It should be nobody's business to tamper with nature

Commercial shows featuring the release of exotic species has conservationists in a flap

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 September, 2013, 2:46am

Last week, thousands of people gathered in a sport centre in Guangzhou's university area to behold "the light of nature" as some 7,000 fireflies were set loose in the darkness.

The event, sponsored by a Beijing-based company that breeds and sells the insects, was billed as an environmentally friendly way for residents to glimpse country living as the fireflies filled the sport centre like "fluorescent glitter".

Deng Wenjie, a resident in his 30s, paid for tickets and took his daughter to the event. "I used to watch fireflies light up my yard on hot summer nights when I was a child," Deng said. "They were so beautiful, mysterious, and magical. It was a lot of fun for children to spot them and catch them. But now it's rare to see them in Guangzhou. I paid for the tickets and took my daughter. She's already seven years old and still has no idea how they shine."

The sentiment is hard to fault, but carting in boxes of insects from several provinces away - for a supposed green cause - has angered conservationists.

"We have no idea why the provincial authorities still allow this kind of commercial activity and even mislead the public into thinking that it is beneficial to nature," said Zhu Xuejun , secretary general of the Shenzhen Green Sources Environmental Protection Volunteers Association. "Residents were not just paying to see the fireflies glow but also paying to shorten their lives."

Biologists believe fireflies' night-time bioluminescence allows them to find mates. They can notify potential partners with a long glow, quick flash or steady pulse of light. Entire swarms have been observed to synchronise their flashes, in a complex cycle tied to weather, diet and even altitude. But the thousands packed into the stadium were trapped, Zhu notes, and in all likelihood died without ever having mated.

"Besides, we believe many of the fireflies were caught in the wild in Guangxi," Zhu said. Such harvesting would have a "severe impact" on the insects' reproduction cycles.

It's not the first time that local governments have approved large commercial activities ostensibly in name of environmental protection.

In May, a huge influx of caterpillars at Baiyun Mountain outside Guangzhou scared locals and tourists away from the city's sole national park. The caterpillars appeared after the state-run park allowed 100,000 butterflies to be set free as part of a commercial activity in the reserve during its first festival to promote "butterfly culture".

It wasn't long before fuzzy white caterpillars as large as a human thumb showed up, covering the park's trees. Some tourists were seen screaming and running after caterpillars dropped on their head or hands.

In July, a government-run park in Qingdao , Shandong province, imported 10,000 fireflies from Guangxi to attract visitors. Two days later, patrons noticed the light given off by the fireflies had dimmed. Park staff realised half of them had died.

Environmental experts have pleaded through the media to stop businesses that artificially introduce large numbers of non-native species into a vulnerable ecosystem. But the ventures continue to pull crowds, and it is not hard to see why. Butterflies and fireflies disappeared long ago from the urban areas of the Pearl River Delta.

"Fireflies are fragile creatures, and their habitat requirements are very specific," Zhu said. "It was the damaged urban environment that drove them away, especially the increased light pollution and traffic."

Instead of carting in nature for a day, it makes more sense to improve the urban environment to entice fireflies and butterflies to return on their own.

We could plant more trees in our communities; we could clean our streams and ponds, which are all good habitats for fireflies, and we could try to cut down on the amount of light pollution. But this won't be easy given the government's obsession with development.

In the meantime, business for the firefly importers - the Chile Nobutsune International Cultural Company - appears good. "Many parks welcome us around the country and our schedule for October is already full," said the company's manager, Zhu Wanyu.