Urbanization of the firefly

By Zhang Hongpei Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/16 17:38:39

NGO suggests win-win approach to prevent endangerment of species

A firefly commercial show in East Lake ecological scenic area of Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei Province Photo: IC

The public's interest in fireflies, a type of insect also known as the 'lightning bug' with embedded cultural meaning in China, has been rising recently. This interest trend has fueled a profitable firefly entertainment business both online and offline, but, as a consequence, large amounts of the insect family have been dying off. Experts say that enthusiasts' innocent intention to merely enjoy the beauty of the peculiar insect should not be blamed. However, the highly lucrative commercial chain is in urgent need of regulation in order to prevent the endangerment and subsequent extinction of the firefly species.

As a Chinese Valentine's Day symbol of romance during the summer, as well as a cultural carrier favored by traditional Chinese poems, fireflies, blinking insects originating far away from urban life, have been over-consumed in cities in recent years for entertainment purposes.

In scientific terms, fireflies are actually beetles of the Lampyridae family.

In order to satisfy people's curiosity about the insect and its glowing beauty, fireflies have been caught and transported from their natural habitats to urban areas where they can hardly survive, resulting in their dwindling population, which poses a threat to the entire species.

From July 7 to 31, Tangshan, North China's Hebei Province, will stage a commercial firefly show in a local park during the summer vacation to allow more parents to introduce the mysterious bug to their children.

A local resident, surnamed Qi, told the Global Times Friday after she left the show's venue that, "This was my first time seeing fireflies and their bodies light up in person. I think they're really beautiful, especially when they fly in the darkness."

''The experience did not evoke any nostalgic feelings from my childhood about fireflies or any association with a romantic starry night as promoted in the event advert however, but instead, taught me something new and scientific about the insect," she said.

NGO concerns

According to statistics from the Firefly Environment Alliance (FEA), a domestic NGO founded in 2015, there were 70 to 80 firefly shows across China in 2015, with the number increasing to 121 in 2016. Most shows are hosted in East China's Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, Central China's Hubei Province and Southeast China's Sichuan Province.

"At least 10,000 fireflies are used in each show … but all perish afterward due to their short survival time - which ranges from seven to 15 days - and their natural inability to adapt to urban environments," said Yue Hua, founder of the FEA.

What positions the firefly species in an even more precarious situation is the fact that there is a high death rate among the insects during the long-distance transportation from rural to urban areas. "About one quarter to three quarters of adult fireflies cannot survive during the process," Yue told the Global Times.

So far, about 40 shows have been publicized in the media this year. Of these shows, one quarter has been canceled as a result of advocacy efforts from the FEA, which communicated with the local forestry department in order to prioritize animal welfare over entertainment and profit.

High demand, huge profits

According to an August 2016 report released by China's first firefly protection organization, a fully developed commercial chain has already taken shape.

Most of the insects are captured in the wild, mainly in Ganzhou, East China's Jiangxi Province, Tunchang, South China's Hainan Province and Xishuangbanna, Southwest China's Yunnan Province, the report showed.

"Fireflies naturally live in a conducive ecological environment with water and plants," Li Xueyan, an associate professor with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the Global Times Thursday.

In 2016, there were 26 vendors selling fireflies on Alibaba's online shopping platform Taobao, up 28.9 percent year-on-year, with one vendor selling out at least 10,000 fireflies per month, according to the report.

Fu Xinhua, head of the organization, also a botanist at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, capital of Hubei, told the Global Times Thursday that firefly sales emerged on Taobao between 2009 and 2010, a period of time when the insect became popularized at weddings in particular.

The firefly commercial show soon proved to be a profitable business.

For example, the show's organizers purchase quantities of fireflies at a very low cost of 1 yuan ($0.15) to 1.2 yuan per bug. About 20,000 fireflies are enough for a weekend show, at which the ticket can be sold at 60 yuan each, generating profits at around 30,000 to 40,000 yuan per 1,000 visitors, according to Fu.

As for a typical firefly retailer in Jiangxi's Xiaobu county, they can gain about 1.2 million yuan in profits per year, Yue from the FEA noted.

Experts warn that the proliferation of wild firefly capturing can endanger the species, bringing extreme instability to the ecological pyramid in the long run.

Pressed by the public's opinion of the controversial way fireflies are treated, Taobao in May issued a ban on all sales of the bioluminescent insect from the wild.

Exploring a win-win approach

It would be unfair to blame urbanites and their curiosity of nature for the rising firefly brawl however, experts said. 

To combat animal welfare concerns, but still enable a profitable market, it is important to explore a compromise. It has been suggested that the public's intrigue of fireflies could still be satisfied as long as the insect was maintained in a habitable environment, thus combining visual value with ecological value.

"Firefly viewing venues could be established in places where they can thrive in their natural habitat, such as the countryside or suburbs, simultaneously allowing the insect to live in a conducive environment while allowing people to visit them," Li suggested.

However, this reform would need to be established through a step-by-step model and under the cooperation between local governments and enterprises, Li said.

She noted that most business operators would be reluctant to pursue such a venture due to the uncertain profitability prospect of this differently structured project.

Supported by some environmental protection foundations, China's first firefly protection base, led by Fu, the aforementioned botanist, was set up in Hubei's Dalei Mountain in 2014.

"On the 22-square-kilometer mountain, there are no street lamps installed to prevent fireflies from becoming killed by the light source, which would otherwise threaten the species," Fu said.

"In the future, we hope to create a mutually beneficial and mature [business] mode based on technology, offering an opportunity for the public to appreciate the fantastic view of dancing fireflies yet ensuring the insects are breeding and living in a habitable environment," Fu noted.

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