Private collections/Right to collect

Entomology: Namibian Museum insects at NATMUS.CUL.NA
Tue Oct 1 12:02:13 CDT 2002

Dear all

To clarify from the start - I believe that private collectors and
individuals had, have, and shall have a considerable impact on taxonomy. But

A snippet from Lynn's mail of 25/9 grabbed my attention
> as an organisation limited to African herpetofaunal collections

Many African and other developing countries, including ours, have strict
guidelines for biological collecting. None of the arguments that has been
presented in this thread in favour of private collections / specimen
deposition elsewhere has been new. Most of them are favourites of specimen
traders and even museums regarding 'private enterprise collecting' as a
valid corporate strategy.

Africa also has many important collections, but because it also has many
problems, the latter is used as an excuse to promote arguments that private
investment is so much better than supporting (failing) public collections
because of a lack of investment of public fund in the latter. As a curator
in an African museum I am regularly confronted with this dilemma - notably
in favour of private herpetological collections. Some questions. Should
museum curators tacitly or overtly support the potential loss of current and
future information that is a known, inherent problem of private collections?
If private collections are ceded to large, stable institution (the Natural
History Museum in Sarajevo?), will future African herpetologists / other
specialists have open physical or intellectual access to the material? Are
the arguments for private collections parochial or a viable option for a
major, international dilemma in maintaining and expanding taxonomical
reference / voucher collections? To quote from the recommendations of the
Global Taxonomy Initiative (GTI) "There is an urgent need to make the
information on existing taxonomic knowledge, including information about the
taxa in worldwide collections, available to countries of origin".

The origin of those herpetological specimens also raises questions. Bad
faith collecting for gratifying some private urge, personal gain, commercial
opportunity, etc is major reason for progressively stricter regulations. No
taxonomist should disregard that reality - the good old days of freewheeling
scientific endeavour has fallen victim to biotechnology. As Heike
reconfirmed, the people required to collect / following the rules are the
ones most affected because they are the easiest to police (I also need a
permit even though more specimens are splattered on car windscreens or fried
by bug-killers at tourist lodges than in the national collection). Responses
to this thread may even exacerbate those problems, as unscrupulous
collectors are fast to solicit support from respected scientists to validate
their own actions. At the same time this thread may contribute to another
GTI recommendation: "... the need to facilitate international cooperation
for taxonomic research by inter alia granting the necessary permissions for
approved research projects, field work, collection of biological specimens,
and free exchange of personnel, data and relevant materials".

Responses to this thread may therefore simply re-iterate long-standing
differences in opinions. That shall not prevent some over-eager official
from setting draconian rules to the detriment of taxonomy. It may also offer
innovative means through which private individuals, "citizen scientists"
were mentioned in one discussion forum, and publically/institutionally
appointed scientists may reach accord and discuss viable options to
encourage taxonomic research collecting. I know many lurkers on this list is
in the position to recommend viable options for research collecting. I for
one will copy the more relevant information from this thread to our
permitting officials.

Back to private collections. I hope Lyn and her associates intend to
consider the implications and requirements of such an organisation of good
faith private collections. If it can set guidelines and create an
infrastructure that will make private collections an integral part of
taxonomic resources, and not just another society dedicated to their private
world of seeing who has the best and the biggest, then I wish it all of the

Lurker regards
Eugene Marais

PS. For those interested in GTI progress see
( see
UNEP/CBD/COP/6/INF/23, The Global Taxonomy Initiative: Report on progress
and status)

National Museum of Namibia
P.O. Box 1203, Windhoek, Namibia
Tel: + 264 61 276835/4
Fax: + 264 61 22 86 36
E-mail: insects at

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