Ant Smuggler Gerhard Kalytta Is Finally Caught

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The online store of smuggler Gerhard Kalytta

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

source: http://bit.ly/v1qYuz

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.

45 thoughts on “Ant Smuggler Gerhard Kalytta Is Finally Caught”

  1. A guy like this needs to be covered in honey and placed on an anthill. And the anthill needs to be filled with honey so the ants don’t hurt him. And we all need to buy honey to remember his terrible crimes. (A message from the American Honey Producers Association)

  2. Alex, I completely agree with your sentiment – I also have spent many months applying for collecting and export permits, or wasted weeks in various tropical countries chasing some elusive bureaucrats who were supposed to sign my papers. On several occasions I had to leave specimens behind because my permits didn’t get processed in time, and on one occasion I lost all specimens from a month-long collecting trip because of the ineptness of the institution responsible for overseeing export permits. Once I spent three weeks in the field with a local official, whom I was training in insect collecting and identification (she had no background in entomology); after that I had to spend three days waiting, while she unpacked and inspected every specimen I collected with her, before signing my permit. I have even more stories of permit-related idiocy, but I have always followed the rules and plan to do so in the future.
    But at the same time I cannot help but sympathize with this guy. Despite the obvious commercial slant to what he is doing, he is clearly not in it for the money. He is some overenthusiastic ant lover, who probably does not fully understand proper collecting and exportation procedures. And even if he does, if he is not associated with a major scientific institution, his changes of obtaining those permits are virtually null.
    I do not believe for one second that his actions will have an impact on the populations of the species he has been collecting. If you can overcollect an insect species, this means that this species has already been doomed. (Exceptions to this rule can be found, of course.)
    Yes, his actions may cause further tightening of the already overly restrictive collecting and exportation rules, and law-abiding scientists will suffer. But as long as it is easier to get in Ghana or Brazil a logging permit than a collecting or research permit, people will continue to bypass them. In my years of working for a conservation NGO I witnessed so many cases of environmental carnage that went unpunished that the hoopla surrounding “sting operations” for smugglers of ants or tarantulas makes me laugh. It is so easy to target a single guy smuggling lizards in his pants, while trillions of organisms are killed every day by governments and corporations paving over the rainforests of the world. Focusing on Kalytta’s “crime” when half of Australia’s natural habitats have been turned into pastures is to me akin to a cop issuing a parking ticket in the middle of a burning city.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Piotr. Of course, you are right the damage incurred by collecting these ant-plants is negligible compared to the larger loss of habitat, and our enforcement of trafficking laws over deforestation laws would be silly if it weren’t so tragic.

      My environmental concerns with exotic ant trade aren’t on the source end, though. It’s on the receiving end. People are shipping potential pest insects all over the world now, just for recreation. I lurk on some of the European ant hobbyist forums, watching people arrange to mail- to give just one example- fire ants to Europe.

      One of the most popular ants in the international trade is Atta. These are major agricultural pests in South America, and since they thrive in disturbed habitats they’re probably more abundant now than ever before. So it’s no environmental biggie to collect them. But if Atta ever escape captivity in tropical Asia or Africa, where leafcutting ants don’t presently exist, it’s going to be an agricultural catastrophe. In my opinion, that is the primary danger of the ant trade.

      1. Agreed, the number one danger of unregulated importation of organisms is their potential as pests. I think that homogenization of the world’s biota is one of the greatest crimes we are committing against this planet.

  3. HAHAHAHA if only people could see what happens on Facebook. Kids not even my age are offering to trade Argentine ant queens and offering to ship them out from California for a Pogo or a Campo queen and such. Many of the teenagers know very well of the damage they could cause if their hot little shipment were to get out. I’m sure some people are willing to supply these children and their naive parents with ants from Europe and even abroad.

    1. I was really sorry to see AntsCanada’s initiative to pair local demand with local supply go under, as that was far preferable to the free-for-all that’s out there now.

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  5. My greatest frustration is dealing with permits, especially since most are worded to protect the megafauna (I.e. You may only collect one specimen per species, all material must be counted and identified to species before exportation, etc). While I have no doubt that there is some smuggling of insects and other arthropods, especially those of value in the pet trade, I think smuggling of the more “visible” fauna has screwed those of us with a purely academic interest in the “invisible” fauna far worse than those who smuggle ants or tarantulas. That and rampant paranoia over bio-piracy…

  6. Hello,
    first, please remove the screen shot of our website, it contains copyrighted material.

    Personal statement about “smuggling”:

    Did you ever know that most of this so called “smuggled” ants species get poisoned by inhabitants of that countries?
    Did you know that 99% of young swarmed ants Queens will die in wild life?
    Did you ever know that there are almost no ants species in the world protected animals?

    Please think first before you will compare “ants smuggling” with true animal smuggle which could really impact native eco system.

    1. Hello B. K.

      While I do appreciate that you have taken the time to comment, and I do hope you continue to participate in the discussion, I would like to note two things:

      1. 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.

      2. I agree that the unregulated capture of many insect species is not, generally speaking, as ecologically damaging as removal of large vertebrates, and the ethics of collection is indeed a valid topic of discussion. However, the laws and penalties are to be decided by sovereign states, and it is clear in this case that Gerhard Kalytta broke Australian Law and was given an extremely light penalty considering the range of possible remedies.

    2. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen

      What people do in their own country (be it good or bad) or what happens in nature hasn’t to do anything with the dangerous thing he does when smuggling ants. Even if you do something drastic like throwing an atomic bomb on a country doesn’t give you the right to take an animal into another country and, by accident, let that animal become there a dangerous tramp! And yes, ants need more protection but endangering endemic ants by tramps is also a conservation-issue! And yes, tramps can become pests, one example is Solenopsis invicta, you know, the Red Imported Fire Ant… So, ban smuggling!!!

      1. Solenopsis invicta (as every other invasive ant species) have been imported by merchandise trade and not by people who keep ants as pets.

        So how does a law like in australia or in the us protect a country from these invasive species?

        1. What you ought to do in this situation is move to Australia, establish citizenship, and work politically in that country to change their rules to be more to your liking.

        2. As opposed to hydrilla (dumped out of someone’s aquarium in Florida, now clogging waterways), pythons (dumped/escaped pets), Nile monitor lizards (pets!), walking catfish, plecostomus (aquariums), Lionfish (escaped to the Atlantic when Hurricane Andrew trashed some waterfront homes with aquariums).

          If exotic ant pets haven’t been a problem yet, it’s only because we’ve been lucky.

        3. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen

          I just took RIFA because everybody knows that ant.

          But lets take another ant: Camponotus vagus, not originally from Belgium, included in the list of Belgian ants….. because it escaped from an ant-pet-keeper that couldn’t keep it in his home….. and showed up in an inventory of Belgian ants! By God, it’s an ant from Southern Europe! We were lucky, it didn’t become invasive but that guy could have kept some other species that could have become invasive…..

  7. Goodness – some of those ants listed (Rhytidoponera metallica, Myrmecia gratiosa) can pack one nasty sting – and take it from me they hurt!

    Can I say that the area in question isn’t tropical rainforest, but the temperate woodlands and shrublands of Western Australia, around sunny ol’ Perth. Yes, the Swan Coastal Plain has undergone considerable clearing and modification – but that isn’t the point here.

    The issue here is the illegal collection and export of ants and plants. This is quite a breathtaking biosecurity risk for the recipient country(countries)!

    These plants and animals were probably removed from remaining bushland fragments – and that most likely included protected areas – i.e. a nature reserve and/or national park.

    All native fauna and flora in Western Australia are protected by the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 – especially when it comes to listed species and removal from Crown (public) land.

    http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/wa/consol_act/wca1950236/

    But when it comes to the commercial harvest/collection of flora and fauna for live export, then things do get a lot more serious.

    Also (as a botanist) – I’ll protest heartedly at the smuggling of a CITES listed orchid and bryophytes. The southwest of Western Australia does get targeted by plant poachers because of its high biodiversity and relatively high number of rare and threatened species.

    Obtaining collection permits for scientific research here doesn’t appear to be as momumentally difficult here as in other countries – so long as you are genuine, explicit and have reasonable intentions.

    http://www.dec.wa.gov.au/content/view/864/1218/

    Easiest options for export of scientific specimens woudl involve an inter-institution exchange / transfer. Again, I’m fuzzy on the details because I’m not an ento, but that would involve one of the Australian Museums.

  8. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen

    I think that a lot of scientists in the world are against the illegal trade of animals and plants around the world, not only about their potential pest-status but also in connection with scientific studies and with the problems with permits that get more difficult to obtain. Very important myrmecologists already warn a long time for these problems in the field of myrmecology (e.g. E. O. Wilson and A. Buschinger.) but I can imagine that this is also true in other fields of research. This was already a few times discussed at AntFarm and should be stressed over and over again. The only trade of ants I agree on is the trade of DEAD ants (BUT ONLY in small amounts and under strict conditions!) and even then I ask myself if even this shouldn’t be under even stricter rules than now.

    Yes, the destruction of our Earth is also a big problem that should be solved for a number of reasons but isn’t the problem discussed here. I’m only asking myself why, with all the rules and laws, he gets away with such a light punishment?

      1. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen

        I think most of us agree that this is not a “light” crime… and also not for the Australian government. If you see their border security…

        1. It does look like a light penalty, given the scope available. Presumably Mr Kalytta will be under very close scrutiny if he ever returns to Australia.

          The press release from the DSEWPC says this:

          the positive outcome was the result of information from the public given to the federal environment department and forwarded to Customs and Border Protection.

          So, good on you, that person (or people) who passed on the info to the right authorities.

        2. Thats correct but are you really neutral in that point? A judge has to be neutral and he or she decided that 3000 are fair.

          What would be the penalty if he tried to export 3000 kangoroos?

          I only blame him for trying to export a CITES listed orchid. (Because thats the only thing that would be illegal in the EU).

        3. “Because thats the only thing that would be illegal in the EU”

          This is the single most irresponsible comment I’ve ever had on this blog.

          When you travel to another country, you follow their laws. Period. You don’t get to pick and chose which ones you’d like to follow and which ones not to follow.

          As an American, I can’t go to the EU and carry around a loaded, concealed handgun just because it’s legal in most places the United States. It’d be ridiculous of me to even suggest it, much less try to make the “it’s ok in my own country” defense in a legal context once caught. Follow the laws of the land you are in, or don’t go there. Being from the EU doesn’t magically exempt you from anything, and to suggest that it should is the height of arrogance.

        4. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen

          Sanio, if everybody in Europe would only think about CITES listed species and forget the rest (let them do with those what they want…) then in the end no more CITES species will exist, all wiped out by tramps! Shame on you! All nature should be kept save and undisrupted and as long as amateurs don’t know how to keep their animals enclosed, all should be kept where they belong and that is where they are endemic.

          Also, it is not because you’re from Europe that you may disobey laws from somewhere else. Try to imagine what happens if foreigners do the same in your country!!! So, not only CITES species matter but all that are protected by laws (and even more species because some aren’t protected at the moment but deserve to be so!!!).

          All the animals I keep alive are endemic to my country except three snakes (but those are in a cage they can’t escape from! I didn’t buy them but they were a gift from someone who didn’t know how to keep them safely and in good health.). And the other foreigners were always death before I got them (No CITES species in my collection also!).

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  10. Are we confusing a goofy news headline with the issue? “Ant Smuggling” is especially eye catching to us, but was it the bulk of the supply?

    “Native plants such as lichen, native moss, hornworts, liverworts and an orchid species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) were also seized.”

    I’d think they’d be worried more about the endangered Orchid than most of what’s listed.

    Would this have been an issue if he was trying to make off with just the ants?

  11. Man, I love this blog. It consistently fascinates me – I’d expect anecdotes about bureaucratic headaches to be tedious, yet here I am, totally enjoying your perspective. Awesome, and thanks.

    (Also, while I’m hanging out in the angry crowd: boo & hiss – to botanical smuggling especially. That’s just plain ig’nrant, as my grandma would say.)

  12. @myrmecos

    “When you travel to another country, you follow their laws. Period. You don’t get to pick and chose which ones you’d like to follow and which ones not to follow. ”

    That was not my point. I just said what I think about that law I didn’t say that its not the right of every country to enforce their own laws. Of course it was correct to punish him since his behaviour violated australian law.

    Are you happy with every law in every country?

    1. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen

      It’s not about being happy about some laws or not! You must obey those laws and not violate them!

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  15. I am intrigued by this discussion since I looked at Kalytta’s website a few days ago in search of ant colonies. I should however make it clear that I will not purchase any from this site since I found out he has been smuggling ants. As a biologist myself I am aware of the dangers of transplanting organisms. But ants are not my speciality and I have to do much more to ensure that I know about the potential dangers of keeping a colony.

    But I have contacted a number of academics to find out about their methods of sampling ant. ALL of them spent very little time on answering and the answers were all unanimous that I should try and sample from the wild myself. Only one mentioned that I should try to make sure that I do not sample endangered species.

    On the other hand, many online ant shops are much more helpful with information on how to buy, catch and care for ants (exotic or otherwise).

    I would thus ask researchers to help us amateurs to find reliable and safe sources and help educate enthusiast about safe (ant) pet keeping. And I commend this blog. Remember not everyone can travel the world to see, collect and enjoy the wonderful beasties of this planet and will have to do with a small simulate in their homes.

    1. “I should however make it clear that I will not purchase any from this site since I found out he has been smuggling ants. ”

      Good boy, it is not for us common folk to go against the government in such important matters. I always say, let the goverment tell us what to do, after all, that is what its there for.

      1. I’m not sure what government’s position ought to be.

        But as a private citizen, I feel perfectly comfortable telling the ant smugglers that what they do is immoral, and their justifications selfish, and their attitudes arrogant and childish.

  16. Funny that the restriction increase when people smuggled and when restriction increase more people smuggle. 😛

  17. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen

    After all this, you would think it will get silent around people like G. Kalytta BUT NO, not around him. On one of the two Dutch forums about ants I’m a member of (how long after this I don’t know!), they have a quiz with 5 Messor-colonies you can win, all donated by… G. Kalytta. I’ve already said I know the answer but I don’t want to participate!!!

  18. why are universities and laboratories allowed to import and study any kind of ant on this planet while private citizens are not ? Is this in the name of Safety ? For our experience says that companies, universities and laboratories are not more responsible than the private citizens. They should be both law abiding and enjoy the same rights.

    1. Hi Luca,

      “…universities and laboratories allowed to import and study any kind of ant on this planet while private citizens are not ? …”
      As far as I know, universities and laboratories underly the same regulations as private citizens, at least in many countries.
      For example in Germany: We have no restrictions on importation of foreign ants (except for CITES species, but there aren’t any). For research purposes we have to apply to the government organisations of the foreign countries in order to get a permit for collecting and exporting the specimens. I know this from the USA and from Australia. There are many more countries with similar regulations. For private citizens such permits are only very rarely granted, and usually not for pet ant shops.

    2. The University of Illinois has an APHIS-approved facility in the basement of the biology building to house exotic study insects. It has several sets of locked doors and a pressure chamber before you arrive to the little room with the leafcutter ants. This room allows the University to have some success in applying for the relevant permits.

      I don’t doubt that the most responsible private citizens are extremely responsible, perhaps more so than universities. But there’s a very long tail of extremely irresponsible private citizens, too.

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