Tag Archives: ecotourism

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

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The Double-edged Sword of Firefly Ecotourism

I believe that firefly ecotourism is poised to take off all over the world within the next few years. It’s already quite a popular activity in many Asian countries. For centuries, traveling to the countryside to admire the slow, floating flashes of Genji fireflies has been a favorite summer past-time in Japan. Over the past several decades, the synchronous fireflies that stretch out along the mangrove rivers of Thailand and Malaysia have spawned a thriving ecotourist industry.

catching fireflies woodblock

In Taiwan, the government has recently been promoting firefly tourism, and now each year over 100,000 visitors climb up into the Alishan mountains to view the summer and winter fireflies that thrive there. In other places, firefly tourism remains in its infancy. As my earlier post describes, visitors to firefly ecotourist sites in Nanacamilpa, Mexico have skyrocketed since 2014. In the United States, places like Elkmont, Tennessee and North Carolina’s Dupont State Forest are becoming increasingly popular destinations for their firefly-viewing.

Photo by Radim Schreiber (Radim Photo)

Synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains

Yet firefly ecotourism carries both opportunities and challenges. On the positive side, it offers tangible benefits to local communities by promoting sustainable economic development. It’s also a terrific opportunity to educate visitors concerning the behavior, ecology, and habitat requirements of these beloved insects.

On the other hand, ecotourism carries challenges. It brings hordes of people into natural areas that are often far too fragile. In the case of fireflies, artificial light must be minimized, as it can interfere with fireflies’ luminous courtship signals. Some firefly species have flightless females, and these easily get trampled by people walking through their habitat. To minimize harm to natural firefly populations, thoughtful habitat management needs to be combined with environmental education.

As humans, we have a long history of taking our natural resources completely for granted. All too often, we regretfully note their demise only after they have vanished. Great auks, giant sequoias, Alishan’s hinoki cedars, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are but a few of the treasures we’ve already lost.

Maybe it’s time to pause a moment. Let’s decide what parts of the natural world we truly value. What kind of world do we want to leave for our children and our grandchildren? Then let’s get busy protecting those places and those creatures before it’s too late.

Taking in the fireflies @ Liyu Lake

Yesterday we took a firefly tour with our friends from Taroko National Park, Sophia & Soo and their two daughters. We drove south through the East Rift Valley, stopped off for dinner, and then headed to Liyu Lake in Hualien County.

Just past the entrance, the warm glow coming from a tent hung with red paper lanterns and brimming with people enticed us inside. There, enthusiastic volunteers talked to small groups of people – these were mostly adults along with a few kids. Using the colorful banners strung along the walls, each volunteer gave a short, informative talk describing the firefly life cycle, ecology and behavior.

Later, we followed Jackie, our volunteer guide, out into the night to enjoy the romantic flashdance of black-assed fireflies (Ascondita cerata), Taiwan’s most widely distributed species.

Jackie told us that 200+ people visit Liyu Lake every night during the summer-long firefly season. Each spring she attends a 2-day training session in order to be a firefly guide. The government funds the training program, along with all the interpretive materials. As Jackie explained to us, the government thinks this investment is worthwhile because it “shows the community the value of preserving fireflies.” So inspiring!

But it left me wondering – what would it take to set up a similar education program at firefly tourist sites in the United States?

Can fireflies flee forest fires?

Following a summer of scorching drought, wildfires have ravaged parts of the southeastern United States. Last month, a devastating fire burned out of control through Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

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Chimney 2 forest fire burns in the Smoky Mountains (Nov 2016)

From its starting point in the Great Smokies National Park, the fire exploded into an inferno fanned by strong winds. For days, hundreds of firefighters battled the blaze. The Sevier County mayor called the combination of wind and dry tinder a “once-in-a-lifetime event…a perfect storm.” By the time they finally extinguished the fire, the charred landscape stretched across 17,500 acres. Fourteen people lost their lives, and nearly 200 were injured. Tens of thousands were forced to evacuate, and over 2400 homes and businesses were destroyed.

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Firefly Tourism Grows in Mexico

The dense oyamel fir forests of Central Mexico are filled with an extraordinary light show every summer (June through August). In the town of Nanacamilpa, located in the state of Tlaxcala, there’s a 200 hectare firefly sanctuary that recently has been attracting over 50,000 tourists each year.

Facebook luciernagas

One group, called  Amigos de las Luciérnagas (Friends of the Fireflies), is worried that excessive tourism could have a negative impact on the firefly population (a newly described, endemic species called Macrolampis palaciosi). So they’ve started a national  campaign to raise awareness about these fireflies’ habitat requirements and their need for protection. You can learn more here (in Spanish).

Maybe it’s time to think about similarly protecting popular firefly tourist sites in the U.S.!

 

Synchronicity

Stop what you’re doing and watch this short video taken in Samut Prakan province, Thailand. Turn off the lights, go full screen, and get ready to be blown away by thousands of male fireflies regularly synchronizing their flashes to attract females. They synchronize naturally, although here the fireflies (known as Pteropytx malaccae) have been triggered by some flashing LED lights. This video is part of a 2015 installation work by Robin Meier & Andre Gwerder, it’s called “Synchronicity (Thailand).

You can also watch some spectacular displays of the U.S. synchronous firefly, Photinus carolinus, which lives parts of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. You can read more about these traveling synchronizers in Silent Sparks (Chapter 2: Lifestyles of the Stars).

Produced by Audemars Piguet Art Commission, Le Brassus
Director of Photography: Nikolai Zheludovich; Editing: Mariko Montpetit
Special thanks to Anchana Thancharoen and her team at Kasetsart University, Bangkok