Monday, September 08, 2008

Three years of prison for a few longhorn beetles

Update, September 10th: Švácha, the more famous scientist, was released while Kučera, his assistant, was given 3 years of prison. The asymmetry wasn't quite explained.

Update, October 26th: Like in the Hollywood movies, Petr Kučera has liberated himself
Today, a court in Delhi, India decided that a Czech entomologist, Mr Petr Švácha, and his assistant, Mr Emil Kučera, will be imprisoned for at least 3 years (at most 7 years: to be decided on Wednesday; plus, much less importantly, a USD 200 fine) for collecting about 200 beetles and their larvae in India, despite calls from 800 scientists from the whole world who wanted their colleagues to be released (petition).

Petr Švácha (Entomological Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences) needed some butterflies plus a few specimen to complete his book about longhorn beetles. The trip was partly funded by the Czech Entomological Society. The good Indian folks not only stole a few dozens of the small (living) animals but, incidentally, also all of their equipment.

Officially, the researchers' "crime" was that the place where they collected the insect was a national park: it is not clear whether they even knew about this fact. These coincidences have led to a violation of the local 1972 Wildlife Protection Act. Well, the Indian people who want to put the scientists in jail are wild life forms themselves and when wild life becomes existentially dangerous for humans, it might be a better idea not to protect it too much.

Insect is the most overpopulated class of animals on Earth, containing about 90% of all the animal species - about 30 million species even though the error margin of this figure is nearly an order of magnitude (partly because scientists are not allowed to work). And I don't even want to talk about the trillions of the actual pieces of insect that live with us on this planet. There's so much of it - and of the species - that you will never see most of the species and the diversity only has a real value for true experts such as the two Czech scientists.

Cucujus bicolor (click), the most precious piece on a list that was identified. This ugly guy can send you to a dirty prison for 3-7 years and you don't even have to kill it. The Indian guys clearly think it is more valuable than a human being. Holy cow. Whoops, holy cows are also infinitely valuable there. ;-)

I wonder whether the Indian authorities behave as science-hating primitives only because they have lost the enlightened imperial supervision by the United Kingdom. But when I read what a top U.K. science adviser said about particle physics and space research yesterday, I am inclined to believe that the Indian independence is not the main reason of their barbarian behavior. ;-)

See an interview how they were originally arrested.

At any rate, if they are indeed going to be arrested, I wish the scientists to be able to neutralize the guards and escape from the prison as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the entomologists and other scientists plan protests in front of Indian embassies across the world.


  1. Did the defense attorneys get an opportunity to voir dire potential jurors to exclude those who had been bugs in a past life? That would have been an obvious source of bias.

    As Johnny Cochrane would have said:

    "If you were once 6-legged and brown, then you must step down..."

  2. Ignorance of the law is not a defence in any Western country. Although the punishment is overly harsh, the same actions in North America, Europe or Australia would also lead to convictions.

  3. Of course, I agree. But I also happen to live in a country & continent where it is perfectly legal to criticize the laws of another country. ;-) I am just telling you about this fact so that if you didn't know this law, you couldn't use this ignorance as your defense.

    The law is dumb and barbarian. They have some superlong lists of "endangered" species that were written down in 1972 and apparently are not updated at all. This setup has clearly nothing to do with genuine defense of biodiversity because if some species were really threatened in 1972, they are likely to be 1) gone by now or 2) saved by now.

    Such an endangered status simply changes after 35 years. And research is needed to figure out in what direction. They're not doing it because they seem to be scared of research.

    They only found 1-2 beetles in the Czech collection that were on the protected list. Sorry to say but Czech entomologists, and maybe even their assistants, are more endangered than a particular type of the beetles. ;-)