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A local landowner with a female Ornithoptera alexandrae (c) Eddie Malaisa
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Survival of world's largest butterfly no longer dependent on a wing and a prayer

Brendan Montague

27th September, 2017

The Queen Alexandra's Birdwing - or Ornithoptera alexandrae - is the world's largest and most spectacular butterfly. But it is under threat from encroaching agriculture and logging. BRENDAN MONTAGUE reports on a new initiative designed to save the beautiful insect from extinction

The local community is kept engaged in all efforts of conserving the endangered species which is a precious icon of their province, making this project even more meaningful.

The world's largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing, has been given a new lifeline with a pioneering project led by the Sime Darby Foundation (SDF) and the recently created Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust (SBBT).

The initiative sees the creation of a state-of-the-art captive breeding and release programme for the severely endangered Ornithoptera alexandrae species in the remote heart of Papua New Guinea. 

The birdwing is under threat from encroaching agriculture, logging and illegal trade, despite having been officially recognised as under threat for more than four decades, and protected under Papua New Guinea's national laws and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Remaining forest areas

The butterfly lives in densities of less than 10 females per square kilometre, and is confined to pockets of suitable habitat, themselves a mere fraction of the palm oil producing area around Popondetta in the northern (Oro) province of Papua New Guinea. 

A new state-of-the-art laboratory will be built at the New Britain Palm Oil Limited's Higaturu palm oil estate, which will be staffed by a dedicated expert entomologist and a number of technicians. The lab will be funded by the Sime Darby Foundation in Malaysia.

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. 

Cultivating the vines

The Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust was registered as a not-for-profit organisation earlier this year to focus on the swallowtail group of butterflies - with the giant birdwing being the first 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. 

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 a mosaic of newly available habitat and greater biodiversity.

The conservation partnership has the full support of the Oro Provincial Government, which uses the iconic Queen Alexandra's Birdwing as its mascot. Gary Juffa, the governor, argues the initiative will 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. 

Future generations

Tun Musa Hitam, the chairman of SDF, said the foundation is confident that the project will have an indelible, sustainable impact on the conservation of the biggest and one of the rarest butterflies in the world.

"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.

"We are confident that this conservation project will ensure the survival of the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing for future generations with the expertise and support of the distinguished scientists behind the UK-based SBBT. 

Save whole ecosystems

He added: “It will also make a difference in the local community by enabling them to be part of the ecological project. This way, the local community is kept engaged in all efforts of conserving the endangered species which is a precious icon of their province, making this project even more meaningful.”

Henry Barlow, the chairman of NBPOL and a patron of SBBT, said the conservation project takes all aspects into account to ensure the project's viability: habitat protection, a breeding programme and community development.

"We can see how the Orangutan, tiger and giant panda conservation campaigns, when linked with habitat protection, can save whole ecosystems and the thousands of species that live there, including the iconic species that we love to see.

Equally magnificent

"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," he added. 

Dr Simon Lord, the chief sustainability officer at the Sime Darby Group, argued that as the group's operation in Papua New Guinea is accredited by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, 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.  

Win-win relationships

Dr Mark Collins, the chairman of SBBT and 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 thirty years ago. 

He said: "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.

Make all the difference

Charles Dewhurst, a SBBT Trustee and entomologist, is amongst those providing scientific guidance to the project. He said: "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 will benefit the trust's work.

 

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