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Endangered insects are easy to purchase illegally online

A new study from Cornell University has found that endangered and threatened insects, spiders, and common species that provide ecological services can be easily purchased – without oversight – online. For example, a rare and endangered butterfly known as the Luzon peacock swallowtail, illegal to trade, was found available to purchase from Amazon, pinned in a display box for $110.

It was also discovered that species such as live tarantulas, who are not endangered but whose trade is strictly controlled, were available for sale without any oversight or enforcement.

Around the world, insects are in steep decline due to habitat loss, pesticides, invasive species, urbanization, pollution, and climate change. It has been estimated that the Earth is losing about 10 to 20 percent of insect species every decade. Researchers say the survival of insects and spiders are greatly impacted when they are collected and sold.

“We surveyed the web to determine if there were species available for sale that are rare, threatened, or for which commerce is in some way regulated,” said study lead author Professor John Losey.

“As they get rarer and rarer, they become more and more valuable to collectors, and then the amount of collecting and sale, if not done sustainably, has greater impact on those species.”

The most expensive insect the team found for sale was a birdwing butterfly species named Ornithoptera allottei, listed on eBay for $3,850.

Species that provide ecological services, such as ladybugs released for pest control and pollinators, were also found for sale. This is a concern as these insects should only be purchased through regulated sources. If they are released in areas that are unfamiliar, they could impact the larger population and have negative effects on the services they provide.       

“Hopefully, our findings will lead to better enforcement of the illegal online sale of rare insects and protect those species in the wild,” said study senior author Paul Curtis, extension wildlife specialist in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.

The study results have been shared with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency which enforces illegal trade of species. Despite existing enforcement, there is a lack of resources to monitor commerce. 

The experts hope to contribute to the issue by working with student specialists who monitor the web for illegal sales and report findings. 

A long term goal of the research team is to have  insects included as livestock so that their unregulated sale could then be monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

To learn more about this research, visit the Cornell Chronicle story.

The research is published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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