Thursday, July 03, 2008

Czech entomologists arrested in India

Petr Švácha has devoted his career to the study of insects such as the long-horned beetle, shown above in larva form and below, fully grown. The wasp beetle, bottom, has been studied for its ability to camouflage.
Švácha is one of the world's foremost experts on beetle larvae.
Authorities jail Czech scientists on suspicion of insect smuggling

By Markéta Hulpachová
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
July 2nd, 2008 issue

Bugs are Petr Švácha’s life passion. Described by his co-workers as an ardent entomologist with “no personal life,” the 51-year-old Academy of Sciences researcher devoted his career to the study of long-horned beetles. So when an Indian newspaper linked his June 23 arrest for collecting rare beetles, butterflies and moths in a north Indian nature preserve to commercial insect smuggling, his colleagues joined forces to restore Švácha’s good name.“We know Švácha as a man who is motivated purely by his work,” a trio of Institute of Entomology scientists wrote in a June 27 open letter. “In his case, we can fully exclude [the possibility of] collecting beetles for reasons other than research.”Meanwhile, the rail-thin, bespectacled scientist and his friend, 52-year-old forester Emil Kučera, await trial in Darjeeling, where the chief judicial magistrate court denied them bail upon their arrest.“Švácha and Kučera remain in custody. Their trial is scheduled for July 7, but an ongoing justice-workers’ strike may delay the process,” said Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Opletalová.Švácha and Kučera’s odyssey began early last month, when they embarked on a mission to the hills of Darjeeling, a region in the north Indian province of West Bengal. Currently lacking grants to finance his research, Švácha funded the trip out of his own pocket, which technically classified it as a vacation, according to his colleague František Marec, chairman of the Biology Center at the Institute of Entomology. “When you are studying insects, there are basically three ways to obtain samples of particular species,” Marec said. “You can use existing collections, which are often devoid of new species, or you can request samples from larger institutions or on-location scientists, which is expensive. The third option, of course, is to go out and obtain the samples yourself.”As one of the world’s foremost experts on long-horned beetle larvae, Švácha evidently opted for the latter, with little awareness of the personal risk involved. “He had no idea what he was getting into,” Marec said.Upon arresting Švácha and Kučera in the Singalila National Park, rangers confiscated 200 live beetles and more than 200 butterflies, moths and larvae, as well as a specialized insect collection apparatus from the cottage where the duo was staying, according to the Indian newspaper The Statesman. According to Merisource, another Indian news server, the forest officials were following a tip-off that two suspicious foreigners were “making forays” into the hillside.If indicted, the two Czechs could face two to seven years of imprisonment under Indian law, which prohibits the collection of flora and fauna from national parks.“[Švácha and Kučera] were collecting rare beetles and butterflies, [which violates] … the Wildlife Protection Act,” park official Utpal Nath told The Statesman. “They claim that the intention for collection was mainly for research, but there is a serious implication of an import and export business on rare insects.”Describing the arrest as a “lamentable error,” Marec said Švácha and Kučera were most likely oblivious to the fact that they were gathering insects on national park territory. “They allegedly did not realize this, because they saw cows grazing and people cutting wood nearby,” Opletalová said. From bad to worseIn addition to misunderstanding the local park classification system, the duo may have failed to notice current political unrests in the region, whose hillside inhabitants, the Gorkhas, recently renewed their decades-old struggle for independence. “At a time when the hills of Darjeeling are restless on the demand of a separate state … a few foreigners have been gadding around the hillside collecting beetles,” Merisource wrote.Indian authorities, who estimate the confiscated insects’ total value at 7,000 rupees (around 3,800 Kč), have a history of apprehending foreigners for collecting the same types of insects as Švácha and Kučera. These include the tiger beetle, a highly demanded insect used in traditional Chinese, Japanese and Latin American medicine.In 2005, Darjeeling Forest officials arrested a group of Japanese nationals, who served unspecified prison sentences for collecting such creatures, The Statesman reported.As Švácha and Kučera prepare for their upcoming trial, Marec and his colleagues continue to worry. “When [a co-worker] spoke to him on the phone, Švácha was not complaining,” he said. “But, at 184 centimeters tall, he only weighs around 60 kilos, and with the conditions in Indian jails, he could catch salmonella.”In addition to bemoaning the misfortune of his colleague, who he describes as an integral wheel at the entomology institute, Marec voiced concern that the event would discourage certain future research expeditions. “Of course, it will deter scientists from West European countries, who are warier of these regions,” he said. “But we former communists are not so afraid of this, although the consequences are sometimes awful.”