Colin Owen spent decades hiking into the highest reaches of South Africa's grassy Cape mountains, whiling away endless days in search of teeny black beetles for his collection jar.
Some thought him mad. But the eccentric Mr. Owen, a long-time hobby naturalist, knew something that his detractors did not: the uniquely South African insects he collected were worth big bucks on the international bug market.
"I once sold a single specimen for $5,000," he boasts. In fact, he sold enough to fund a scholarship program that put dozens of disadvantaged kids through school in Cape Town.
But South Africa is trying to put an end to the trade. While government officials from around the world were heatedly debating the proposed sale of elephant ivory at a meeting in Kenya this week, South Africa had quietly introduced a request to protect their distinctive beetles under CITES - the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
On April 17, four African nations agreed to work on antipoaching measures before resuming trade in elephant ivory. The pact recognizes that in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, the elephant populations may be sufficient enough to support trade, but that trade needs better monitoring. In the 1970s and '80s, African elephant numbers were reduced by half. CITES declared a ban on the ivory trade in 1989 to promote recovery of the herds. Today, the southern nations that had wanted to win approval for limited and controlled elephant trade say that it would allow more resources for conservation while showing poor farmers that the animals can bring economic benefits and should be protected.
For the South African insects, a CITES listing would govern collection of the bugs and severely limit foreign sales. The so-called Colophon species - 16 types of "Cape stag" beetles - exist only in the mountains of South Africa. Scientists are not certain they are endangered, but they say these beetles should be protected so researchers can study them and ensure international collectors will not wipe the bugs off the face of the planet.
"Fewer than 200 specimens of the [beetle] genus have been both collected and preserved in public museums' collections since the type specimen was described in 1832," says the South African report to CITES.
The report, authored by scientist Peter Lloyd of the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board, says the beetles can carry price tags of up to $11,000 in America. Advertisements in foreign magazines suggest the bugs are also a hot commodity in Japan and Germany. "Colophon are the most highly priced [insect] on the market."
South African mountaineers were offered "substantial payment" to collect beetles, the report says. Although the provincial conservation authority has attempted to protect them by requiring beetle hunters to obtain permits, the officials have little luck in policing the trade.
A Japanese scientist claimed credit for discovering a new beetle type, which he had personally collected and taken overseas. And officials have obtained information that two German collectors were in the mountains as recently as January.
To the untrained eye, it is hard to see what all the fuss is about. Even insect enthusiast Chuck Bellamy, a California scientist who is in charge of the beetle department at Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, agrees Cape stags are not much to look at. "Six legs. Two antennae. They aren't attractive," Mr. Bellamy says, pulling a glass-covered tray of beetles from the cupboard in his cluttered basement office.
"But it's like postage stamps or Beatles albums," Bellamy continues. "You want a full set. I have been to pubs in Prague packed with men of every age and description whose only common interest is beetles. They have spent their lives collecting. They ... look in these little boxes, exclaiming things like: Have you ever seen one like this?"
Owen started collecting more than 30 years ago, when he was looking for a hobby to enjoy with his son. "We collected all sorts of things. And then, when we were looking for beetles to complete the collection, I found out there was a market."
He can no longer count - or is to nervous to publicly reveal - just how many times he made the hike into the mountains to hunt for beetles of every variety. It can take nine hours of climbing to reach a good insect site. The temperature, the moon, the time of year all have to be just right before the Cape stags crawl out of hiding, and even then they can only be seen scurrying about just before the sun sets.
Sometimes, Owen camped out for days at a time - and found nothing. Other times, he says, he collected dozens of insects in a single night. "I have the finest collection in the world," he says. One of the types was even named after him: it is officially listed as Oweni.
In about 1985, he decided to turn his collection into some tangible good. He donated much of his prized collection to the nearby Helderberg High, a Seventh Day Adventist school that takes in children from around the world and disadvantaged African youths from the local community.
"He offered to donate a lot of insects, four or six metal cases full," recalls biology teacher Andre Joubert. "There were no stag beetles in the donation. But he said we could make money if we organized them and found buyers overseas. We brought in over 120,000 rand."
The money, equivalent to $20,000 today but worth far more in the late 1980s, was used to start a scholarship fund. To this day, it produces thousands in interest each year and is used to fund scholarships for impoverished children. Owen also used the proceeds from his sales of Cape stags to donate thousands of dollars toward individual students, including one Malawian boy whom he sent to college and is now a pastor with the Seventh Day Adventist church in his home country. "I can't tell you how much good has been done," says Mr. Joubert, "how many children have been educated thanks to his beetle money."
Despite his kindness, Owen knows he has acquired a bad reputation among professional scientists who fear he has threatened the beetles' survival. But Owen, Joubert, and others suggest that the beetles are actually plentiful and can be no more destroyed as a species than flies. In any case, they maintain the market for Cape stag beetles has already been flooded, and prices have crashed.
South Africa failed once before to get the beetles listed, and this time, the proposal seeks to have the Cape stags listed in the lesser Appendix III of the convention rather than Appendix I, which is saved for extremely rare animals such as black rhinos. "They aren't elephant or rhino," Bellamy says. "They aren't beautiful. But we can learn a lot from them, and we don't want them being taken from this country by anyone with a plane ticket and a collection jar. Beetles are important too."
*With material from wire services.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society