Saving the world’s largest butterfly

  • Environment
  • Wednesday, 29 Nov 2017

THE world's largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra Birdwing, has a wingspan of 30cm. - EDDIE MALAISA

The world’s largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, is a spectacular sight in Papua New Guinea (PNG). It has a wingspan of 30cm, at least 10 times the size of common butterflies.

But it is severely endangered. Although officially recognised as “under threat” for more than four decades, and protected under PNG’s national laws and global laws against wildlife smuggling, those measures have not yet been enough to save the legendary birdwing from encroaching agriculture and logging as well as illegal collecting/poaching.

The butterfly is confined to pockets of suitable habitat in PNG and is now limited to densities of less than 10 females per square kilometre.

However a pioneering project led by the Sime Darby Foundation (SDF) and the Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust (SBBT) may provide a lifeline for the birdwing, also known by its Latin name Ornithoptera alexandrae.

The initiative sees the creation of a state-of-the-art captive breeding and release programme in the remote heart of the butterfly’s home.

With substantial funding from the SDF in Malaysia and on-the-ground support from New Britain Palm Oil Limited (NBPOL), a brand new state-of-the-art lab will be built at NBPOL’s Higaturu palm oil estate around Popondetta in the Northern (Oro) Province of PNG. The lab will be staffed by a dedicated expert entomologist and other technicians.

The captive breeding and release programme, coupled with habitat enrichment and protection of remaining forest areas around the oil palm plantations, will pioneer a new approach to the butterfly’s conservation.

Forest surveys will identify the best existing and new sites for the release programme, which must include the butterfly’s food plant, the Dutchman’s Pipe Vine (Aristolochia dielsiana).

Butterfly habitats can be enriched with cultivated vines and integrated along the margins of oil palm estates, creating greater biodiversity.

Clipping the wings

“The vines are needed to feed the caterpillars being raised in the rearing facility,” said NBPOL Head of Sustainability and Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Butterfly Project Manager Ian Orrell.

Given the extremely high value of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwings in the black market, the rearing facility itself will be placed under dedicated 24-hour security.

A newly hatched Queen Alexandra's Birdwing butterfly. - ANGELUS PALIK

Orrell added that captive-reared butterflies that are released back into the wild will have their wings clipped (this is harmless to the butterfly) in order to deter poaching.

In addition to raising vines in the nursery to feed caterpillars inside the rearing facility, vines from the nursery will also be planted in other conservation areas in order to enhance habitats for wild birdwings.

But the vines will not be entwining the oil palm trees themselves, as the harvesting and pruning of the palms would disturb the caterpillars.

Many of these habitat improvement sites will be located reasonably near company estates in order to facilitate monitoring and protection, explained Orrell. Local communities will also be encouraged to take (free of charge) nursery-cultivated vines to plant on their own land.

SDF Chairman Tun Musa Hitam said the Foundation is confident that the project will have a sustainable impact on the conservation of the biggest and one of the rarest butterflies in the world.

Sime Darby Foundation Chairman Tun Musa Hitam says the project helps both the environment and local communities. - Filepic

“The project in collaboration with NBPOL will not only strive to conserve the butterfly, but also aims to retain the butterfly’s natural habitat and support the livelihood of the local community,” he said.

Sime Darby Group Chief Sustainability Officer Dr Simon Lord notes that as the group’s operation in PNG is accredited by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), it aims to lead the industry in preventing damage to endangered wildlife.

“We are delighted to help protect this magnificent butterfly. We are convinced that with this investment, we can reverse the decline of this superb species in our care, and demonstrate what can be achieved with some lateral thinking,” he said.

Profits and conservation

How will the balance between oil palm plantations and conservation be done?

Orrell said that NBPOL protects and manages about 16% of its own leased land as conservation areas. In the project area, about 1,656ha of company land has been set aside as conservation areas that will never be planted with oil palm. A small area of about 30ha of oil palm will also be felled to build the breeding lab and associated infrastructure.

16% of the land at Higaturu palm oil estate in PNG will be used for conservation. - NBPOL

He also cited NBPOL’s Forest Policy which states: “...that any development achieves an optimal balance between community development, conservation of natural values, and economic benefit and viability.”

The Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust (SBBT), which is undertaking the project along with the Sime Darby Foundation (SDF), believes that it will work. The SBBT was registered as a not-for-profit organisation earlier this year to create a focus on the swallowtail group of butterflies, many of whose species are under threat, with the giant birdwing as its priority.

Although financially independent of the palm oil industry, the trust’s founders have worked closely with senior industry figures to build this innovative programme.

SBBT Chairman Dr Mark Collins, who is also a former director of the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, said that sustainable conservation requires high quality, practical, on-the-ground conservation, with local communities and business working in partnership.

Collins is co-author of Threatened Swallowtail Butterflies of the World: the IUCN Red Data Book, which drew international attention to the problem facing these butterflies more than 30 years ago.

“We need to create win-win relationships. Everyone loves butterflies – they are flagship species and can bring back a feel-good factor to those working in the palm oil sector, to local people and as an attraction for eco-tourists,” he said.

Broad support

SBBT Trustee and entomologist Charles Dewhurst is amongst those providing scientific guidance to the project.

“I am convinced that this project will work. It has the advantage not only of being co-located at the heart of the problem, but also has support from all quarters. This sort of cooperation will make all the difference.”

Dewhurst is co-author of a newly published book Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Butterfly: A Review and Conservation Proposals. Sales of the book, which can be made through the website, will benefit the trust’s work.

Addressing Western media reports that the expansion of oil palm plantations are reducing the butterflies’ forest habitats, Orrell explained that the main threats to the butterfly’s population are poaching and illegal trade as well as logging and small-scale agriculture.

“Over the past 14 years, the area of oil palm in Popondetta has actually decreased by about 11%,” he noted.

“As a member of RSPO and The Forest Trust (TFT), New Britain Palm Oil Limited has made a strict no deforestation commitment,” clarified Orrell.

Thus, any limited new development, if it did occur, would be restricted to non-forest areas and be subjected to stringent High Conservation Value (HCV) assessments that are conducted by licensed assessors.

“All HCV reports are made public,” he added.

NBPOL Chairman Henry Barlow, who is also a patron of SBBT, said the conservation project takes different aspects into account – habitat protection, a breeding programme and community development – to ensure the project’s viability.

NBPOL Chairman Henry Barlow explains that oil palm estates can play a role in wildlife conservation. - Filepic

“We can see how the orangutan, tiger and giant panda conservation campaigns, when linked with habitat protection, can save whole ecosystems,” he said.

“This butterfly is equally magnificent, and there are many unexplored ways in which research and operations in palm oil estates can help create a mosaic of natural refuges to enhance conservation and biodiversity.”

The conservation partnership also has the full support of the Oro Provincial Government, which uses the iconic Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing as its mascot.

Governor Gary Juffa particularly welcomes the plans to benefit local landowners, who will be involved in cultivating the vines, enriching damaged habitats and creating facilities for tourists and naturalists to visit the forests and see the spectacular butterflies in their natural setting.

All in all, this is an example of how the oil palm industry can set aside some land and funds (and sacrifice a little profit) to conserve a magnificent but endangered creature.

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