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The Japanese children’s pastime of catching stag beetles during the sultry summer months appears to be turning into outright “beetlemania,” given the reported surge in overseas poaching of the six-legged black diamonds for sale in Japan.

Two Japanese men were arrested Aug. 1 at Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport shortly before boarding a flight for Osaka, on suspicion of attempting to smuggle 271 pairs of indigenous stag beetles out of the country.

Also in the Himalayan kingdom last year, forest rangers in southern Nepal caught a Japanese Web designer and his two Nepalese guides red-handed bagging stag beetles without permits. Violations involving stag beetles have also been reported in Taiwan, India and other countries.

According to Hiroshi Fujita, editor of Gekkan Mushi (Bug Monthly), stashing rare stag beetles in luggage was not unheard of in the past, but “the recent surge in local demand for foreign beetles has boosted smuggling significantly.”

Prices for stag beetles, usually sold in pairs for breeding at home, start at around 1,000 yen for common Japanese varieties and some foreign ones. At the other end of the scale, Magic Forest, a popular beetle shop in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, sells a pair of Nepalese-born Dorcus antaeus, a type of stag beetle popular for its large size, for 330,000 yen.

Size matters to stag beetle fans, with prices jumping per millimeter increase in length. Male beetles over 10 cm easily fetch at least 1 million yen, despite the economic downturn. Boasting about 100 indigenous varieties, Japan certainly has no shortage of stag beetles, so named because the male’s large mandibles resemble a stag’s antlers.

During the summer vacation, Japanese schoolchildren, mostly boys, armed with long-handled nets can be seen catching them in wooded areas to keep as pets. The normally jet-black or dark brown beetles are between 5 cm and 8 cm in length and can live as long as five years, longer than tropical fish and hamsters.

Until recently though, imports of all but three foreign species were prohibited due to unfounded fears the nonnative beetles would destroy crops and plants, denying enthusiasts the enjoyment of the more exotic and bigger overseas varieties.

That all changed on Nov. 24, 1999, when the then Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ Plant Protection Station in one fell swoop approved 31 foreign stag beetle varieties for import.

Five more species were given the green light in June 2000 and a whopping 35 more on Jan. 12 this year, bringing the total number of species cleared for entry to 74. While a far cry from the thousands of known varieties, the list covers the most popular breeds, which feature unusual mandibles and come in a range of shapes and exotic colors, including gold and iridescent blue-green.

As a result of the deregulation, buying a foreign stag beetle is now as easy as visiting a major department store or stopping by any of the numerous insect specialty shops that have sprouted up all over the country. For those with credit cards, they can even be ordered over the Internet.

The easy availability has fueled a “beetle renaissance” as yesterday’s bug-hunting boys, now middle-aged men with serious cash to spend, rediscover the joys of raising and breeding stag beetles. Japanese beetle fans now regularly go on group tours to the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia for the sole purpose of collecting live stag beetles.

Atsushi Inaba, a 35-year-old beetle fancier in Tokyo who owns 10 stag beetles, said the arrival of the bigger, foreign breeds was the main reason he got back into stag beetles after a long hiatus. “You can’t walk a beetle,” he said. “It’s a different kind of pet that offers the creative challenge of finding out how to breed bigger ones. I feel more like a winemaker.”

However, the Plant Protection Station requires that any beetle on the approved list brought into Japan be certified by an official body in the country of origin.

This effectively bans many highly sought-after giant stag beetles found only in northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan and other parts of Asia that prohibit their trade and export because they are protected species. Poaching of foreign stag beetles has thus inevitably become popular to fill the lucrative gap between supply and demand.

One insect dealer in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward who regularly travels to Taiwan and China on clandestine beetle-smuggling expeditions stated the obvious, “Sneaking a panda out of China would be impossible, but no one will know you’re carrying stag beetles in your bag.”

But Fumiaki Urakami, editor of Kuwagata (Stag Beetle) Magazine, warned that if left unchecked, the actions of private collectors might take a serious toll on stag beetle populations.

“Since the ban was lifted, dealers of every kind have been heading overseas, even people just looking to make a quick buck, which is definitely causing damage,” he said.

The impact has already been felt in Nepal, where collectors often fell trees just to harvest the beetles inhabiting the treetops.

In urban areas, they also face the assaults of traffic, feet, cats, crows and other predators.

The London Wildlife Trust now regards the stag beetle as a globally threatened species due to the destruction of its key habitat — dead wood — as woodlands have been converted to agricultural landscapes and urban developments.

It is now extinct or very endangered in a number of countries such as Latvia and eastern Germany and its distribution is contracting in many parts of Asia, including Japan.

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