Butterfly hunters

A recent book by a butterfly hunter (Larsen, 2003) reminded me (PJ) of the heroes of the past, those people who collected butterflies or birds in the jungles of America, Asia and Africa, before availability of such facilities as roads, cars, refrigerators, and comfortable hotels, and faced the risk of living among often hostile natives. Those lepidopterists were often victims of diseases, and of arrows, spears or darts from the natives, but they were at the same time often rewarded to see the beauty of a new Ornithoptera, Papilio or Morpho for the first time. Among those heroes were Bates in Amazonia, Wallace in the Insulinde and Darwin, even if he travelled on the Beagle relatively more comfortably, even if he was seasick most of the time. It is has been said that Darwin got Chagas disease when he was in South America.

Linnaeus during the 18th century described plants and animals sitting behind his desk, as also did the great Buffon during the same period. It was well accepted then that the naturalist stayed in his "Natural History cabinet" and did not travel. Even Jean-Henri Fabre, the entomologist, had not travelled outside his Mediterranean region. He, however, used his time to observe insects in the field, their behaviour in their natural surroundings. He inspired many later naturalist travellers. The understanding of biology of species had to suffer, but in that period, when shipwrecks were frequent, and transportation was slow and hazardous, any trip was an adventure. Even at the end of the 19th century, when Xavier Montrouzier described new plants or insects from New Caledonia, it probably took 4 to 5 months before a letter from the island could reach France. No telephone, no telex, and no software to communicate. How exciting to see a world without pollution, rich with millions of creatures, covered by dense forests, but the main obstacle to nature study was lack of means to study and describe this wealth. Even now, when forests are being cut down, pollution and fires dominate the landscape, buildings and other constructions destroy wild life, there is still a lot of living beings, including insects to be described before they disappear forever. It has been estimated that, at the present speed of description of new species, 3000 years would be needed before everything could be studied and given a name. Will man survive that long on a degraded planet? Molecular biology, cladistics, bar code, even if one day something replaces the Linnaean classification, will never succeed to describe all the living things in foreseeable future.

There were traveller naturalists as well as brave and famous sailors in the past, and the achievements of entomologists, if less well known, were as spectacular as those of the navigators and sailors. Besides Darwin and his famous travel on the Beagle, Wallace, who was codiscoverer with Darwin of the theory of evolution through selection, visited Amazonia and Indonesia. In fact there were many travellers at that time. Thunberg, a student of Linnaeus, went to Japan, Commerson described many plants, and at that time French and British sailors took with them naturalists who discovered the astonishing world of Australia and the neighbouring islands.

The baron von Humboldt explored Central Asia and tropical America. He acted in those parts as a botanist, a geologist and a geographer. He was also a zoologist-entomologist, but to a lesser extent. In such studies there were his predecessors too. In 1651, a Spanish naturalist, Francisco Hernandez, described for the first time the ant tree of the Aztecs, the famous Acacia cornigera. Spicy description was done in latin: Generantur praeterea intra corniculas formicas quaedam tenues fulvaeque et nigricantes. Hernandez believed very firmly that the inflated stipular spines of those Acacia species, in which ants were housed, also generated the ants. As early as 1648, a Dutchman named Macgravius described before him in Brazil the association of ants and Cecropia, and another Dutchman, Rumphius, discovered in 1750, in Java, the epiphytic ant Rubiaceae, Myrmecodia and Hydnophytum. He also believed in spontaneous generation of ants inside the ant nests. It took many more years before Pasteur could finally destroy the myth.

Traveller naturalists, like Belt, who was also a geologist, in 1874, described the ant-plant symbiosis on the Acacia in Nicaragua. These plant associated ants constitute an efficient defensive army, which prevents mammals from eating the leaves, and protect them from a more dangerous enemy, the leaf-cutting ants, the famous Atta. In exchange of these services, the ants, not only are lodged in all security in the plant, but also they receive a large supply of food in the form of food bodies or trophosomes. Some plants or trees, among the myrmecophytes, Acacia, Cecropia, Macaranga and several others provide the ants lodging and food. In exchange, the ants protect and clean the plant, destroy weeds, and feed the plant with nitrogenous compounds (excreta and cadavers). It is for mutual benefit, a pure symbiosis. Even if Belt had some perception of this relationship, it took many years before the whole situation was fully understood.

Bates, another traveller naturalist, believed that the leaf-cutting ants cut the vegetation in order to line their nest, a notion based on an old Indian legend. Belt discovered the truth in Nicaragua, that the leaves are brought back into the nest in order to make a compost and to grow fungi, on which adults and larvae in the ant colony feed.

It would be too long a story, if we refer to the work of all those early traveller naturalists, who, for most of them, have written excellent books, reprinted from time to time. Those books remain precious witnesses of the past, when the forest, still undisturbed, were occupied by tribals, living in symbiosis with nature. The "civilisation" did not reach then the tribal populations, the insects were probably thousand times more numerous at individual and at species levels, and mammals and birds much more common and varied. When Julian Huxley wanted, in the name of UNESCO, to start, in 1946, an international exploration of the Amazon, it was still much the same. Unfortunately, for political reasons, the exploration was slowed down by the Brazilian government of that time, finally cancelled, and Huxley resigned. Brazil wrongly apprehended spread of neocolonialism! Today, we lack taxonomists in botany and entomology in adequate numbers, and innumerable insects and plants have vanished.

The lack of trained taxonomists is general and everywhere in Africa, in Madagascar, in Asia, and in Australia. Big rainy forests are often nothing more than a tourist attraction. The destruction of forests has been fast. In New-

Guinea, tea, coffee, cocoa are planted in the highlands, where were living in pristine forest Ornithoptera, Tmides, Graphium, Papilio and so many other beautiful butterflies, which will be in near future surviving only in museum drawers.

Le Cerf, the French lepidopterist, in 1933, narrated the explorations of butterfly hunters of the past centuries, including that by Hans Frühstorfer, who travelled into the tropical world, politically then more accessible than now, to capture new species and genera and to enrich his collections. His account includes explorers up to the last century. Let us also note that in that time, it was permitted to catch a butterfly and to collect a beetle. Now the governments of the world, e.g. Brazil, Australia and many others, prohibit any insect collection. People collecting moths and butterflies or plants or beetles, are jailed in New Zealand, Brazil, India, Costa Rica and elsewhere. Small developing countries ask for money, and when money is collected and paper work accomplished, the permit is seldom delivered. It is hypocrisy in the name of nature conservation, as forests are being cut with impunity and with them are disappearing butterflies and other insects, while the poor entomologist can only take pictures of a vanishing world, a ghost fauna and flora. PJ has seen on Bougainville mountains, the unique site of a very rare Ornithoptera, Australian pilots spraying defoliants and reducing trees to stumps, as would happen in an artificial lake. Families were living nearby, and we are aware that the chemicals, being applied, are carcinogenic. Mining of copper was being given priority, and people were being told that the underground wealth belonged to the Queen!

Our experience in the tropics has shown that it is very difficult to choose one's collecting area. For collection choosing time is important, because, if the seasons are succeeding, humid or dry, hot or cold, one is never sure to find the "beast" which is being searched for. Seasons vary in intensity greatly from year to year, and specially in Central America with the phenomenon El Niño. In what remains of the Atlantic forest in Brazil, there are dry years and humid years, and years when even it is quite cold. Rarely in winter there is snow in Curitiba.

PJ remembers the year, when crossing the island of Lugon in the Philippines, where he was looking for Negritos, a cousin of Papilio blumei, over some blue Verbenaceae. Seeing everywhere the butterfly with its green band on the wings was a gratifying sight. He appreciated his luck, since sometimes the weather is not at all favourable. On the contrary, in New Guinea, we can see all the year in the middle mountains along the rivers the beautiful Graphium weskei drinking water in the sand and, in plains; it is no less beautiful than Papilio ulysses, looking for its host-plant, an Evodia. P. ulysses does not like much the imported Citrus, and often the caterpillars die on the leaves. On the contrary, in New Caledonia, P. montrouzieri, also of an azure blue butterfly, accepts easily Citrus leaves, though it is not its normal food-plant. Making a successful collection is not readily predictable.

As Le Cerf (1933) rightly writes, for the butterfly hunter it is a fight all the time, even if he foresees less favourable situations. Sometimes, one does not find anything, the period is bad, the unfavourable season has started much earlier, or the desired season is too late to start, the year is too dry, or excessively rainy, or a poor area turns out unexpectedly rich. Time lost, money lost, pain with no return, and the collector traveller goes back to the coast, happy about safe return, if he could escape health hazards, which is not always the case.

Le Cerf has talked about a good old time, when malaria prevention could be achieved only with quinine, transportation was primitive, roads were nonexistent, and the natives hostile and aggressive. What is it now? Some of these countries suffer from civil war, and it is no more safe now to penetrate into Zaire than during Stanley and Livingstone time. Oases of peace remain: Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, and many South American and Central American countries. Many countries now are modern and well equipped, but butterfly or beetle hunting remains forbidden. In most of the areas, forests are being cut down, monoculture reduces the insect breeding, and nitrates and pesticides destroy a great part of the remaining fauna. Malaria, once nearly eradicated, has returned with force, and is resistant to most of the synthetic antimalarials. Plasmodium has developed resistance to drugs, as mosquitoes have become resistant to most insecticides. As an effective protection against malaria WHO offers now pyrethroid impregnated mosquito nets! However, repellents remain quite efficient against bites. In some areas, like Papua-New Guinea, legal collecting of insects has become replaced by underground poaching, which is not easily controllable. Some kind of conservation hysteria has developed now among nations, when the best means of conservation is to stop forest cutting and criminal fires. Unfortunately, there is little we can do about population increase and consequent growing urbanisation.

Let us think about those butterfly hunters of the past, when the forests were intact and the insects abundant. Some of them lost their life, e.g. Goudot disappeared more than a century ago in Madagascar; Lix, who was hunting in New Ireland for the Paris Museum, was killed and eaten by the natives in 1892. New Ireland has always been an unproductive and barren land. It is there that in 1879 the unfortunate expedition of marquis de Rays, a Breton gentleman, started. He devised an enormous swindle and proclaimed himself king of that imaginary kingdom. Bretons, Normands, Vendeans, Italians died there, victims of fevers or eaten by the natives. Others were rapatriated to New Caledonia, some went to New Britain and successfully established there plantations. In Port-Breton, we can see the ruins of the town founded by those unfortunate adventurers. Their millstone is exposed now in Rabaul, in New Britain. It is not surprising that 14 years later, Lix was captured and killed in the area. The French writer, Alphonse Daudet, inspired by his adventure, wrote Port-Tarascon.

New Guinea, formerly an impenetrable land, has been responsible for the death of several butterfly hunters, and recently a young Rockefeller disappeared there on the northern coast. Werner died after six months of hematuria. Doherty escaped by miracle from the spear of a native, who reached one of his carriers. Xavier Montrouzier received in his back in the Solomon the spade of a native, and it took him 6 months to get the wood pieces out of his body. Another time a spade barely missed him in the north-east of New Caledonia, in Balade, where he was trying to establish a new mission.

Today the plane carries the modern butterfly hunters. They have electricity and UV for their traps, bungalows for sleeping, and asphalted roads for their jeeps. But those roads are also crowded by trucks, loaded with logs from rare trees. It is a current situation in Thailand, Borneo, Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and it will go on until the death of the last tree. In Amazonia, after clearing the land, the trees are left decaying on the spot. Then African grasses are planted to feed the local zebus, of which the future is to finish as hamburgers in various American fast food stands. The sandy ground is covered by a thin humus layer, which is soon washed out by rains. In Amazonia, the biomass survives in a few centimeters of soil, and, what was once a forest, has been cut, only to grow shrubbery Solanum and several species of Cecropia. In the north of Panama, along Costa-Rica border, a formely dense forest, has been cut down for farming, and later abandoned. There exists now a forest of Cecropia trees and nothing else. PJ has visited in Banfora (Burkina Fasso) several years ago, and saw there a rich endemic forest, formerly protected by the former colonists, totally cut to replant eucalypts. All that with the blessing of FAO! And eucalypti burn like matches in an area renowned for its bush fires.

Those, who are worried about decline of insect biodiversity have to realize that generally insects are highly fecund, and that collecting some specimens by beetle or butterfly hunters does not bring about any considerable decrease in the insect population size. The main factor, responsible for driving insects to extinction, is habitat loss. This situation is well illustrated by the case of the Lange's Metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo langei), which was fast disappearing in California (See "WINGS", Summer, 1987, published by the Xerxes Society of USA). Naturalists noted that the butterfly was breeding on a weed, naked buckwheat growing on sand dunes along the banks of the river San Joaquin, that the sand dunes were being destroyed through sand mining, and that this was the reason for the disappearance of the butterfly. Steps were taken to prevent destruction of the sand dunes over a large area, and thus the butterfly could be saved from extinction.

The effective way to conserve insect biodiversity is to save insect habitats. A careful field study reveals what a particular insect needs for its breeding and feeding, and this is what a naturalist does. But to identify the habitats, needed by different insect species, would take long, though setting up national parks would help make the process faster. Meanwhile we should take care to protect our forests, wetlands and other natural environs as well as we can.


Larsen, T. B. 2004. Hazards of Butterfly Collecting. Cravitz Printing Co., Brentwood,

Essex, U.K.: 250 pp. Le Cerf, F. 1933. Papillons. L'Illustration, Noël 1933 : 8 pp.

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