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A beetle called Hitler
©  2002  Rose George

Posted in Journalism — 13th April 2002

It’s a small blind beetle. It lives in a few humid caves in a little-known Balkan country, measures about half a centimeter and eats insect larvae. There are 41 species and 95 under-species related to it, and it has none of the vibrant colours of the scarab, nor the interesting antennae of the longhorn. Yet the blind Slovenian cave beetle can sell for £1000 each on the black market, all because some fascist bug collector decided to name it after Adolf Hitler.

The collector was Oscar Sheibel, a German who in 1933 was living in Llubljana, the capital of Slovenia. In 1933, a Slovenian biologist sold him a previously unheard-of beetle he had found in caves near the town of Celje. Sheibel named it after his hero, and anophthalmus (blind) hitleri entered the historical record. Hardly something the German Chancellor, probably busy preparing to invade Poland, would bother to notice. But the fancies of dictators are always mysterious – Saddam is a fervent archeologist; Gadafi likes football. Hitler expressed his delight at the honour by sending Sheibel a thank you letter, and the notorious name of the blind cave beetle was sealed according to the norms of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, a body of biologists charged with seeing that “every animal has a unique and universally accepted scientific name.”

“I’m surprised they allowed it,” says Bob Allen, a research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciencies in Philadelphia, which has one of the world’s biggest insect specimens, though not a single anophthalmus hitleri. “I know they don’t allow you to name things after religious figures – you can’t have a jesusi or a mohammedi for example. I guess Hitler is OK though.”

The Hitler beetle – not to be confused with the People’s Car Volkswagen, also a product of Hitler – isn’t alone in being a taxonomical curiosity: A team of palaeontologists with poor music tastes named a Madagascan dinosaur masiakasaurus knopfleri, after Dire Straits singer Mark Knopfler. There is Bufonaria borisbeckeri (a marine snail), Hyla stingi (a Colombian tree frog) and a wasp called Polemistus Chewbacca. In 1994, a fossil chaoborid fly was named “I”, until a researcher pointed out that he didn’t want to keep writing “I have small male genitalia.” (it was changed to Iyaiyai). There’s even another hitleri – a paleodictyoptera (flying insect fossil) named in 1934.

But while there is no thriving black-market trade in paleodictyopterans, the beetle is life-threateningly popular. Beetles are hugely coveted by collectors. In Japan, where a stag beetle is considered a normal family pet, entire mountaintops have had to be declared off-limits to poachers. In 1994, two Germans were arrested with 14,000 illegally collected insect specimens. At insect trading fairs in Paris, Frankfurt and Munich, a rare – and critically endangered – Cape stag beetle can go for thousands. Add the lure of the Third Reich, the voracious collecting of anything Nazi-related, and it’s no wonder the Slovenian entomology profession has sounded the alarm about their notorious Nazi bug.

“A well preserved hitleri can go for up to 4000 marks (£1200),” says Dr. Bozo Drovenik, director of the Llubljana Science Academy’s Entomology Department. “I don’t know if hitleri has become trendy – I just know its price has doubled in three years, and I’m dealing with more and more customers that are interested in this insect on markets like Frankfurt or Paris. They’re not all Nazi sympathisers, but they want to make profits by selling to Nazi collectors.”

Militaria experts say Nazi memorabilia is the biggest market of all. A fine SS dagger can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. There are genuine concentration camp uniforms for sale on the net at $1000 or so each. And unlike its rival hitleri paleodictyoptera, the anophthalmus is somewhat easier to obtain, being alive and well and easily trapped with a glass of water, vinegar and some rotting meat.

“It’s a very delicate operation,” Slovene biologist Slavo Polak told Arne Hodalic, who took these pictures. “You need at least two months to capture one or two.” But the poachers have time, and the Slovenians have the caves: As the hitleri has only been found in five caves so far, it’s not that big a poaching challenge. “We have more and more visitors to the caves,” says Polak. “During the summer, amateur speologists come in mass. They often ask me which are the caves with the easiest access, and I know that some will go to poach, so I try to find out with my colleagues their hidden intentions before I tell them where to go.”

No matter that the hitleri is now officially endangered in Slovenia, and collectors need an official government permit. “Our main problem is how to apply the legislation. The only thing we can do is take the protected insects back if we capture them. The big problem comes from the anarchy of European legislation.” Insect-collecting may be illegal in Slovenia, but it’s only a few miles to the Italian border, where it’s permitted.

And thus Slovenia’s nasty fascists – fond of putting the beetle on their flags – are outraged. “It’s inconceivable that we have to pay 4000 marks to get a hitleri from the hands of a poacher,” says an ultranationalist nicknamed Goebbels. “It shows our weak our government is, that it can’t protect our national patrimony from foreigners.”

But can anyone protect the hitleri? Dr. Drovenik wants to close the caves. “It’s drastic but necessary. Otherwise it’ll disappear completely.” Perhaps its salvation is in a name-change: In 1949, a thoughtful German named Hermann Haupt tried to change rochlingia hitleri to scepasma europea, an earlier species. It didn’t work: Though the ICZN code pronounces that “a zoologist should not pronounce a name that, when spoken, suggests a bizarre, comical or otherwise objectionable meaning,” it seems Hitler isn’t objectionable enough. “A name is a name, really,” says Dr Andrew Wakeham-Dawson of the ICZN in London. “There are people with the surname Hitler. It’s not a swearword or an innuendo.” With 30 million species waiting for names, the ICZN only acts on disputes brought before it. This was the first Dr. Wakeham-Dawson had heard of the hitleri. “There’s too much out there. But if people really object, they could bring it to the Commission.”

Too little, too late for the Nazi bug, snuffling round its caves, doomed by the folly of man. But it can gain some comfort: In the 19th century, entomologists Mr. Chase and Mr. Dyar were engaged in a collecting war. When Mr. Chase found a liparid moth, he named it “in honour” of his rival: The moth is now known as Dyaria, and a target of scatological fetishists everywhere.

Published in the Independent

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