Bug smuggling is big business 0 35

Bug smuggling is big business

Special agent Ryan Bessey was in his office at the New Jersey branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Galloway, on September 23, 2015, when he took a call from a colleague in the intelligence unit. The analyst told him that French customs officers had seized 115 emperor scorpions in two shipments from Cameroon. They were addressed to a man in Metuchen, New Jersey, named Wlodzimie Lapkiewicz.

If French authorities considered the bust important enough to tell the U.S. about it, Lapkiewicz was worth looking into, Bessey thought. He began to do some digging.

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French customs officers seized orchid mantises from a shipment addressed to New Jersey resident Wlodzimie Lapkiewicz. The Southeast Asian insects masquerade as flowers to attract prey.

He discovered that Lapkiewicz had a track record in the U.S. too. Two months earlier, emperor scorpions and giant African millipedes from Tanzania had escaped from a package addressed to Lapkiewicz on a postal service delivery truck. (An exterminator killed the animals.)

Around the same time, Bessey says he learned that Lapkiewicz was selling spiders, millipedes, and emperor and dictator scorpions on Facebook. The criminal complaint alleges that Lapkiewicz was instructing suppliers to mislabel boxes to evade customs officers. “It showed this was part of an ongoing commercial enterprise,” Bessey says.

Lapkiewicz didn’t respond to multiple Facebook messages from National Geographic requesting an interview, and his lawyer didn’t respond to emails and a voicemail.

It’s illegal to import most insects and other arthropods, including spiders, scorpions, and millipedes, or their parts, into the U.S. without a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also requires a permit to bring in some live invertebrates. Emperor scorpions and dictator scorpions require special paperwork because they’re listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement that regulates cross-border sales of species.

Then three years later, in 2018, U.S. customs officers in Indiana seized about a dozen giant African millipedes from a Lapkiewicz-bound package labeled “Plush Toys for my Friends Child about to be born,” according to the criminal complaint. A couple of weeks after that, wildlife inspectors at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport opened a shipment addressed to Lapkiewicz to find 245 small cylinders containing the egg sacs of orchid mantises, pink and white insects from Southeast Asia that look like flower petals.

In August 2018 the U.S. District attorney’s office charged Lapkiewicz with smuggling wildlife and false labeling—federal crimes that carry a collective maximum of 25 years in prison. Lapkiewicz pleaded guilty to smuggling wildlife only. He was sentenced on July 2, 2019, to six months home confinement and four years probation.

“I knew at the time that there was a market for invertebrates,” says Bessey, who had worked as an agent for five years before investigating Lapkiewicz. “I really didn’t realize how large the market was until this case.”

Cockroaches—“great pets”

Demand for what most of us may think of as creepy crawlies—live as exotic pets or preserved as collectors’ treasures—has fueled a massive trade in everything from beetles and stick insects to tarantulas and scorpions. People even want cockroaches, the creature that once made me flee my apartment for 24 hours after finding one skittering around the shower. They make “great pets,” says Carlos Martinez, the owner of Reptile Factory, a pet shop based in Southern California.

Many insects and other arthropods are captive bred or otherwise sold in accordance with the law, but a global black market flourishes alongside the legal trade. It’s a little known corner of the illegal wildlife trade, a multibillion-dollar industry associated more with rhino horn and elephant ivory than the tiny creatures that can terrify us.

“A lot of things you find in the trade haven’t been legally exported from the area of origin or legitimately imported from the destination country,” says Stéphane De Greef, an environmental engineer and insect enthusiast from Belgium who runs a popular entomology group on Facebook. “It’s sadly very common.”

News stories of bug skulduggery abound. Take, for example, the Czech national fined in 2017 for attempting to smuggle 4,226 beetles, scorpions, spiders, and other invertebrates out of Australia. And the 7,000 spiders, insects, and other invertebrates stolen from the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavillion last year in a suspected attempt to sell them into the pet trade.

There’s no centralized database of seizures, which means there’s no way to estimate the global scale of the illegal trade. But Fish and Wildlife Service data obtained by National Geographic show that authorities in the U.S., a major demand country, seized at least 9,000 live and dead arthropods (not including crustaceans) that were being brought into the country for commercial purposes between June 2018 and June 2019. This likely represents a fraction of the total number of smuggled arthropods, which are easy to conceal in suitcases and shipping boxes.

Many countries ban or require special permits for the capture and export of certain species or species in particular areas, such as national parks, but that hasn’t stopped people from snatching little critters from the wild. Some people take them to keep or study. Others collect them to sell regionally as food. When it comes to the global commercial trade, poaching afflicts tropical countries in particular, where warmth and a plentiful food supply give rise to jumbo-size insects that explode with color. Buyers around the world are willing to pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars apiece for the rarest, flashiest, or otherwise most distinctive creature to breed or display alive or framed in their living rooms.

Scientists worry about the effects of the collecting craze on these small animals, which can be vital to food chains by pollinating crops and recycling nutrients back into the soil. “Whenever you take a large-scale collection of a single species and you extirpate it, or remove it, from an environment, you’re going to impact that ecosystem in one way or another,” says Floyd Shockley, who manages the insect collection at the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C.

Going to the fair

If there’s anyone who knows about the market for invertebrates, it’s Brent Karner. He’s the division manager for BioQuip Bugs, a company based in Rancho Dominguez, California, that offers preserved and live insects and other arthropods.

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Some people even collect preserved bees. Plenty are on show at the Bug Fair.

I caught up with Karner in May at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, where we both attended the Bug Fair, a two-day event celebrating anything and everything creepy crawly. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding insects, but I came to the Bug Fair to meet the people who can’t get enough of them.

More than 50 vendors occupying three museum wings were offering everything from edible worms (they taste like dried shrimp, the seller told me) to T-shirts with insect-inspired humor (“don’t kill my buzz”). But most people came for the thousands of invertebrates crawling around glass tanks or pinned inside display cases.

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Adults dressed as a bee, a butterfly, and a cockroach perform a play for kids at the Bug Fair. Fear of insects can begin early. Their bad reputation has led to paltry funding for the field of entomology.

Karner was selling the latter. His booth was so popular that it was hard to steal him away from the throngs of fairgoers ogling the palm-size Hercules beetles, orange-and-brown lantern flies, and other creatures for sale.

I had heard from scientists and hobbyists that BioQuip is the gold standard for sourcing insects in an ethical and legal way. Gregarious and goateed, Karner tells me that he prides himself on doing just that. That means making sure his suppliers have secured the proper permits in their countries and that he has the legal paperwork to bring them into the country. It also means buying no more than a hundred insects of the same species from any one location in a year—and staying away from Europe altogether. Because regulations are weak in some countries, he says, “Europe is a great conduit to get illegal things out, so I just leave it alone.”

Karner says people have always paid for insects, but the internet has changed the industry. Now sellers can bypass companies like BioQuip and connect directly with buyers.

“That’s where the black market is at its best,” he says, referring to websites such as eBay. Indeed, it takes him about five seconds to find an advertisement on eBay for a Luzon peacock swallowtail, an endangered butterfly native to the Philippines that’s banned by CITES from international trade. “That’s like peddling a rhino horn or elephant tusk,” Karner says. The seller advertised it as “Papilio chi” instead of Papilio chikae, its scientific name. A couple of weeks after I inquired about the legality of the sale (I didn’t get a clear answer), the seller deleted the reference to Papilio chi.

A spokesman for eBay, which bans the sale of illegal wildlife, wrote in an email that the company uses “a combination of technological and human resources to identify and remove problem listings.”

Insect criminals fall into three categories, Karner explains. There are the unwitting smugglers who don’t know about the complex red tape involved in collecting and transporting insects. There are the traffickers who lack legal paperwork because they don’t want to pay permit fees and find the laws “silly”—a not uncommon sentiment. (As one Facebook user wrote in a hobbyist group, “There is essentially nothing gained by stopping specimens without conservation relevance at the border.”)

Then there are the serious criminals who intend to sell rare, banned species because they know there’s a lucrative market for them. That might be someone like Hisayoshi Kojima, a Japanese man sentenced in 2007 to 21 months in prison for running an international trafficking operation. The Fish and Wildlife Service agent who investigated the case told NPR that Kojima paid local people around the world pennies on the dollar to poach endangered butterflies and insects he then sold on his website.

It’s not unusual for international dealers to hire local hunters—last year National Geographic chronicled the life of Jasmin Zainuddin, an Indonesian man who catches butterflies—some protected by law—and sells them at local tourist markets or to a butterfly boss who distributes them to traders around the world.

Sebastián Padrón, an entomologist with the University of Azuay, in Cuenca, Ecuador, came across a poacher several years ago in the Amazon rainforest who tried to sell him Prepona and morpho butterflies—iridescent aquamarine beauties. He says that although Ecuador has strict laws about insect collection and export, the country doesn’t have the resources to enforce them. According to Padrón, much of the contraband ends up in Japan, where insects have special fascination, and in the U.S. and Europe.

Entomologist Nancy Miorelli says vendors near her home in Quito, Ecuador, use the body parts of arthropods—mostly butterfly wings—to make earrings and necklaces to sell to tourists. When she asks the sellers how they source the animals, they can’t give her detailed answers. “I asked one if she knew if they were illegal, and she shrugged,” Miorelli says.

Why should we care?

It’s easy to dismiss invertebrate poaching as no big deal. More than a million recognized insect species and some 10 quintillion (that’s the number 1 followed by 18 zeros) bugs buzz, hiss, and fly around the planet. Worldwide, there are an estimated 12,000 millipede species and 900 species of tarantulas.

With so many critters populating Earth, how much of a dent can the commercial trade really make?

The short answer is that it depends. Tarantulas, for example, are especially vulnerable to poaching because they’re long-lived and reproduce infrequently. Insects, on the other hand, are resilient because they have short lifespans and produce lots of offspring.

But Shockley says that if a localized species already contending with other threats is taken in very large numbers, unfettered collecting can pose a real danger. (Shocking—albeit contestedresearch released last year suggested that habitat loss, pollutants, introduced species, and climate change have contributed to the decline of more than 40 percent of all insect species during the past several decades and that all insects could disappear within decades.)

Anophthalmus hitleri, a tiny reddish-brown beetle named after Adolf Hitler found in Slovenia, provides a bizarre example of the risks of overcollecting. The beetles (reportedly named in 1933 by German amateur entomologist Oscar Scheibel) became so popular among right-wing extremists that poachers cashing in on demand almost wiped them out in the early 2000s.

Most of the time, Shockley says, we don’t know how poaching affects species. “There’s stuff up in the canopy, there’s stuff at mid-levels, stuff on the ground.” Moreover, entomological research has a funding problem, which means there aren’t many people out there counting insects. Lack of data, not paucity of species, contributes to the paltry number of arthropods—90 species and three subspecies—that are regulated by CITES. “I know for me, I don’t want to run the risk of finding out what happens if you remove something,” Shockley adds.

Introducing an animal where it doesn’t naturally belong can be a problem too. If invertebrates smuggled into a new country get loose, they, or the parasites they host, can gobble up or otherwise harm native crops, plants, trees, or animals. “When you don’t know what’s coming in, there’s always that little concern,” says Greg Bartman, a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who identifies insects found in cargo shipments. He points to the Indian walking stick insect as a cautionary tale: He suspects the exotic pet trade brought them to Southern California, where they’re wreaking havoc on hibiscuses, ivy, rosebushes, and other plants. And giant African millipedes (the same species of arthropods that escaped from a package addressed to Wlodzimie Lapkiewicz)? They sometimes carry a mite that can destroy bulb crops such as onions and garlic.

Even if poaching for the commercial trade posed no risk, the entomologists and hobbyists I spoke to think it’s simply unethical: “What scientifically useful information would be gleaned from collecting 10,000 jewel scarabs in a bucket trap from the same location on the same night?” Shockley says. And as Miorelli puts it, “People just walk into a place designed for conservation and kill their wildlife and take it out. It seems really disrespectful.”

Compelled to collect

When it comes to insects, Erica and Brian Ellis are so enthralled that they collect preserved specimens and display them around their home in Simi Valley, California.

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At vendor Bob Duff’s booth at the Bug Fair, Sagra beetles, also called frog-legged leaf beetles, go for $7 a pop. Duff offers a variety of beetle species.

I met the couple at the Bug Fair in Los Angeles. The Ellises left that day with five new prizes: a titan beetle, a millipede, a velvet ant, a Japanese hornet, and a tarantula hawk—an enormous wasp that paralyzes tarantulas before it eats them. All these animals have one thing in common: They’re among the biggest of their species—the Ellises’ main criterion for deciding which ones to buy. “It just kind of boggles the mind that they can get that large, to know that they were alive wandering the forest,” says Brian, who works in sales and marketing.

They bought their first insect, a shiny atlas beetle from Southeast Asia, at the Bug Fair seven years ago. “Even after we took him home, we would pull him out of the case and stare at him for a good 20, 30 minutes,” says Erica, an executive assistant at a biomedical pharmaceutical company. They soon became hooked on “the beauty and the differences” among arthropods, she says. Now they own about 50 preserved ones, including a two-foot-long walking stick insect from Southeast Asia that cost $1,200.

The Ellises say they like to buy from reputable sellers who provide detailed information about a creature’s identity and origin.

Fairgoer Max Orion Kesmodel isn’t surprised that there’s an illegal trade in insects. “I’m sure it’s a thing even without hearing about it because that’s how the world is,” he says. “If they do it with pearls, they’re going to do it with butterflies.”

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Silkworms draw crowds at the Bug Fair. They aren’t the only live animals for sale: Fairgoers can choose from tarantulas, scorpions—even cockroaches.

Kesmodel, 23, is studying entomology at Los Angeles Valley College. He’s fascinated by the sheer diversity of insects, and their splashy appearance aligns with his interest in photography. This year at the Bug Fair he bought a stick insect from Malaysia and two colorful moths to add to his 150-plus collection. In general, he looks for brightly hued specimens, butterflies in pristine condition, and little scarab beetles such as June bugs, which, unlike some larger beetles, lack the impressive jaws that “terrify” him.

He too says he likes to buy from people with good reputations. “I’ve never just gone to someone’s house to buy something or anything like that,” he says. When I ask if he ever questions sellers about whether they have legal paperwork, he says he hasn’t considered that, then adds, “I probably should now that I’m thinking about it.”

Victoria Regis Knight contributed reporting to this story.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more
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How tampons and pads became so unsustainable 0 55

How tampons and pads became so unsustainable

This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

Plastic pervades modern life, and menstruation is no exception. Since the middle of the 20th century, many tampons and menstrual pads have contained somewhere between a little and a lot of plastic in their basic design—sometimes for reasons that “improve” the design, but often for reasons less crucial.

Getting a handle on how much plastic waste comes from menstrual products is tough, in part because it’s labeled as medical waste and does not need to be tracked, and in part because so little research has even looked at the scope of the problem. But rough estimates for the likely output are staggering: In 2018 alone, people in the U.S. bought 5.8 billion tampons, and over the course of a lifetime, a single menstruator will use somewhere between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons, the vast majority of which will wind up in landfills as plastic waste.

To dislodge plastic from menstrual care, though, will take more than design disruption, because the reasons plastic has lodged itself so deep in the design in the first place are tangled in a web of culture, shame, science, and more.

The plastic period problem

Most American women will menstruate for about 40 years in total, bleeding for about five days a month, or about 2,400 days over the course of a lifetime—about six and a half years, all told.

All that menstrual fluid has to go somewhere. In the U.S., it usually ends up in a tampon or on a pad, and after their brief moment of utility, those products usually end up in the trash.

The most common menstrual products are a veritable cornucopia of plastic. Tampons come wrapped in plastic, encased in plastic applicators, with plastic strings dangling from one end, and many even include a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent part. Pads generally incorporate even more plastic, from the leak-proof base to the synthetics that soak up fluid to the packaging.

For Ann Borowski, who researched the ecological impact of sanitary products, the sheer numbers were astounding.

“I don’t want to contribute 40 years of garbage to a landfill just to manage something that shouldn’t even be seen as a problem,” she says. “It seems like something we should have a little more control of by now. I don’t want to have that kind of burden on the planet.”

A brief history of menstrual management

In ancient Greece, menstrual blood was seen by the writers of the time as something fundamentally insalubrious, a symbol of female excess, a “humor” that needed to be expelled from the body in order to maintain balance and health. The blood itself was considered unhealthy—even poisonous. That general attitude persisted for centuries.

By the mid-1800s in the U.S., the culture around menstruation had hardened into a simple narrative: Period blood was perceived as “bad blood,” both dirty and shameful, says Chris Bobel, an expert on menstruation at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

But menstruation was an unavoidable reality that had to be dealt with. Women in the pre-20th century U.S. used a “bricolage” approach to managing it, repurposing all sorts of commonplace items into pad- or tampon-like objects, historian Susan Strasser explains. That meant leftover scraps of fabric, soft strips of bark, or whatever else was available and absorbent. But the tools left much to be desired. They were often bulky and unwieldy, and they had to be washed and dried—which meant they would be displayed publicly, a less-than-desirable situation in a culture that stigmatized menstruation.

In 1921, the first pack of Kotex crossed a drugstore counter. Thus began a new era: that of the disposable menstrual product.

Kotex were made with Cellucotton, a hyper-absorbent plant-based material that had been developed during World War I for use as medical bandaging. Nurses started to repurpose the material for menstrual pads, and the practice stuck.

Some physically active menstruators, like dancers and athletes, gravitated toward another emerging product: tampons. The tampons of the 1930s were not too different than the ones on drugstore shelves today, generally made of a wad of dense cotton or a paper-like material attached to a string.

What all of the new products had in common was disposability. Marketing campaigns leaned into the idea that the new products would make menstruators “happy, well-poised, efficient modern women,” free from the tyranny of old “makeshift” strategies. (Disposables also meant that menstruators would have to stock up each month, locking them in to decades of purchases).

“From the beginning, the companies pushed this idea that the way to be modern was to use these new disposable products,” says Sharra Vostral, a historian at Purdue University.

The appeal and ubiquity of disposables grew as more women entered the workforce. The products offered both convenience—they were readily available in many drugstores—and discretion—women wouldn’t have to worry about bringing used cloths from work to home. It also allowed menstruators to “pass,” hiding their bodily functions from those around them, letting work continue uninterrupted.

“This has been the standard,” says Bobel, “that women and girls always have to bend to norms and standards of the workplace, to be hyperefficient at all times. You can’t let your body slow you down, is the message.”

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During a fleet of beach clean-ups in New Jersey in 2013, volunteers picked up thousands of tampon applicators.

The outcome was a massive shift in the market. By the end of World War II, sales of disposable menstrual products had quintupled across the U.S.

What’s plastic in a pad?

By the 1960s, chemists were busily developing sophisticated plastics and other synthetics. The technologies leapt forward so quickly that manufacturers found themselves searching for new markets into which they could incorporate their new materials.

One of the markets they found was menstrual products.

Pad designs began to incorporate thin, flexible, leak-proof polypropylene or polyethylene as the base (or, in patent terms, the “backsheet”). Advances in sticky-stuff technology bolstered the use of flexible plastics, allowing the pads to be attached to underwear directly rather than hanging off a complicated, bulky belt system. By the late 1970s, designers realized they could make flexible plastic “wings” that would wrap around underwear and anchor a pad in place. And designers found ways to weave thin polyester fibers into the squishy part of the pad to wick fluid away into the absorbent cores, which were getting thinner as superabsorbent materials grew more sophisticated.

All these product developments sound incremental, says Lara Freidenfelds, a historian who interviewed dozens of women about their experiences with menstruation for her book The Modern Period, but they add up to big changes in experience.

“Adhesive or wings—those sound like a minor product improvements, but actually people talked about them being really important. Like, wow, that was a big one, that really improved my life,” she says.

Tampons didn’t escape plastic

In the early part of the 20th century many doctors, as well as members of the public, were squeamish about the idea that women—especially young women—might come into contact with their genitals during tampon insertion, says Elizabeth Arveda Kissling, a gender studies expert at Eastern Washington University and author of Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation.

Maybe, inventors thought, the tampon could be inserted more “demurely” and hygienically with an applicator.

The first recorded U.S. patent for tampons, from 1929, included a design for a telescoping cardboard applicator tube. Others suggested stainless steel or even glass. By the 1970s, plastics could be molded into smooth, thin, flexible rounded shapes—perfect, some designers thought, for tampon applicators.

But it’s not just the applicator that’s plastic: many tampons incorporate some bits of plastic in the absorbent part itself. A thin layer often helps hold the tightly-packed cotton part together. In some cases, the string is made of polyester or polypropylene.

Packaging for privacy

By the middle of the century, the major players in the U.S. menstrual products market were competing fiercely for customers but running out of technological advances to trumpet. To stand out, companies came up with more and more ways to offer their customers discreet purchase, use, and disposal options.

An obsession with discretion was longstanding. In the 1920s, Johnson and Johnson printed slips in their magazine advertisements for their “Modess” brand sanitary napkins. Women would cut them out and hand them silently across the pharmacy counter, receiving a nearly unmarked box in return.

But as the tide turned toward disposable, portable products, and as the products themselves shrank in size, the packaging focus shifted toward individual wrapping. Menstruators needed to be able to throw products in a bag and keep them clean, to carry them from desk to restroom, and then from restroom stall to waste container.

That meant plastic wrapping for everything. In 2013, the discreet packaging projects hit their heights when Kotex introduced a tampon with a “softer, quieter wrapper to help keep it secret,” designed for silent unwrapping. And disposal? There are plastics to help with that part of the process, too. In some public restrooms, little packets of scented plastic baggies sit on the bathroom stall walls, ready to enclose and disguise used sanitary products on their short path from stall to trash bin.

“We’re still selling shame along with the menstrual products,” says Kissling.

Is the future plastic?

The new plastic-packed versions of both tampons and pads vastly improved many women’s experience with their periods. But they also got generations of women and other menstruators hooked on plastic-centric products that will live on for at least 500 years after their brief usefulness has passed.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. In Europe, most tampons are sold without applicators. In the U.S., there’s growing interest in alternatives: In a recent survey, almost 60 percent of the women questioned were considering a reusable product (about 20 percent were currently users).

“That’s a tectonic shift in the way women are thinking about managing their periods,” says Susannah Enkema, a researcher at the Shelton Group who worked on the survey.

One of the popular alternatives is the reusable pad, a better-designed version of a very old technology. Others have embraced menstrual cups, another old technology that has recently seen a resurgence in popularity. Some companies are designing underwear that absorbs period blood directly and can be washed and used over and over, while other menstruators choose to bleed freely throughout their periods, eschewing the traditional stigma that comes from visible evidence of this most basic of biological realities.

And breaking down the stigma around menstruation, says Bobel, is critical to moving toward a more socially and environmentally thoughtful future.

“I’m not denying that we need something to bleed on,” she says. “And at the same time, I want to acknowledge that we are fooling ourselves if we say promoting any product is going to fix the stigma. It’s not.”

Change will come, she thinks, when the conversations change.

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