I have discussed the CITES treaty before, and also dealing in endangered species. A local Michigan man just ran afoul of both:
Kevin Rucinski of Roscommon County’s Gerrish Township was sentenced Thursday as part of an 18-month term of probation. The 49-year-old also was ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution and a $15,000 fine.
Rucinski pleaded guilty earlier this year to violating the Endangered Species Act. Authorities say he bought more than $15,000 worth of dried insects including butterflies on eBay, many from abroad.
As usual on news stories, the comments are quite cranky–mostly focusing around “why are cops doing this instead of finding real criminals?”
Well, why ARE they chasing a Michigan dentist, rather than a drug kingpin?
There are several answers to that question. CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. As a signatory to CITES, the US has a responsibility to enforce it.
CITES bans the worldwide trade of species that are on the verge of extinction. It is important because many governments in areas of high biodiversity are not able to fully control collection and export of endangered species.
CITES acts to reduce the demand for endangered animals and plants by regulating their trade. Ideally, as more people realize that (for example) owning rhino horns is illegal, fewer rhinos will will be killed for their horns. This is not always the case, alas.
If our Michigan dentist had bought thousands of dollars worth of tiger skins, rhino horns, or clouded leopards, I think law enforcement action against him would be quite understandable. People look at this photo of a bird smuggler and immediately are outraged at the cruelty.
Most Birdwing butterflies are CITES protected
But…this Michigan dentist bought a lot of what, colloquially, are known as bugs. Which are seen as trivial in the public view, or worse, pest species. Hence, the cranky comments about this not being a “real” crime.
But insects are just as important, possibly more so, than vertebrate charismatic species. Insects are the little gears that make an ecosystem work. We don’t actually know, most of the time, what consequences total removal of an insect species from their native habitat will have. We can guess, based on experience, that it will be a bad thing.
This utilitarian argument for saving species is one that most people can understand, regardless of their knowledge of ecosystems and nutrient cycling.
There is also a second argument to be made: that insects have an intrinsic value, simply because they exist. In other words, when we see a paper that reports 50% of insect species living on an island have dissapeared, we should be saddened, even if there is no commercial value to those insects.
In a very nice news article on conservation of parasites, Rob Dunn discusses saving the little things that run the world:
“Depending on what happens to human societies, we will spend the next few generations coming to terms with what we have lost,” said Dunn. “We won’t know most of what we have lost because it will have never been named. Some of the species we will have lost will have had important medicinal values. Some of them will have pollinated our crops. Some of them will have been strange creatures deserving explanation. Some will have been beautiful. Some will have had values that we are not yet capable of understanding.
“We live in a vast living museum that is being flooded and burned and ravaged. We know that we must save some of the art, but we don’t know anything about the art. So we grab the showiest things and hope they are important.”
Yeah. What he said.
Citation of the paper I mentioned:
Sodhi, N., Wilcove, D., Subaraj, R., Yong, D., Lee, T., Bernard, H., & Lim, S. (2009). Insect extinctions on a small denuded Bornean island Biodiversity and Conservation DOI: 10.1007/s10531-009-9585-7
Additional Info on Extinction and Importation: