Fireflies face extinction risk – and tourists are partly to blame

Fireflies face extinction risk - and tourists are partly to blame

Firefly tourism is on the rise globally but scientists are warning it may contribute to risk of the insect’s extinction.

“I spotted a hundred flickering lights, illuminating a palm like a Christmas tree.”

“Our guide waved his flashlight at the fireflies. They slowly engulfed us – we were surrounded by a shiny galaxy of glowing beetle stomachs.”

“I reached out a hand and captured one in my fist.”

Reading this travel blogger’s enchanting experience in 2019 makes it clear why firefly tours are popular, but done badly, it risks killing the insects.

Habitat loss and light pollution from urbanisation and industrialisation are the leading threats to firefly populations, according to research published this week.

But firefly tourism, which attracts thousands of visitors in countries including Mexico, the US, the Philippines and Thailand, is a growing concern for conservationists.

“Getting out into the night and enjoying fireflies in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience,” Prof Sara Lewis at Tufts University, who led the research, told the BBC.

But tourists often inadvertently kill fireflies by stepping on them, or disturb their habitat by shining lights and causing soil erosion.

Firefly festivals are organised in countries including Japan, Belgium, and India, and social media is magnifying this tourism, she adds.

How tourism can kill fireflies

The tiny town of Nanacamilpa in Mexico became a celebrated firefly spot in the past decade.

Some visitors post their sparkling photos on Instagram, flouting the ban on photography that many site managers impose, says local photographer Pedro Berruecos.

The Mexican fireflies are especially vulnerable to tourists, Prof Lewis explains.

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Estimated annual visitors to firefly sites

  • Malaysia: 80,000
  • Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee: 30,000 in two-three week summer season
  • Taiwan: 90,000
  • Mexico: 200,000 in 2019, up from 180,000 in 2018

Source: Professor Sara Lewis, Tufts University

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