Sunday 9 February 2014

... butterflies, beetles and orchids

[This follows on from the above post]
I am working on a book on the antiquities trade which I hope to finish in mid 2015. One of the chapters will be comparing collecting antiquities to collecting other things 'from the earth', like meteorites, geological specimens, botanical collections, conchology, beetle and butterfly collecting.  In fact, all of these share a number of characteristics, one of which is that the resource is dwindling, and needs protecting - and collectors have a part to play in that.

Take butterflies, certain species in Europe are currently disappearing at an alarming rate. This is because their habitats are disappearing as humans change more and more of their environment to suit themselves.
So if one collects coleoptera or butterflies, certain species which insect-enthusiast parents and grandparents could pop into the killing jar without a thought are now out of bounds because newly-rewritten laws now protect far more species than even a decade ago.

There is for example a rather spectacular stag beetletheir habitat has basically gone, and they've long been on the protected species statutes. Down in the south of Europe, economic development is still in a different mode and the beetles are still happily fossicking around in the leaves of the untouched forests, unprotected by law and collectors are catching them legally. One day this will stop, the beetle population will drop, and they will be added to (say) the Bulgarian statutes. Meanwhile the Polish collector who wants a series of the 'typical Polish species' of beetle, butterfly, or wild plant can legally import the ones that are not yet on the local legislation from Bulgaria.
which most beetle collectors hanker after (I suppose its like the coineys' Athenian tetra), but you should not buy them from Polish sellers as it's now totally illegal here to catch them, and possibly to have them. They have long been protected further west too as

So what is to stop them getting a Polish beetle and sticking the pin through a label saying "Bulgaria 1st May 2011"? Nothing of course.  I expect there are lying thieving and uncaring collectors of all sorts of things. Similarly I am sure many might be tempted to fill a gap in their collection from a dealer who says (or pretends) he does not actually know where it comes from but "you know, there are thousands of legally-acquired beetles on the market from Bulgaria where they are not protected by law". ("Go on, you know you want to buy it!"). Obviously nobody buying those beetles no-questions asked deserves to be considered ethical. But then, since we are talking about destroying life (even a beetle's life) for fun and depleting a resource which is not-yet-technically threatened (it's legal innit?), can one talk about ethics? Most beetle collectors would no doubt protest that they are not "doing it for fun", they are not beetle collectors but coleopterists - and they are "studying" the beetles and "learning about nature".    

If however one was buying a Bulgarian caught stag beetle like that from a seller, an ethical collector would want to satisfy themselves that it really was what the seller says. Insect collectors have always insisted that good practice dictates that each specimen (even in a basic kid's collection) is labelled not only with the species, but also with the place and date of capture, and who caught it. These data can be verified. A specimen without such a label is not considered legitimate.

In the case of the Bulgarian stag beetle, if the law changed, a legitimate specimen would be one caught before that date. One coming from capture in the wild after that date would be illegal. The same would go for other items such as certain wild plants and other specimens.  This I think is a very good parallel to the coin collecting case discussed above. In many regions which produce these items, there was a period when looting was at a low level, the market was supplied by accidental finds, mostly from the surface (for example picked up by ploughmen). This then changed as the market expanded and became more rapacious, and also switched from major items such as bronze and marble statues and whole mosaics to small items. Looting began then (and continues) on an industrial scale. Obviously an ethical collector will take every possible step avoid buying items coming from such looting, by paying attention to when and how an item came onto the market and avoiding items apparently "freshly surfaced" about which no information is available. Like the nudge-nudge-wink-wink beetles-of-unkown-origin.

Vignette: Stag beetles (eBay)

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