Why Rare Beetles Are Being Smuggled To Japan At An Alarming Rate
“We need dark nights—they don’t come when the moon is out,” Reynaldo Zambrana explains. “First comes the female, and then the male. One must run to grab them before they bury themselves.” At 3 a.m. on a February morning in 2019, Zambrana is slashing at vegetation with a machete on a forested mountainside about 60…
“We need dark nights—they don’t come when the moon is out,” Reynaldo Zambrana explains. “First comes the female, and then the male. One must run to grab them before they bury themselves.”
At 3 a.m. on a February morning in 2019, Zambrana is slashing at vegetation with a machete on a forested mountainside about 60 miles northeast of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. In the clearing, he sets up a small generator to power a 250-watt lightbulb placed behind a white cloth suspended between two sticks.
We wait. An hour passes before the silence is broken by the whirr of wingbeats—beetles careening toward the glow in the forest—and, Zambrana hopes, entrapment in his cloth.
In the end, this hunt yields three Dynastes satanas, big shiny black scarab beetles endemic to Bolivia and known locally as lightbulb breakers. Along with the Hercules beetle (Dynastes hercules), they’re members of the subfamily of rhinoceros beetles. With their impressive horns, they’re coveted by bug lovers, especially in Japan.
Every January to May, satanas hunters in the mountainous municipality of Coroico hope to earn up to $30 for each live beetle they snag. On display in pet shops in Japan, the showiest satanas beetles may have a price tag of $500. (Prices vary according to the size, shape, and length of the horn.)
Zambrana lovingly places the three beetles in a Tupperware container with air holes in the lid and a slice of banana for them to snack on.
“On a good morning, we can catch up to five,” he says. “In a season, about 70 beetles can be captured per person. The largest I caught was 14 centimeters [five and a half inches]. I sold them to [a] Mexican who worked with the Japanese.”
Japan’s Invasive Alien Species Act—which aims to prevent adverse effects from introduced animals and plants on ecosystems, human security, agriculture, forestry, and fishing—prohibits the import of 148 species of animals and plants. Satanas and Hercules beetles, however, aren’t among them. According to Aya Yatsumoto, of the Environmental Cooperation Office in the Ministry of Environment, they’re exempt because they’re not considered threats to wild Japanese beetles. “Since they’re expensive,” she says, “Japanese people want to keep them as pets and not release them into the wild.’’
Porfirio Mamani, a Bolivian satanas hunter from Santo Domingo, a community near Coroico, tells me it takes a lot of effort to ensure that the beetles arrive in Japan and other markets abroad alive and in good condition. Part of the special care, he says, involves keeping them clean. “Every other day, we bathe them because they get dirty while eating. When you feed them a piece of banana, they finish it in a night and a half.”
After each successful hunt, Mamani measures the beetles and places them plastic containers, which he packs in cardboard boxes. He sends them by bus to an intermediary in Peru, who’s responsible for flying them to Japan. Since Mamani began collecting satanas beetles, in 1996, he says he’s exported about 720 to Japan this way.
Zambrana says that in addition to trading live beetles abroad, he’s shipped two-month-old larvae, which are less likely to be detected by airport customs officers.