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July 3, 2014

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Dark side of city’s love affair with summer fireflies

WATCHING fireflies twinkling among woodland at dusk is a romantic summer pastime in Shanghai, with special events being held in city parks.

However, critics say firefly extravaganzas in which hundreds of the insects — actually light producing beetles — are released are cruel and damage the environment.

Zihai Luyuan Park on Chongming Island will stage the city’s largest ever firefly events every night from July 10 to September 10. Each evening, between 500 and 1,000 fireflies will be released by staff so that the public can enjoy their bioluminescent displays. Visitors pay 98 yuan (US$15.7) for packages including other activities.

Zihai Luyuan Park says that all its fireflies are captive bred, but environmentalists say many parks that stage events buy insects taken from the wild.

Many of the fragile beetles die in the process and harm is caused to the environment, they say.

Most event organizers claim that their insects are specially bred and very few are taken from the wild, but that’s just a lie, said Fu Xinhua, a firefly expert with the Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, Hubei Province.

The cost of captive breeding can be 10 yuan per firefly, compared with only half a yuan for catching one in the wild, said Fu.

Trapping fireflies in the wild can destroy the balance of the whole ecosystem in that area, Fu said.

And where they are released they can become an invasive species, added the expert.

In Shanghai, firefly numbers have been in sharp decline in recent years and they are now rare.

Fireflies like dark conditions where they use their lights to attract mates and prey. But light pollution, habitat damage, alien species and people collecting them have taken their toll, Fu said.

Cenbu Village in Qingpu District is the best place in town to view fireflies, according to the Shanghai Tourism Administration.

However, numbers there have dropped sharply in recent years and experts have called on the authorities to set up a protection area around Dianshan Lake.

Numbers have slumped to around 120 this year from 400 to 500 last year and nearly 1,000 in 2012, said Jiang Long, an environmental protection volunteer in the village.

Jiang blames loss of habitat, as reed marshes favored by fireflies have become a garbage dumping ground.

Fu said fireflies in Cenbu may die out within five years unless action is taken. Village authorities are now attempting to improve the insects’ habitant.

Only two spotted

In other places recommended for firefly watching, such as Shanghai Botanical Garden, numbers have also plummeted. During a night tour last summer, only two fireflies were spotted.

Meanwhile, if lovers don’t fancy taking a trip to view fireflies, they can have them sent to their homes in a controversial trade.

It is expected that the insects will be in big demand for Qixi Festival — the traditional Chinese Valentine’s Day — that falls on August 2 this year.

At one online store, 10 fireflies are priced at 45 yuan, and 58 people have already bought some.

But while online venders claim fireflies are ideal presents for lovers, many die on the journey to Shanghai.

Most are from provinces such as Yunnan and Shandong and often must endure high temperatures while transported in jars with tiny air vents, say experts. Survivors are only likely to live a couple of days, they added.

With this in mind, some young women said they would not welcome fireflies as a Qixi gift.

“It’s such a cruel way to mark romance,” said Lu Jiamin, a university student in the city.

“If I receive fireflies as a gift, I won’t be happy,” she added.


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