“We need dark nights—they don’t come when the moon is out,” Reynaldo Zambrana explains. “First comes the female, and then the male. One must run to grab them before they bury themselves.”
At 3 a.m. on a February morning in 2019, Zambrana is slashing at vegetation with a machete on a forested mountainside about 60 miles northeast of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. In the clearing, he sets up a small generator to power a 250-watt lightbulb placed behind a white cloth suspended between two sticks.
We wait. An hour passes before the silence is broken by the whirr of wingbeats—beetles careening toward the glow in the forest—and, Zambrana hopes, entrapment in his cloth.
In the end, this hunt yields three Dynastes satanas, big shiny black scarab beetles endemic to Bolivia and known locally as lightbulb breakers. Along with the Hercules beetle (Dynastes hercules), they’re members of the subfamily of rhinoceros beetles. With their impressive horns, they’re coveted by bug lovers, especially in Japan.
Every January to May, satanas hunters in the mountainous municipality of Coroico hope to earn up to $30 for each live beetle they snag. On display in pet shops in Japan, the showiest satanas beetles may have a price tag of $500. (Prices vary according to the size, shape, and length of the horn.)
Zambrana lovingly places the three beetles in a Tupperware container with air holes in the lid and a slice of banana for them to snack on.
“On a good morning, we can catch up to five,” he says. “In a season, about 70 beetles can be captured per person. The largest I caught was 14 centimeters [five and a half inches]. I sold them to [a] Mexican who worked with the Japanese.”
In Bolivia, capturing, collecting, or storing wild animals has been prohibited since 1990, and laws allow for prison time of up to six years for people who get caught. Bolivia’s Environment Ministry classifies the satanas beetle as endangered, and under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates cross-border trade in animals and plants, importing and exporting them, is strictly regulated.
Japan’s Invasive Alien Species Act—which aims to prevent adverse effects from introduced animals and plants on ecosystems, human security, agriculture, forestry, and fishing—prohibits the import of 148 species of animals and plants. Satanas and Hercules beetles, however, aren’t among them. According to Aya Yatsumoto, of the Environmental Cooperation Office in the Ministry of Environment, they’re exempt because they’re not considered threats to wild Japanese beetles. “Since they’re expensive,” she says, “Japanese people want to keep them as pets and not release them into the wild.’’
Porfirio Mamani, a Bolivian satanas hunter from Santo Domingo, a community near Coroico, tells me it takes a lot of effort to ensure that the beetles arrive in Japan and other markets abroad alive and in good condition. Part of the special care, he says, involves keeping them clean. “Every other day, we bathe them because they get dirty while eating. When you feed them a piece of banana, they finish it in a night and a half.”
After each successful hunt, Mamani measures the beetles and places them plastic containers, which he packs in cardboard boxes. He sends them by bus to an intermediary in Peru, who’s responsible for flying them to Japan. Since Mamani began collecting satanas beetles, in 1996, he says he’s exported about 720 to Japan this way.
Zambrana says that in addition to trading live beetles abroad, he’s shipped two-month-old larvae, which are less likely to be detected by airport customs officers.
Entomologist Fernando Guerra Serrudo, an associate researcher at the Bolivian fauna collection, with the Institute of Ecology and the National Museum of Natural History in La Paz, worries about the scale of the trade in Dynastes beetles. “Illegal insect traffic moves a lot of money,” he says. “You can even sell fleas on the internet. Any type of insect has a price, and there are buyers.” He adds, “If high numbers of individuals continue to be extracted, the [beetles] will disappear.’’
Poaching and smuggling aside, habitat loss from deforestation and burning to clear land for farming is a significant threat. “Forest is being cut down in order to implement agricultural crops and coca leaf plantations,” Guerra says. “Even on slopes where it’s impossible to cultivate, they’re planting coca, and the habitats of these species are disappearing.’’
Losing Dynastes beetles, he adds, would be harmful because they recycle nutrients in tropical forests. When the larvae feed, they break up wood and accelerate its decomposition. In addition, he says, the beetles help aerate the soil when they burrow underground to feed on decayed organic matter.
A yen for beetles
Half a world away from Bolivia in Osaka, Japan, I talk to Yayoi Suzuki, who with her husband, Hideyuki, owns a pet shop called Insect Shop Global. “People in Japan really like satanas and Hercules beetles because they’re bigger than Japanese species,” Yayoi says. “They’re fascinating.”
Indeed, beetles are catnip to many Japanese. Every summer, kids hunt for them in Tokyo's parks and green spaces, and the mania has inspired Pokémon characters such as Mega-Heracross, based on the Hercules beetle.
According to Yayoi, Japanese beetles are short-lived—up to about three months—another thing that makes them less desirable than satanas and Hercules beetles, which can live up to two years.
Japan has two kinds of beetle lovers, Yayoi says: Those who like to raise beetles and keep them alive, and those who prefer to collect them preserved for display. The Suzukis deal in living beetles, some bred and raised in their shop and others raised from larvae they buy from other Japanese breeders.
Looking around the shop, I spot something squirming in a transparent plastic container half-filled with dirt. It’s a yellowish worm about four inches long as thick as a sausage with tiny hairs on its body—and menacing jaws. “It's a satanas beetle larva,” Yayoi Suzuki says smiling. A tag attached to the back of the container indicates that it’s a male and was bred in the shop.
Yayoi tells me that in the past, Hideyuki traveled three times to the Guadalupe Islands, off the west coast of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, to get Hercules beetles. And about 10 years ago, she and Hideyuki went to Bolivia hoping to acquire 200 satanas beetles, but Bolivian authorities rejected their request.
“Oh, look how it enjoys its jelly!” Yayoi exclaims, grabbing an adult satanas from another container and putting it in my hands. The Suzukis feed their beetles a mixture of animal protein, saccharides, vitamins, minerals, and banana-flavored fruit juice, which they make in the shop. This diet, she says, has all the nutritional elements satanas beetles need.
Round One: Fight!
Japanese interest in large, well-armed beetles extends beyond keeping them as pets. Jose Iannacone-Oliver and Alexander Soras-Vega, researchers in the biology department at Federico Villarreal National University, in Lima, Peru, note that among the factors causing declines of beetle populations is “their use…for fighting exhibitions, which drives demand in global markets.”
In the wild, rhinoceros beetles use their horns as weapons to variously lift, flip, or toss other males into the air in fights for dominance during mating season.
On YouTube, Japanese channels livestream various species of beetles locking horns in tiny wrestling rings, though the provenance of the beetles is unclear. The goal is for your beetle to flip its opponent or haul it out of the ring. These contests get many thousands of viewers. Kazuhiko Iijima, manager of Mushisha, an insect shop in Tokyo, attests to the sport’s popularity and insists that the contestants are from legal sources. “Tokyo has tournaments,” he says. “Winners get a lot of money depending on the number of attendees.”
Beetle wrestling enthusiasts put great effort into honing their kabutomushi (kabuto means samurai helmet, and mushi is the word for insect) for matches, which are mostly held during the summer. “I trained him by deliberately letting him fight against smaller beetles and got him into the habit of winning,” said Shin Yuasa, of his victorious beetle in a match in Tokyo, according to Reuters reporter Masako Iijima.
The sport appeals to kids too. Eight-year-old Tessho Suzuki was the winner of the National Rhinoceros Beetle Sumo Tournament on July 16, 2018, held in Yamagata Prefecture, on Honshu Island. Some 400 youngsters around his age attended the event. His prize: beef and plums from Nakayama, a town in Yamagata.
Betting on the outcomes of these bouts is common, particularly in the Ryukyu Islands and in Okinawa. Most betting is banned under the Japanese Criminal Code, and payouts, according to some betting sites on the dark web, are often made in bitcoin, which is unregulated and difficult to trace.
To catch a beetle thief
Beetle expert Fernando Guerra Serrudo says Japanese beetle smugglers increasingly have been traveling to Bolivia to hunt beetles themselves, cutting out local suppliers. “They now have contacts, with experience obviously, who help them collect specimens,’’ he says.
Reynaldo Zambrana, the Coroico beetle hunter, echoes this. He says some Japanese hire English-speaking tour guides in the region to take them to prime beetle-catching sites.
In Coroico, I talk with a tour guide who says that in 2018 three Japanese men hired him to help them find satanas beetles. “We set up tents in Arapata,” says the guide, who asks me not to name him out of fear of the authorities. “We found three beetles. They said they will return to the same place this year .”
Arrests for beetle poaching and trading are rare in Bolivia, says Walter Andrade, a colonel in La Paz Forestry and Environmental Police. He attributes this in part to a lack of oversight at the Peruvian border, which makes it too easy to take beetle contraband out of the country. “There is minimal control, either by Peruvian or Bolivian authorities, for such a large border we have.” That porous border extends more than a hundred miles.
In June 2007, Hosogushi Masatsugu, a Japanese citizen, was arrested at Mariscal Sucre International Airport, in Quito, Ecuador, for attempting to smuggle 423 beetles from Bolivia to Japan; 211 Dynastes satanas beetles from that seizure were later returned to Bolivia, according to a report from the Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Ecuador. In February 2010, a shipment of 2,752 beetles of various species, including many rhinoceros beetles, was intercepted at the post office in La Paz. A Bolivian woman, Ericka Cuevas Santos, was arrested and imprisoned briefly, but her Peruvian accomplice, Dina Elsa Vega Aguilar, evaded the law and is still wanted by the Bolivian police and by Interpol.
Andrade says his agency’s most recent beetle bust occurred two and a half years ago. “These were three … satanas beetles that were for sale in a craft shop in the town of Copacabana for $100 each. They were carefully prepared inside a glass box, ideally for insect collectors.”
Andrade bemoans the lack of Bolivia’s environmental police personnel. This means that understaffed regional departments have to draw on the 24 agents in La Paz, who are hard-pressed to handle the workload in the capital, let alone having to help with enforcement operations elsewhere in the country.
'We can secretly meet in Bolivia'
According to Andrade, insect traffickers do most of their business—by far—through social networks. “About 80 percent of orders are made on the internet,” he says, adding that his department has initiated a monitoring system to detect illegal sales via social networks.
Andrade says they’re “also working on educating children, trying to generate a new thinking so that 10 to 15 years from now these people will be more aware of the situation,” which will help reduce trafficking.
When I contact the 100 % Insect JAPAN Facebook page, which offers beetle species from more than 15 countries, including Dynastes beetles from Latin America, a site administrator tells me that he used to sell captive-raised beetles. That was legal. But now, he says, he offers only wild-caught specimens, which is mostly illegal. (This makes it possible to avoid export-import paperwork.)
The man, who insists on anonymity, agrees to meet me for coffee at Tokyo’s Narita airport but then doesn’t show up. After numerous communications on Facebook before he blocks me, he divulges that he collects beetles himself on the ground in different countries and takes them home to Japan in his suitcase. He says he gets proper paperwork for some species “but not for all.”
Eventually he seems to forget that I’d introduced myself as a National Geographic journalist and asks me if I’m willing to catch beetles for him. “If you can, we can secretly meet in Bolivia. I'm still not sure when I will go, but I want to organize my agenda for 2020.”
Meanwhile Reynaldo Zambrana tells me he’s giving up beetle hunting. He and others in the community did it to supplement meager earnings. “We made a living like anyone else,” he says. But he’s worried now that the trade is hurting the beetles. “It seems to me that traffickers are taking everything and leaving nothing. This has motivated me to no longer continue with this illegal activity.”
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to remove reference to the high value of champion fighting beetles and updated to include Iijima's comment that he believes fighting beetles are not illegally imported.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to email@example.com.
Eduardo Franco is an investigative journalist and photographer who covers wildlife crime and exploitation, among other environmental issues, in Latin America. He is the founder of www.raibolivia.org, a nature information site, and is based in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. Follow Eduardo on Twitter and Instagram.