Butterflies and moths. For many people, butterflies and moths are insignificant – while many people appreciate their superficial beauty when these colourful creatures visit our gardens, people rarely give them more thought. But for some people, they mean a lot more. Such as for me: Bart Coppens (28), indepedent entomologist and butterfly breeder.
[Note: for the DUTCH VERSION of this Article, CLICK HERE] – This article is my response to a Dutch newspaper article, that speaks negatively about butterfly breeding by NRC Handelsblad. – Link to Dutch newspaper article: CLICK HERE
Why breed butterflies and moths?
Bad news. The insects on our planet, are struggling. Multiple scientific studies have indiciated that over 40% of all species of insects world wide have declined in numbers, and over a third of them are threatened in their existence! This is an extremely concerning development, knowing that insects play an essential role in our environment. For example, did you know that between 75% to 95% of all plant species on earth are pollinated by insects?  Yes -the situation is quite grave. Plants are responsible for retaining drinkable water, they produce the oxygen we breathe, and the food that we eat! No plants means no life – and no insects, means no plants!
The reasons for this sad decline, are diverse. The blame can mainly be placed in pesticides, but also the destruction of suitable habitats, urbanisation, and climate change.
Next to these human activities, which are very harmful for populations of insects, one of the exisential threats to insects, is our lack of knowledge and understanding of these animals. How can you aspire to protect a species, that we barely know anything about? How can you protect a species, when we don’t know what it eats, or what it needs in order to survive? In the tropical regions of the world, up to 70% to 90% of the local butterfly & moth fauna have life cycles completely unknown to science. How can we even begin to protect them if we have no idea about their biology?
What motivates a person like me, to commit a large part of my life to this interest of mine? It’s certainly not lucrative. Since I started this hobby, which is over 10 years ago, I can count the number of months in which I made more money than I spent on it on óne hand. So if my motivations aren’t financial, what are they instead?
Knowledge. It’s all about knowledge. Even as a toddler, I was very interested in butterflies and moths! And in my life I have recorded the life histories of hundreds of species of butterflies and moths – this includes many species of which the life history was totally unknown to science! This website is a testament to this fact. By breeding butterflies and moths in captivity, I have consistently made (scientific) contributions that have helped further the knowledge we have of these animals.
Next to being a hobbyist, I’m also the consultant for multiple butterfly gardens, independent research, honorary conservation of the scientific collection of Lepidoptera at the Natural History museum in Rotterdam – and indeed I’m a YouTuber that makes videos about butterflies and moths (my videos have been watched millions of times!).
Breeding butterflies and moths in captivity is an art, that is centuries old, and it has culminated into a massive amount of knowledge of these animals, which helps further their conservation.
When a Dutch newspaper, the NRC contacted me to share my experiences with butterflies and moths, I was initially very enthousiastic. However, my enthousiasm quickly dissapear when I found what was perhaps one of the most ill-informed pieces of journalism I ever encountered. (LINK to the article: Click here / “Drie seconden inspectie en de vlinderpoppen zijn het land in” ) Let me explain you why it bothered me.
CITES is not the same as protection!
The article appears to criticise butterfly an moth breeders, and implies the hobby is detrimental to their conservation. I will translate the relevant parts, but it uses CITES to support its arguments.
Interesting is that the article from the NRC Handelsblad, despite the fact that it seems to feign some concern for the conservation and protection of butterflies, it fails to examine any of the major protective measures that are put in place to protect wildlife. The main protective measure that is constantly mentioned (over 7 times) is CITES. Curiously, the CITES-convention, or the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora”(CITES) is an international trade agreement signed in 1975, that (anno 2021) has been signed and is enforced by over 183 countries world wide. “CITES is only limited to the (international) trade in protected species, not on-site conservation”.
Curiously is that world wide, there are over 180.000 species of butterflies and moths, of which only about 50 are protected under the CITES agreement. To illustrate the problem: it means that world wide, less than 0.027% of all known species of butterflies and moths, are protected by CITES (as of the current year 2021). Even if we single out butterflies alone, of which about 17.500 species have been described, we discover that about 0.03% of all species fall under CITES proteiction(!).
Why is a trade ageement that is irrelevant to 99.7% of all butterfly and moth species on planet earth used in an article to represent protective measures? Next to the fact CITES is in fact a trade agreement, and has little to no relevance to the conservation of butterflies and moths world wide.
For example, dozens of species of butterflies in the Netherlands are protected under the Flora & Faunawet, which protects them on a national level. This law, of which most other countries in the world have their own equivalent, is not mentioned in the article at all.
After that, the level of protection that many species enjoy, is not always a level of protection on the individual level. For example, one of the rarest moths in Europe, Acanthobrahmaea europaea (Hartig, 1963) is suprisingly not a protected species. Despite that, the majority of the habitat it lives in, (Riserve Naturale Orientata “Groticelle”) IS indeed protected, and within this natural reserve, the animals cannot legally be collected. World wide, thousands of species are being protected against human influences this way.
The article also fails to mention any other protective measures such as the European Habitat Directive, but also the fact many countries have their own unique restrictions when it comes to the import & export of non-native species – more often than not, permits are required for the import and export of insects, a fact that is wholly ignored
Sonja Pleumeekers & the crew. It is reasonable to assume these details have been left out, to portray butterfly and moth breeding in a negative light.
Besides these measures, there are many other initiatives such as the International Association of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers (IABES) – of which most butterfly farms are a member – which regulates the supply chain – and makes butterfly houses pledge to voluntarily become a part of a self regulating network of suppliers of butterfly and moth pupae, with restrictions pertaining to ethics and sustainability.
Is breeding butterflies & moths harmful to their conservation?
It is not suprising that the (vague) implication that breeding butterflies or moths is harmful for the conservation of these animals is a poorly contrued conjecture, considering there is no scientific evidence for the fact that breeding butterflies and moths in captivity endangers them. Between 1890 and 2017, the number of butterflies in my country (the Netherlands) declined by 84%, of which 15 species completely dissapeared from the Netherlands. Important to understand is that the main reason for this decline is due to intensive agriculture, extensive use of pesticies, nitrogen pollution, urbanisation and the degradation of suitable habitat. The practice of catching or breeding butterflies no nowhere mentioned as a contributing or even significant factor. But as usual, it’s the butterfly enthousiasts who are expected to carry the blame , instead of the large structural socioeconomic problems we have created as a society that have collectively destroyed nature.
A direct (translated) quote from the newspaper: “Nobody has any insight when it comes to the thousands of butterflies species that are not on the CITES list – more than a health inspection from the veterinarian of the “Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority” is not required. This is a bad thing, according to the Costa Rican insect expert Luis Murillo-Hiller. The Cites-list is inclomplete. In the middle-american country, where a large part of the Dutch butterfly import comes from, there are thousands of species of butterflies and moths of which we have no clue in what numbers they persist in the wild. Too little research is beign done. Murillo-Hiller found over sixteen butterfly species that according to him, are vulnerable and should be protected, but are not on the CITES list.”
It is hard to imagine that any serious “””””“insect expert“”””” with academic credentials would support such as statement. The CITES convention, only pertains itself to the international trade of animals, not on-site conservation. The implication that any butterfly species that are “vulnerable and protected” would benefit from trade restrictions considering there is no scientific evidence to suggest that people breeding or exporting butterflies even remotely pose as an existential threat to them is absurd. While collectors and breeders are often implicated with the decline of certain butterfly species species; this is an uneducated take that diverts the public attention away from mountains of evidence to suggest that exponential deforestation and use of pesticides are systematically driving species extinct. Meanwhile, Costa Rica’s use of pesticides is greater than that of all the other countries in Central America added together and “According to data by the Regional Institute of Studies of Toxic Substances (IRET) of the National University (UNA) in Costa Rica, the country uses on average an alarming 18.2 kilograms of pesticides per hectare of cropland.” Yet there is no evidence to suggest endangered species are systematically and consistently being exported by butterfly houses and butterfly farms in Costa Rica nor that butterfly rearing practices endanger local fauna. We can only hope to give Luis Murillo-Hiller the benefit of the doubt, for perhaps he was persuaded into saying this by the interviewers – which in case would be more of a testament to Luis’ level of agreeability rather than the absolute state of education in Costa Rica.
The constant emphasis on CITES througout this article is more than innapropriate considering it pertains to less than 0.3% of all butterfly species world wide, considering how it barely contributes to species conservation, and considering how there is no evidence to prove any species are declining or threatened due to captive rearing of butterflies.
The article also implies many protected species are regulary imported: “Some specialist inspectors of the customs office and Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority’ do have the knowledge for that. But because butterflies enter the country as pupae, it’s impossible to recognise the protected species, said Jaap Reijngoud, Cites-consultant and former Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority inspector. ‘In reality, you can only identify them once they have hatched, and then they’ve already reached the customer.”
While it’s true that many CITES species (including many Troidini birdwings) are morphologically nearly identical to non-protected species, the emphasis on CITES is once again innapropriate. The implication that protected CITES species are frequently being imported and that this isa detriment to their conservation, while the CITES agreement does not even protect 99.97% of all butterfly species – which makes it practically useless – is rediculous. On top of the fact that butterfly farms have their own import & export permits, European protection laws, national protection laws, and extralegal protective measures to regulate the market (such as IABES), this article is a testament to Lize Geurts,
Sonja Pleumeekers & Samet Yimaz’s unwillingness to immerse themselves in the subject matter beyond the most superficial levels of understanding.
Even quotes like: “Farmers don’t recieve any training – they often can’t tell protected or unprotected species apart” are baffling considering many of the countries mention such as Kenya and Costa Rica DO NOT CONTAIN ANY CITES PROTECTED BUTTERFLIES AT ALL! Apart from the fact most of them are highly recognisable which makes this statement doubtful, CITES is merely a trade agreement that does not forbid farmers from capturing any species, it merely protects them from selling and trading them without permits. ” In fact, no CITES butterfly species are recognised in Africa, or the entire continental landmass of South America. Which makes the chance of any butterfly farm from there incidentally exporting a CITES species, 0%, despite the majority of butterfly pupae being imported from these destinations!
Does butterfly breeding deserve support?
Undoubtably, the practice of breeding butterflies and moths have positively contributed to our knowledge of these animals. For example many big entomological works such as “Saturniidae of the World – Pfauenspinner der Welt” by Rudolf E. Lampe rely on the contributions of hobbyists and breeders to illustrate the life histories of hundreds of species.
The butterflies we see in butterfly garden, are often reared in captivity, and shipped to Europe as pupae. In developing countries, this makes people financially dependent on the local butterfly fauna, in a sustainable way. A lack of butterflies means a lack of income! Thus the local biodiversity is preserved – an attractive alternative to deforestation and agriculture. Butterfly farms contribute to the conservation of these animals and their environment, and offer an alternative to development.
That reason alone, makes it regrettable that Lize Geurts,
Sonja Pleumeekers, and Samet Yimaz have decided to, in their desire to complete their college project, have chosen to portray butterfly farming in a negative light, based on a superficial and shallow level of understanding of the subject matter.
Ignorance of the media
On 10 Februari 2021, I was approached by
Sonja Pleumeekers, UvA student journalism, and redactor of Nieuwuur, on Facebook, with the following message: “Hi Bart, I am a journalism student on the University of Amsterdam, and I am currently working on an investigative journalism project about butterfly farms in the Netherlands. When I called the Dutch Butterfly Conservation, they referred to you as an expert of breeding exotic butterflies. I’d like to know more about that!”
After a two hour long conversation, in which I shared the ins and outs of the butterfly trade, breeding and importing butterflies, I was more than dissapointed to find they had singled out a single one of my quotes: “Youtuber Coppens knows how easy it is to smuggle butterfly eggs of rare species from vacation. “You can simply put them in the pocket of your coat” he said. “Or you ship them in a straw inside an enveloppe; legally sending eggs is expensive – Bart knows a lot of collectors and breeders that don’t declare them”.
Although this quote is indeed mine, it is completely ripped out of context. For example, I would like to use the trade in second hand goods as an example. Each time you buy second hand good, there is a tiny but real possibility, that these goods may have been stolen. A lot of people steal items, and then sell them to pawn shops. When you buy second hand goods, there is no way you can rule out or guarantee they haven’t been stolen.
The trade in animals is similar; wether or not you buy a lizard, a parrot, a snake or a turtle: it’s often impossible to make sure these animals were transported to Europe legally. The fact that this probability exists, does not mean you voluntarily participate in it or advocate for it.
While it’s true that when it comes to captive breeding of butterflies, sporadically species are being traded which are wild caught, the quotation: “Youtuber Coppens knows how easy it is to smuggle butterfly eggs of rare species from vacation. “You can simply put them in the pocket of your coat” he said. “Or you ship them in a straw inside an enveloppe; legally sending eggs is expensive – Bart knows a lot of collectors and breeders that don’t declare them”. is very incriminating and implies I participate in breaking the law.
Not everybody that buys second hand goods is a criminal. But you’re aware that when you buy second hand stuff from a pawn shop, it may potentially be stolen! Would you word this as “Bart Coppens knows how it easy it is to steal second hand goods, he ands his friends buy them often!” because I went to a pawn shop? The original meaning of my quote has been ripped entirely out of context. I illustrated its not possible to rule out out, not that I have violated the law. And it gives me the impression that Sonja Pleumeekers has selectively singled out the questions that portray me as someone who has personal experience with this practice.
The quote ” “Bart Coppens knows how it easy it is to smuggle eggs from the airport – and his friends, do it often!” seems like a joke, but that is how it was even originally worded in the newspaper. After I complained several times about how incriminating and untrue this is, Sonja Pleumeekers only slightly changed the way it was originally worded, of course, after changing other details (such as my age, which was incorrect).
Of course, NCR Handelsblad & Sonja Pleumeekers are free to publish any of my statements, which I voluntarily(!) shared with them, but the selective use of my quotes without context, despite the objections of the person they have interviewed, even when it comes to heavy implications of me breaking the law, are a testament to a certain level of malicious intent, and provide evidence of the fact that the superficial level of interest they have in the subject of butterflies is merely subordinate to their desire to publish something controversial in the newspaper in order to recieve attention.
Well, here is the attention you desired.
REAL protection of butterflies and mothsThat Sonja Pleumeekers and the NRC Handelsblad have little interest in actually conserving butterflies when it comes to publishing an article, is obvious. For an article that pretends to have a critical look at butterfly breeding and the impact on the conservation of these animals, it fails to acknowledge any of the relevant protective measures apart from CITES or even attempt to quantify the the detrimental impact it may have.
The fact there is no mention of any legislation or protective measures that are in place, the fact that butterfly suppliers are required to have their own import and export permits in countries of destination and countries of origin in many cases, the habitat protection that provides species endemic to these regions, the fact butterfly suppliers have self regulating structures – the article brushes over anything that is remotely relevant in order to focus on a CITES legislation that is relevant to less than 0.027% of all species of butterflies that is ONLY a trade agreement, not a in situ conservation measure, is a testument to the wilful ignorance of the group oif aspiring journalists and NRC Handelsblad.
The level of this article is equal to “Climate change isn’t real because it’s snowing outdoors”! and “Medical masks don’t work because I had to wear one and still coughed” – an article saturated with statements and facts that have selectively been mentioned in order to defend a certain point of view. The point of view that breeding butterflies in captivity is a world in which there is no emphasis or insight in what is being imported or exported, but bases this entire argument on a shallow level of understanding of CITES and what it actually consitutes.
Are there really no downsides?
Of course every person, who decides to own exotic pets, has a shared responsibility when it comes to taking care of their animals. Breaking the law, smuggling, or disturbing or catching protected species are not things that should be condoned or I advocate for. It doesn’t matter if you own reptiles, butterflies, or a dog or a cat: when exposed to our environment, these animals can have negative impacts. However, none of these concerns are unique to butterflies alone. Legislation and conservation are important. Our environment is important, and me and my readers care deeply about it. It is my main motivation for doing the things that I do – to contribute knowledge.
But when it’s time to advocate for species conservation, let’s all agree to one thing: let’s listen to the real facts and information, not the confabulations of Sonja Pleumeekers.
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Key words: TREFWOORDEN: Lize Geurts, Sonja Pleumeekers, Samet Yilmaz, Jayant Kasi, NRC Handelsblad, NVWA, Luis Murillo-Hiller, Drie seconden inspectie en de vlinderpoppen zijn het land in, Vlinderparadijs Papiliorama, Erik Hendriks, Vlinders Nederland, Entomologie Nederland, Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, Nederlandse Voedsel- en Warenautoriteit (NVWA), Jaap Reijngoud, Cites-consultant, Jayant Kasi, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Sonja Pleunmakers, Vlinderstichting, De Sectie Ter Haar, Buxusmot, Invasieve exoot, Nachtvlinderen, Nachtvlinders, Dagvlinders, Lize Geurts, Sonja Pleumeekers, Samet Yilmaz, Jayant Kasi, NRC Handelsblad, NVWA, Luis Murillo-Hiller, Drie seconden inspectie en de vlinderpoppen zijn het land in, Vlinderparadijs Papiliorama, Erik Hendriks, Vlinders Nederland, Entomologie Nederland, Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, Nederlandse Voedsel- en Warenautoriteit (NVWA), Jaap Reijngoud, Cites-consultant, Jayant Kasi, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Sonja Pleunmakers, Vlinderstichting, De Sectie Ter Haar, Buxusmot, Invasieve exoot, Nachtvlinderen, Nachtvlinders, Dagvlinders, Myrthe Derickx, Editie NL , RTL, “Drie seconden inspectie en de vlinderpoppen zijn het land in“Drie seconden inspectie en de vlinderpoppen zijn het land in“Drie seconden inspectie en de vlinderpoppen zijn het land in“Drie seconden inspectie en de vlinderpoppen zijn het land in