Chinese customs have recently been posting on their social media channels numerous notices of seizures of live insects and arachnids. The intercepted contraband was sent in parcels from abroad and destined for the Chinese pet trade. Pet insects, such as beetles and ants, are very popular in China and a great variety of species are available to buy on-line, on Taobao and JD-mall platforms.
On the 25th of August 2022, the customs in Pudong International Airport in Shanghai discovered that a parcel which was supposed to contain plastic toys was filled with small test tubes containing 300 ants. The ants belonged to a species of harvester ant – Messor barbarus, native to Southern Europe and North Africa and very popular with Chinese hobbyists.
On the 22nd of September, in the city of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, customs officers discovered, after scanning a parcel, 151 test tubes filled with 520 live ants, including both adults and larvae. The ants belonged to 8 different species, most very common in the pet trade: Camponotus turkestanicus, C. sanctus, Cataglyphis pallida, Myrmecocystus mimicus, M. mexicanus, Messor wasmanni, M. capitatus, Gesomyrmex howardi, Stigmatoma rubiginoum and Ooceraea biroi. The provenance of the parcel was not specified.
Seized ants. (Image: China Customs’ Official WeChat account).
While some of the species intercepted, such as Camponotus turkestanicus, are common in trade and sold very cheaply on-line in China other such as the Myrmecocystus mexicanus, (native to Mexico and the USA) are rare in the trade. This species is advertised by a single seller on Taobao for a price range of between 3,000-9,999 yuan (USD 420 - 1400), presumably for a queen and a number of worker ants or larvae. The Stigmatomma rubiginoum, although native to China’ Hunan province, also fetches high prices. Two queens and fifty workers are available for 1,050 yuan (USD 150) on Taobao.
Myrmecocystus mexicanus on sale on Taobao.
Customs officers in China have also reported seizures of live beetles and scorpions.
In June 2022, customs officers in the north-eastern port city of Dalian discovered an adult Hercules beetle (Dynastes hercules) in a parcel labeled as ‘plastic toys’. The species is one of the world’s largest insects and the longest species of beetle. It is sold on-line in China.
Seized Hercules beetle. (Image: China Customs’ Official WeChat account).
Hercules beetle (Dynastes hercules) on sale on Taobao.
On the first of September 2022, customs in the city of Chongqing found, in a parcel, 15 test tubes containing live stag beetles of the species Lucarnus dybowski. This species is native to Russian Far East, the Korean Peninsula and also North Eastern China. It has not been specified which country the parcel came from.
On the 30th of September, customs officers of the Shanghai port X-rayed a box labelled as plastic toys, and found it to contain 6 large live beetles. The beetles belonged to the species Megasoma elephus, Hexarthrius parryi and Hexarthrius forsteri.
The larvae of Megasoma elephus, commonly known as elephant beetle, are sold in China on-line for less than 200 yuan (USD 30). The species is found in Central and Southern America.
Elephant beetle (Megasoma elephus) on sale on Taobao.
The fighting giant stag beetle Hexarthrius parryi is found in South East Asian countries. Large stag beetles are sold on-line in China for 150-200 yuan.
On the 5th of November, Guangzhou customs seized a parcel containing 52 giant blue scorpions (Heterometrus spinifer) packed in plastic containers. The species, native to South East Asia, and also known as Asian forest scorpion, is a popular pet. It is sold widely on-line in China, with 1cm juveniles costing 36 yuan (USD 5), and adults over 100 yuan (USD 14). Many of the scorpions seized in Guangzhou had died in transit.
Giant blue scorpions (Heterometrus spinifer) on sale on-line in China.
Last year, following the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, China’s State Council passed a sweeping biosecurity law curbing import, export and trade in wild animals. In addition, the release of invasive species was made a criminal offence, punishable by a prison sentence of up to three years.
The Chinese media have been publishing numerous articles to raise public awareness of the harm done by invasive species, and also warn citizens of the legal consequences of bringing live animals into the country and of releasing alien species into the wild.
The spread of invasive fire-ants across Southern China has been of particular concern, with the state media focusing on the potential threat to China’s ecosystems and economy by imported ant species.
Online trade in live animals is a continuing problem in China. Snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, fish and mammals are sent to buyers by post, despite a law having been passed making it a criminal offence to post live animals.
While online trading platforms such as Taobao continue to advertise the sale of animals, efforts to control the import of invasive species and promote conservation objectives in China will continue to be undermined.