Conservationists welcome Taobao's ban on firefly transactions

Updated 2017-06-09 15:29:41 China.org.cn

Yue Hua, a member of the Endangered Species Fund, dedicated to ecological diversity, was happy to know Taobao.com, China's leading online business platform, had banned transactions involving endangered fireflies since the end of May.

Over the past few years, Yue and his colleagues have striven to identify the hideouts of firefly businesses, now estimated to be heavily affected by the Taobao prohibition.

Fu Xinhua, vice professor from the botanic technological school of Huazhong Agriculture University and the top expert involved in research and the protection of fireflies, warned: "The number of fireflies is declining fast and they are as greatly endangered as some of the species now on the brink of extinction."

Two weeks after the ban, delivery companies, such as SF Express, have refused to receive any orders related to the endangered insect, which is raising a glimmer of hope for firefly protection.

According to a statement issued by the company, "As Taobao is unable to tell whether the fireflies awaiting deliveries are artificially bred or not, it will not continue to approve any transactions. All will be treated as wildlife with no exceptions."

The announcement inspired Yue with the hope that hordes of fireflies will reappear on summer nights as they did decades ago.

According to Fu, about 95 percent urban children have never seen fireflies and more than 99 percent of rural residents mistake the species for harmful insects.

"Except those in some remote mountainous areas, fireflies, a species signaling regional environmental conditions, have almost disappeared," Yue said.

However, at the same time, the endangered insects could often be spotted at ceremonial business occasions, where their illumination is used for the celebration of happy moments. They sometimes also serve as treasure pots, captured for theme parks.

"The celebrations do not lead their eventual release, but rather accelerates their death, which, if not stopped, will lead to the extinction of the entire species," Yue said.

The capture of fireflies by men for business purposes has emerged of late as a new environmental threat.

In his report on firefly transactions in 2016, Fu said large numbers were captured in Ganzhou of Jiangxi Province, Tunchang of Hainan Province and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province. The conclusion is generally in line with the previous research in 2014 and 2015.

The release of fireflies between 2014 and 2016 for urban celebrations are growing and the top two provinces in this regard are said to be Guangdong and Zhejiang.

The accounts of most online stores related to the firefly businesses have been invalidated after Taobao's official notice that may hopefully terminate the industrial chains in the insect business. People were not annoyed by the idea of selling fireflies before 2015, nor were they convinced that their ruthless seizure of the insects might lead to the extinction of the species.

Local farmers cajoled by free treats and prepayments struggled to capture the diminishing number of fireflies with the instruments provided by the business agents. The purchase price was said to be about 0.5 yuan (US.074) to one yuan for each insect.

According to Yue and Fu, the brutal capture could halt the reproduction of the insects during the time when they shine, thus diminishing their lifeline.

The captured insects were put into empty mineral water bottle, usually 50 to 100 in each, and sold to the agents. Previously, a firefly was priced at three to five yuan in the online stores registered in Taobao.

The mortality rate during the delivery process was estimated to reach 22.52 percent on average, 75.8 percent at maximum.

When the protest against the detrimental business started to emerge, some villagers set up several greenhouses claiming the fireflies they provided were all cultured by their own hands.

However, according to Fu and Yue, the cost to raise a firefly may reach as high as 20 to 30 yuan each, which would be far too expensive to be maintained, so the artificial breeding claim is treated with much skepticism.

In Fu's report, in 2016, there were a total of 49 stores on Taobao selling fireflies, registering a yearly increase of 28.9 percent. A business chain from capture to dispatch was taking shape as more than 6 million fireflies were sold last year by the agents involved in the business with rewards of 600,000 yuan to 1 million yuan each person.

Becoming aware of the investigation, some agents sought to bribe Yue to stop his research, implying he could join in them to share their gains, which the conservationist insisted he had rejected.

By preying on snails or conches, the larvae of fireflies are instrumental in promoting the growth of crops and vegetables, Yue explained.

The efforts to persuade villagers to abandon the capture of fireflies have struggled against the myopic vision of fat rewards; therefore, the experts asked the government to create a new law as fireflies are not yet protected species across the country.

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