I’ve wasted many hours of my life in various Latin American bureaucracies clearing paperwork for the legal exportation of preserved insect specimens. It’s a costly, difficult, time-consuming process, one that is constantly changing as rules shift and new government agencies emerge.
We researchers routinely book extra days at the beginning and end of our international expeditions, for no reason other than to make sure the proper permits are obtained. Those days are billed to our grants. That means you, taxpayers.
Once, in the Dominican Republic, I happened to be the very first foreign biologist to apply for collecting permits under a new law. Rather than getting my papers and heading straight to the field with my Dominican colleagues, I ended up in some sort of ceremony where I spent the morning shaking hands and schmoozing. I met the minister of Agriculture. Fun, I guess, but not exactly what I wanted to be doing.
During a recent visit to Ecuador, the office worker assigned to our application quit shortly before we arrived. The only person remaining with authority to prepare our papers was the Director of Sumaco National Park, an important guy with more important things to do than shuffle papers for a couple of foreigners. Yet he spent an hour and a half laboriously looking up what he was supposed to write and typing up a suitable form for us. We felt bad. He felt bad. The whole thing should have been easier.
Why is exporting insects- even dead insects- so difficult?
The underlying reasons are complex, but one of them is smuggling. Smugglers collect and sell from biodiverse tropical countries, the same countries that attract researchers. Wildlife smuggling causes ecological problems: damaging native insect populations, introducing non-native pests elsewhere. Smuggling also offends the economic protectionist sensibilities of the host countries. Much of the paperwork involves declaring that we are not planning to profit from the collected insects (pssst- anyone want to buy a Linepithema?), and if we do, the money is to be repatriated.
Smugglers don’t pay the rules any attention of course. The more people who engage in illicit wildlife trade, though, the more draconian the rules become that scientists have to follow. The bottom line is that smugglers are not only environmentally suspect, they make life really difficult for scientists.
Thus, I am pleased to learn that the Australians have finally caught ant smuggler Gerhard Kalytta:
A German man who tried to smuggle native ants and plants out of Australia has been fined $3000.
Gerhard Kalytta, 65, pleaded guilty to attempted illegal export charges when he appeared in the Perth Magistrates Court . The court heard that on September 7, Kalytta attempted to smuggle more than 3000 ants along with plants and plant material out of Perth International Airport.
Customs officers searching his luggage found 153 plastic packages containing the ants and plants
Kalytta operates one of the larger European ant-trading sites, Ants Kalytta. While trading ants within Europe is legal, it’s painfully obvious to anyone who has done international research that Kalytta’s tropical stock is pilfered. Most ants don’t breed in captivity, and Kalytta has a lot of species from places like Paraguay. In Paraguay you’d be lucky to get permits processed within 3 weeks of arriving, and that’s if you export only preserved specimens, leave half in the National museum, and publish with local scientists.
$3000 is a slap on the wrist for a guy with a history of illegal wildlife trade. But it’s a start.
***added in update: I believe the screen capture of Kalytta’s website at the top of this post falls under the Fair Use provision of U.S. Copyright Law. The image is used in the editorial context of a story being reported, the image is credited as being from Kalytta and not my own, and I am not earning money from an editorial display of this image on myrmecos.net.