RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian federal police said Friday they have arrested a 56-year-old Japanese man on suspicion of masterminding illegal trading in species from the Amazon rain forest.
The police arrested Shoji Hashimoto on Thursday after a 40-day investigation that began when locals revealed he was illegally trapping native Amazonian species. He was released early Friday after putting up bail equivalent to $10.
The police seized some 2,000 dead insects, including butterflies, that were in his possession, but Brazil’s federal environmental agency, Ibama, said 7,000 insects were seized, including rare species of butterfly and beetle.
Hashimoto was not available to comment on the charges because he spent most of the day at federal police headquarters in Manaus providing further information for the investigation, in the presence of his lawyer.
The police said the official investigation may take as long as a year.
According to the police, Hashimoto denied capturing the insects and claimed they belong to the Museum of Natural Sciences, the construction of which he financed in 1987.
The museum is based in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon rain forest, and is in an area where the majority of the local Japanese community reside.
Hashimoto told police that the insects were uniquely displayed at the museum, which is a tourist attraction, but has failed to explain why in some cases he was in possession of 10 insects of the same species.
“Museums usually keep large amounts of animal species even of the same type either as a technical reserve or to conduct scientific research,” museum official Rikio Ishizawa, 54, told Kyodo News.
Ishizawa is in charge of the museum’s fish section and has denied that it deals in species taken from the Amazon forest. “Whenever tourists express their desire to buy insects or butterflies, we tell them Brazilian environmental legislation does not authorize this practice,” he said.
He confirmed that Hashimoto does not possess the federal license necessary to research or capture species of Amazon fauna and flora.
“Hashimoto has alleged he has brought some bugs from Colombia to display them at the museum,” police officer Nivaldo Farias de Almeida, 36, said.
“They used highly sophisticated equipment, including a metal structure which features an elevator to lift people 40 meters above the ground,” de Almeida told Kyodo.
The police believe the metal structure was employed to catch insects high up in the rain forest canopy with bait.
Signs around the structure indicate that it is dangerous because of high voltage electricity cables, police said.
According to the police, Hashimoto said he used the metal tower to take pictures and film Amazon insects and butterflies for a site he planned to set up on the Internet.
“We suspect they would use the Internet site to advertise and sell the insects around the world,” de Almeida said.
Hideaki Nakashita, the engineer in charge of construction and maintenance of the tower and elevator, was previously connected with environmental crimes, according to local newspaper A Critica.
The paper said Hashimoto and Nakashita previously hired local people to capture insects and paid them the equivalent of $2 per specimen.
Although Hashimoto can speak Portuguese, the federal police have requested that the local Japanese consulate provide an interpreter for the official hearing.
The police have conducted the investigation with the support of the federal environmental agency and the National Institute of Amazon Research (INPA), linked to the Amazon Federal University.
Hashimoto, who describes himself as an “amateurish entomologist,” has a permanent visa to live in Brazil, where he has resided since 1975.
“Studying insects is my hobby. I have identified several species of Amazon bugs including some which experts had never reported before,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
The police said the sophistication of the equipment Hashimoto used in the forest has rarely been seen in the region previously.
“We are sure this is not the job of amateurs because of all the sophistication we have found out about,” de Almeida said.
Species of titanus gigantus and acrocynus longimanus beetles have been found among the insects in Hashimoto’s possession, according to the police.
“These insects are the primary target of traffickers because they are very big and feature attractive red and black colors,” entomologist Elisabeth Franklin said.
Hashimoto and Nakashita may face charges of biopiracy and illegally importing technological equipment, according to the federal police.