World’s biggest butterfly given lifeline by new captive breeding initiative


The world’s largest, most spectacular but severely endangered butterfly, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), has been given a 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 in the remote heart of the butterfly’s home in Papua New Guinea (PNG), to create a sustainable future.

Although officially recognised as under threat for more than four decades, and protected under PNG’s national laws and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), measures so far have not yet been enough to save the legendary birdwing from encroaching agriculture, logging and illegal trade.

The butterfly, said to occur in densities of less than 10 females per square kilometre, 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 PNG. 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 laboratory will be built at NBPOL’s Higaturu palm oil estate, to be staffed by a dedicated expert entomologist and technicians.

Pioneering breeding programme

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.

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.

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.

Mascot for region

The conservation partnership 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.

SDF Chairman Tun Musa Hitam 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.

“This project is an extension of our vision and mission as a Foundation, which is to lead and make a sustainable difference in the lives of others. 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. 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,” he added.

New model for sustainable conservation

NBPOL Chairman Henry Barlow, who is also 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.

"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.

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, 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 offers new approach

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 thirty 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.

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.

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