Shadows around a lamp

Russian version

Sikkim is a small Indian province located in the central part of the Himalayas between Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. Once densely forested, it is now a country of picturesque mountain villages and fields; and the remaining forests are mostly protected as Nature reserves. The best known of these reserves is a National park around Khanchenjanga Peak. It is one of the most interesting Nature reserves in Asia, so it is shown on all maps of the area, and attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world.

Last July, Sikkim suddenly became the focus of Russian media's attention. Two Muscovites, Victor Sinyaev and Oleg Amosov, were arrested in the National Park for illegal collecting of insects. Park rangers confiscated an ultraviolet light trap, and many thousands of dried insects, mostly moths. The arrested claimed to be Russia's leading entomologists, but also to be completely unaware of the Park's existence. They had recently bought the Park tickets (on which the law prohibiting any collecting in the Park was mentioned), but they said they didn't speak English, so they couldn't read the warning.

Their numerous friends organized an impressive support campaign. Such a flow of letters, newspaper articles, and official statements hadn't been seen in Russia since some Russian pilots had been arrested for airlifting arms and ammunition for Kashmir separatists. Some of the country's most prominent scientists signed the petitions, while Russian consulate in Calcutta sent a special envoy to monitor the trial. Under the unprecedented diplomatic pressure both "entomologists" were soon released after paying a symbolic fine (equal to a price of one rare Saturnidae moth on the Internet). They refused to return to Russia, but went to Nepal to collect more insects in Nature reserves around Katmandu.

Apparently, most of the people who signed the petitions demanding the release of Sinyaev and Amosov had been assured that two poor honest Russian scientists were innocent victims of some cruel legal system. Few people knew what was really going on.

Since Perestroika, Russia became one of the main hubs of international trade of rare and endangered animals. This illegal business is as important for Russian shadow economy as drugs and weapons trafficking. Native products, such as bear bale, caviar, and saiga horns, are sold alongside exotic pets. So-called butterfly hunters are one of the most numerous kinds of criminals running this business. Every summer, dozens of "entomologists", armed with light traps, butterfly nets, and chemical baits go on collecting trips to the places where most rare and beautiful butterflies, moths, and beetles occur: the Far East, Central Asia, and the tropics. With the help of hired porters and catchers, they collect hundreds of thousands of insects, while millions more die in traps. All these "scientific collections" are then sold on insect fairs in Europe, to end up in private collections, mostly in Germany and Japan, but also in other Western countries. Many professional entomologists, in Russia and in the West, do not mind combining science with illegal business. Some German scientists have built their careers on describing new species from such collections, while one employee of Prioksko-Terrasny Nature Reserve near Moscow maintains the largest insect trade site on the Internet. There are some honest amateur collectors, who work with environmental organizations, and never catch anything without a permit, but in Russia they can be counted with fingers on one hand.

Among these professional poachers, Sinyaev and Amosov are particularly prominent figures. During the trial letters arrived in their support from Berlin museum. From these letters it became clear that the two had been involved in insect trade for about twenty years, and sold hundreds of thousands of specimens to the West. Many of them were collected in places like the Philippines, where all remaining forests are Nature reserves, and any collecting is strictly prohibited. But not Sinyaev nor Amosov has ever applied for any permit, which is a standard practice among real scientists. No Russian scientific body ever recognized them as employees.

So what, will you say. May be Russian ambassador to India was right when he wrote to the court: "Should such an insignificant matter as a handful of bugs be allowed to spoil the relations between our two countries?" May be Oleg Gorbunov, an employee (I can't call him a scientist) of Severtsov Institute in Moscow and Sinyaev's best friend, was right, too: "There are no rare insects. All butterflies and moths are agricultural pests. They hide in Nature reserves during the days, and attack surrounding fields during the night".

The truth is, the result of this activity of "amateur entomologists" are disastrous. During the last decades dozens of species and hundreds of populations of rare insects went extinct because of overcollecting. One of the best known examples is Parnassius apollo, the most beautiful butterfly of European Russia. Its only population in Moscow area once existed in the abovementioned Prioksko-Terrasny Nature Reserve, and was hunted to extinction by collectors. The situation is particularly grave in the Himalayan foothills, where many thousands of insect species survive in tiny forest reserves surrounded by agricultural lands. A group of collectors, armed with a powerful light trap or specially synthesized chemical bait, can drive many of these species to extinction in just one field season. Pokhara Nature Reserve in Nepal, known for a large number of endemic species, became a favorite target for Russian and Western collectors about ten years ago. Since than, most large moths there became extinct, and were followed by some birds, bats, small terrestrial mammals (which used to depend on moth larvae for food), and by many species of insects-pollinated plants. Now it is a dying forest, an irreversibly destroyed ecosystem. And it was the only remaining forest island on a 300-km long stretch of Himalayan foothills.

The border between a professional scientist and an amateur collector have always been dim in entomology. Sometimes an amateur who studies some little-known group in his spare time is the best and the only expert on it. But this only means that the responsibility of such amateurs is especially high. These insects have nobody to protect them, except for a handful of people who devote their life to these insects' study. A scientist, either professional or amateur, who violates environmental laws and makes living by driving species to extinction, is not much different from a doctor who secretly removes his patient's kidney to sell it on a black market as a transplant, or from a police officer who sells information to gangsters.

Saving our environment is not what many people in Russia think it is: planting trees on National holidays and making nestboxes. It is a long, exhausting, desperate, and sometimes bloody war against human greed and stupidity. As any war, it has its own victims and heroes. And also its traitors.

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