Stop focusing on the wrong target !

by Albert Legrain

 Translation Éric Stassart


A better knowledge for a better protection


The expansion of the human species has been deeply modifying the natural balance of nature for thousands of years.

 Human activities (agriculture, hunting, ...) have erased several plant and animal species; among the best known examples, the Dodo from the Réunion Island or the Aepyornis from Madagascar come to mind.

 And in the course of last centuries the fast increase of human populations and of cultivated lands has reduced considerably the number of wild species and the rate of species extinction has even been higher than ever : for about the last forty years in Belgium, I have seen more than 10 species of Lepidoptera being considered extinct in our local fauna !

 It’s only since the last decades that Humanity has become aware of the ecological catastrophes, and that demure actions have been undertaken by authorities, mainly in creating nature reserves and national parks.  

More recently, species on the verge of extinction have been put on red lists and under pressure from ecological organisations, governments have enacted laws forbidding the capture, the possession and the trade of threatened species.  If for certain plant and vertebrate species these demagogical measures could be justified, no doubt they’ll end up being totally inefficient for the Insects : scientists have known for a long time that it’s the biotopes that should be preserved and protected.  Just to red-list a species will never warrant its protection.  On the contrary, these regulations set the prices high and encourage captures …  

In many countries, the possession or catching of insects for studying or collection is forbidden but agriculters can go on destroying the nature and using insecticides !  

In regard to insects protection these regulations are totally inadequate because they are based on the biased fact that entomologists with their takings are responsible for species becoming rare. Scientists have known for a long time that sampling carried out by collectors either professional or amateur can’t modify the balance of insect’s populations.  

Insects species form populations made of very numerous individuals whose balance is pretty steady. This balance is a result of positive elements (potential of reproduction, quantity of available food, climate conditions, ...) an negatives ones : natural calamities (tornados, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, fires, …) , viruses, bacteria’s, moistures, insects, arachnids, vertebrate insect eaters, rival species, …, destructions of biotopes, … Even if a population is threatened samplings from entomologists have an insignificant impact that couldn’t have an effect on the balance of populations.  

The biggest danger for wildlife is agriculture whatever the form it may take : plantations, grazing, silviculture (conifers, eucalyptus, …), …

Too regularly, a rich and varied ecosystem is replaced by overprotected monoculture : numerous spontaneous plant species and insects depending on them are extinct for good.  

For thousands of years, Africans have been carrying out their traditional slash-and-burn farming.  Until the 18th century, thanks to the low density of populations these acts had quite harmless consequences.  The burnt areas were re-colonised from spared sectors; but recent demographic explosion has accelerated the process which has become appalling : deforestation and bush fires will soon turn Africa into an ecological desert.  

Intentional fires have extremely negative consequences on the balance of nature:  

-         the useless waste of organic matter on the ground surface leads to humus impoverishing, to a reduction of ground fertility, to faster desertification;  

-         the release of enormous quantities of carbon anhydride (CO²) worsens the greenhouse effect and its climate consequences (let's mention that at the 2002 Johannesburg Global warming Summit , nothing was said about this aspect !); according to Al Gore, voluntary fires would be responsible for 30% of the CO² production !  

-         Flora and mainly fauna suffer from irreparable damage  The species whose developing phases take place under the ground can survive, but those whose 4 phases are out of the ground are inexorably terminated : this accounts for the extreme rarefaction of Zygaenidae in South Africa.  The areas that are regularly fired are only colonised by common opportunistic and ubiquitous species.  


scary : 6 months of bush fires in Africa

(from Al GORE : "An Inconvenient Truth”, 2006)


"It's high time that the African Union and African governments took drastic measures to put an end to these acts !"


  Even nature parks are victims of intentional fires :


-         In November 2001 I had the opportunity of covering a few hundred kilometres in the famous Kruger Park in RSA : more than half of the prospected sector was in flames or had just been set on fire … apparently set by the very people in charge of the park !  

-         If you use Google Earth to view satellite photos of  the Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal you'll see hundreds of square kilometres of forests in fire or reduced to ashes … Such identical sad scenarios are to be seen in Nigeria , in Cameroon (Faro Reserve), in Niger, in Tchad, in Ethiopia and elsewhere.









The Malagasy catastrophe

The human colonisation of the Big Island is quite recent : the first inhabitants, from Asian origin, are said to have taken possession of the high plateau of the centre in the seventh century. After clearing they did farming, mainly rice culture.  Africans are then said to have settled on the low grounds and have introduced zebus and slash-and-burn farming.  

In the 17th century when Europeans started to settle trading posts, the degradation of the ecosystems had already got further, and since then, it has only been worse. TV coverage regularly shows us the fragility of the shelter zones and the rarefaction of the lemurine populations.  Repeated fires cause a drastic reduction of the number of reptiles as well, notably chameleons.  

European explorers took part actively in the destruction of unique ecosystems; (Mr Pierre Viette (1963 : 41) tells the fire of Mount Tsaratanana , the top of the island, in 1903 by the explorer Lemoine.  

In 2003, President Ravalomana promulgated a law, a very sensible one, forbidding bush fires and sentencing the offenders to 10 years in prison. Some were jailed but under aggressive pressure from charcoal-burners they were set free and the law has never been applied again.  In November 2005, I've seen hundred of square kilometres burnt … How sad to see such a beautiful country devastated by its own inhabitants !  

And thanks to the Malagasy legislation, concerned about protecting the fauna, in former times so rich, it is forbidden for biologists to catch any  insect, even in a private property !  


 *       *    

It is very easy, of course, to convert the convinced : all the readers of this publication will totally agree with me.  But it would be better to explain to political leaders that entomologists, such easy targets, have nothing to do with nature destruction and species rarefaction.  On the contrary, amateur-entomologists, passionate in their science, are in the best position to advise the authorities on the subject of nature conservation.   

Every year a few thousands entomologists, professional or amateur, collectors or searchers, collect in the World a few million insects, for a study and/or a collection : insignificant impact in comparisons with billions of insects killed by traffic, public or private lightning, intentional fires, clearing, farming, grazing, urbanization, industrial pollution, open mines and quarries, etc …  

In south Africa , in the middle of a  wooded savannah I saw a petrol station which was widely lit by mercury-vapour lights : every night tens of thousands of insects were attracted.  Those who could escape bats were found in the morning, crashed in number on the ground, notably Saturniidae.  At dawn, the staff had to sway for half an hour to fill several bins.  Compared to these daily slaughters occasional polls carried out by entomologists have an insignificant impact indeed !  

The best performing collector could not, through his sampling, alter the balance, even made fragile, of an insect species.  On the other hand, wood fires, moor farming or draining will definitely lead to the extinction of localised plant or animal species.  

Dear Colleagues, spread this message around you. Maybe we will  convince the Authorities eventually so ?


Pierre VIETTE, 1963 :

Noctuelle Trifides de Madagascar,

Écologie, Biogéographie, Morphologie et Taxonomie (Lep.)

Ann. Soc. Ent. France, [1962], 131/1 : 40-41 :


"In 1903, P. Lemoine who was to become Professor at and Director of the Museum, is studying the geology of the massif.  His expedition will cause, as the previous ones, fires which will forever make the vegetation disappear from the high tops of the Tsaratanana and this before the study of it.  P. Lemoine is indeed in ecstasy before the beauty of these fires : « all the slopes set ablaze from the valley to the top and illuminating the whole region as magnificent  fire works, forming an unforgettable view » (quoted from Perrier de la Bathie , 1927 : 26)."