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For many years now I have been shocked as I witnessed the growth of ant keeping as a hobby around the world and watched in amazement as an entire industry, supplying colonies, housing, food and accessories, has materialized and become very well established. It is possible to have nests of Australian ants, American ants, Chinese and African ants delivered to your door complete with suitable housing and equipment to care for them. No longer is it enough to start with one of those horrific blue gel kids formicarium’s and receive your queen-less ‘colony’ so you can be entertained as they dig through this other-worldly goo until they die of pointlessness! Now it’s a test-tube with queens of Camponotus or some exotic oriental species, entombed within a perfect environment with wads of cotton wool delivering a perfect amount of humidity. Never before has the hobby of Formiculture been so accessible and so varied.
So why am I shocked? Because the vast majority of ant colonies kept by people are imported illegally, sold illegally and kept illegally. I do not believe that any other hobby is based on an industry that relies on smuggling in order to thrive and grow.
I have a business that imports Leaf Cutting Ants from South and Central America, I have previously imported Green Tree Ants (Oecophylla spp.) from Australia, and the common factor throughout all of my hundreds of imports is the cost and complexity involved in doing it all legally.
So what is a legal import? For a colony of ants, or even a single ant, to arrive at your address and be legal, it has to pass through a border inspection post and be checked by a Defra vet. The result of this procedure is a certificate that indicates that the ants have been sourced legally, have been packed and have travelled in an ethical and safe manner, and are species that are allowed in Great Britain.
Parents who encourage their kids to start keeping ants, or even buy them colonies from suppliers around the world, and right here in the UK, would, I am sure, be shocked that, for the most part, they are contributing to a smuggling operation that is growing quickly in the face of unprecedented demand. Vet inspections are not a process, as many would have you believe, of an unqualified vet attempting to diagnose whether the ants are carrying disease or are sick! The check on each package is to ensure that other, potentially dangerous, organisms are not present accidentally, and that ethical standards are being followed. (Packaging specifications on airfreight is controlled by IATA). It also, perhaps more importantly, ensures that the ants have been legally obtained in the country of origin and not removed without permission, potentially damaging protected areas and species. In other words, does the exporter have an export permit? When you receive a package of ants from overseas without paperwork, you are encouraging animal smuggling and you are culpable in the same way as the traders are who knowingly receive mislabelled packages to throw the inspectors off the scent.
The solution. Its not to stop buying ants or shut down an industry that has become worth a lot of money. Its to say that now, because this hobby has grown to the size it is, now is the time to demand an ethical supply so those with a genuine love of these amazing insects can enjoy them free from the cowboys and smugglers who currently have control. All sellers should offer to send a copy of the import certificate with the ants. This should be standard practice so you can rest assured your ants are legal. If they are not prepared to do that, despite whatever reason they offer, they are selling illegal ants. Next time you order ants, ask for this. You will soon know the truth about who you are dealing with.