Protecting Atrisk Insect Species

Conservationists have concluded that the current, widespread destruction of the earth's biodiversity must be matched by a conservation response an order of magnitude greater than currently exists.

Protecting Habitat

Ultimately, to protect any species one must protect its habitat. Some insects need only small areas to thrive, and even backyard gardens may help some pollinator insects. Large swaths of land set aside as reserves, wilderness, national parks, and conservation easements ultimately may benefit insects and other invertebrates. Recent evidence, however, shows that some reserves, with management plans tailored to vertebrates, do little to protect insects such as butterflies.

One important caveat for setting aside land for insects is that species often have subtle habitat requirements and can be lost even from reserves because of apparently minor habitat changes. For example, larvae of the large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) are obligate parasites of red ant colonies (Myrmica sabuleti). In 1979, this butterfly went extinct in England because habitat was not managed for these red ants. The large blue subsequently has been reintroduced successfully to appropriately managed sites in England using a subspecies from Sweden.

Federal Laws and Legislative Efforts

Federal legislation is vital to the protection of endangered insects. In the United States, the formal listing of species as threatened or endangered under federal or state endangered species legislation has been an extremely effective habitat protection tool because (1) these species are protected by law and (2) money is allocated for recovery efforts. In addition to this protection, a listing as "sensitive" or "indicator species" under U.S. Forest Service National Forest Management Act regulations, or even a formal listing from nongovernmental organizations such as IUCN and the Natural Heritage Program, raises visibility and an awareness of these species. This increased attention may lead to the stricter legal protection of a federal listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Other countries also have legislative efforts to protect insects and other invertebrates. In 1986, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a charter favoring the protection of invertebrates. This charter has raised awareness to the plight of endangered invertebrates and, in some cases, led to habitat protection. For most developing countries in the world, protective legislation for insects is either lacking or only sporadically applied. One exception is Papua New Guinea, where there is legislation, as well as a management program, that protects the rarest birdwing butterflies, allows only citizens to sell native insects, and protects some insect habitat.

Research

Before we can work to protect insects and other invertebrates we need to know, at least, what species are present, if populations are stable or declining, and the habitat needs of these populations. In the long run, more emphasis needs to be placed on invertebrate survey, systematics, taxonomy, and population ecology so that these species can be identified and cataloged and their life histories understood. Research needs to go hand in hand with conservation, for a catalog of extinct species is of little use.

Insects as Commodities

Conservation-based ranching of butterflies and other charismatic insects, like scarabs, can protect and conserve critical habitat for threatened species where the appropriate tropical forests remain intact and where live insect export is legal. The tropical forests of Central and Latin America, the Philippines, Madagascar, Kenya, Malaysian Borneo, Jamaica, and Indonesian Irian Jaya meet these criteria. These ranches not only offer protection to these charismatic insects and their habitat, but also serve as a sustainable means of economic development.

We differentiate between butterfly farming and ranching. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) "farming" operations are essentially closed systems, no longer dependent upon regular infusions of wild stock to produce successive generations in captivity. Ranching operations, on the other hand, are open-ended and depend upon a recurrent infusion of wild stock (such as by harvesting early instar larvae in the wild and then growing them out in controlled environments). Using the CITES terminology, butterfly ranching is preferable to farming because the viability of ranching efforts depends upon the continued availability of wild habitat from which to take the needed stock. This assumes, of course, that any harvest from the wild is sufficiently controlled so as not to be excessive.

Education

To conserve insects successfully, the general public, scientists, land managers, and conservationists need to understand the extraordinary value that these organisms provide. It is unlikely that very many people will develop an affinity for these animals, but it is plausible that a more compelling depiction of the contributions insects make to human welfare and survival will improve the public's attitude toward these organisms. An ambitious public education program would enhance recognition of the positive values of invertebrates and, indeed, all biological diversity.

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