The researchers recommended careful management plans, such as identifying butterfly species that need immediate protection and communicating this to visitors through announcements, banners and other materials.
Priority species should be displayed in pictures to make them easier to recognise, and their scientific and local names should be used, the researchers advised.
Indonesian butterfly expert Djunijanti Peggie believes that ranching — in semi-natural breeding sites — is a solution for the sustainable use of Ornithoptera croesus butterflies.
This is based on her assessment of a site on Bacan island that started in 2013. Enriched with numerous larval host plants and nectar-producing plants, the site is not totally enclosed, allowing wild butterflies to enter and lay eggs on the host plants.
“Without breeding, they’ll be caught directly from the wild, and it’ll be even more dangerous for the populations in the wild,” she said.
But small breeders face challenges. “Some breeders focus only on breeding the butterflies, but they don’t record accordingly,” said Peggie, a researcher at Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency. This leads importers like the European Union to question the records.
Getting a breeding permit can be too costly, added Alisi, the rancher on Bacan island.
Despite challenges in protecting the Ornithoptera croesus and other butterflies that can be found in Indonesia and nowhere else, Peggie soldiers on and tries to infect the younger generation with her passion for butterflies.
She personally funded an app called Kupunesia, which encourages her countrymen to contribute data on butterflies.
“You always bring your camera with you, right? Don’t just take selfies, take some butterfly photos around you. You can upload them to Kupunesia,” she recently told a group of youths in Bantimurung.
Butterflies inspire her, she said. “We as humans have to feel that we’re a part of nature, and we share the world with other creatures.”
Watch this episode of Undercover Asia here. The programme airs on Saturdays at 9pm.