China: Headed for Endarkenment?

During summer 2016, some pretty alarming reports began circulating around the English-speaking world concerning commercial harvesting of Chinese fireflies from wild populations (see earlier post). In December, an international group of firefly experts called Fireflyers International Network (FIN) wrote a letter to the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection denouncing this practice. In March 2017, after receiving a very thoughtful response from the Chinese government, I’ll admit I felt pretty encouraged.

A villager collects fireflies attracted to his motorcycle headlight (Jiangxi Province, 2016).

But, sadly, the future remains grim for Chinese fireflies.

According to this article by reporter Zeng Jinqiu for Beijing News, villagers in rural areas can still make a pretty penny harvesting adult fireflies. Unfortunately, these adults only live for about one week,  and once removed from their native habitat,  they’re unable to successfully reproduce.

Who is buying live Chinese fireflies? It looks like the biggest consumers are  giant new indoor amusement parks that have popped up in various cities, and which put on live firefly shows for paying customers.

Commercial firefly exhibitions in 2016

During 2016, over fifty commercial venues purchased live fireflies (wild-caught) for their exhibitions (map prepared by firefly conservation group, 萤火虫生态线)

We have arranged a meeting with the fireflies… After a long disappearance, fireflies suddenly appeared … thousands of fireflies flying, shining in the dark, as bright as the stars,”  announced a recent advertisement for MAG Universal Magic World, one  amusement park located in the city of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

During April 2017 this park hosted ten live firefly exhibitions. At each event, they displayed a few thousand fireflies, which were housed in glass bottles, shaken periodically to encourage flashing. Because each night many fireflies died, they were replaced with fresh ones.

In a single year, with similar large-scale exhibitions of live fireflies happening all over China (see map), the lights of several hundred thousand fireflies were permanently extinguished.

MAG fireflies in jar

Staffer at MAG Universal Magic World in Guangzhou shakes captive fireflies to elicit flashing

The Chinese environmental group 萤火虫生态线 (Firefly Ecological Line) has been speaking out and organizing protests against such firefly exhibitions. But they say that even if they can convince Chinese amusement parks to halt their live firefly shows, ordinary people remain eager to purchase fireflies. That’s because these luminous creatures are perceived as very romantic gifts.  For instance, on the popular online shopping platform Taobao you can purchase live fireflies (萤火虫) to enliven  birthdays, engagements, anniversaries and for Qixi Festival (the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day). Some online shops offer 30 fireflies for 120 yuan (around $17.40, or 60¢ per firefly), while wholesalers sell packages of 300 live fireflies for as little as 100 yuan (20¢ per firefly). Meanwhile, back in rural areas, a typical firefly hunter earns less than 1¢ per firefly captured, notes Dr. Xinhua Fu, a firefly expert at Huazhong Agricultural University. Clearly, trafficking in live fireflies is a lucrative business.

Theme parks and online vendors often claim their fireflies have been artificially reared. But  this claim remains unverified because nobody will say exactly where these breeding farms are located. Also, rearing fireflies is quite difficult and labor-intensive (explained here)! According to experts, no one yet has developed the technology to profitably rear fireflies on such a massive scale. So Dr. Fu and other local experts are convinced that the majority of fireflies displayed at theme parks or sold online have been harvested from wild populations.

People seem oddly oblivious to the fact that such widespread harvesting threatens fireflies’ very survival. Yet based on scientific knowledge, we know that firefly populations cannot long endure such high harvest rates.

In China, as in most countries, fireflies currently enjoy no legal protection, so it’s difficult to halt commercial firefly harvesting. But firefly conservationists all agree on the urgent need for better educational outreach. Once people understand the fragility of their natural environment, they will want to protect it. And when people learn about the life cycle and habitat requirements of fireflies, they can begin to appreciate both their ecological and their cultural value. life cycle

The Chinese government will need to act quickly to identify and protect natural areas where fireflies thrive. Certain areas could be carefully developed into focal sites for ecotourism, encouraging people to enjoy viewing fireflies in their natural habitat. Firefly ecotourism also offers an alternative to collecting, as it provides long-term, sustainable economic benefits for local villagers. At the same time, research should focus on improving methods to artificially rear fireflies for use in museums and educational exhibits.

Before it’s too late.

(Many thanks to Avalon C.S. Owens for her skillful translation!)