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World’s Largest Butterfly Threatened by Shrinking Habitat and Deforestation

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Counting butterflies in the wild is not an easy task, even when you are looking for the largest butterfly in the world, the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Females of the species have an impressive and eye-catching 30-centimeter wingspan, 50 percent larger than the more colorful males.

But the Queen Alexandra’s butterfly, named after the wife of King Edward VII of England, faces an ever-shrinking habitat due to deforestation in its only home, the rainforests of PNG, and conservationists fear that the species may soon run out of room in which to spread its giant wings.

“Its habitat is being destroyed by oil palm expansion, and coffee and cocoa growing,” Eddie Malaisa, wildlife officer for PNG’s Oro Province, told The Guardian. He said the butterfly is restricted to seven isolated patches of rainforest, each between 100 and 200 hectares. Oil palm plantations surround the pockets of undeveloped land.

A recent Greenpeace report, published August 1, found that 5.1 million hectares of rainforest owned by indigenous communities—known as customary land—has been granted to logging companies and plantation owners under what are known as Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs), 75 percent of which have gone to foreign companies. Greenpeace found that most of the logged trees have been exported to China and that logged land is usually converted to plantations.

Tom Diwai Vigus, a Queen Alexander butterfly expert, told Radio Australia that many “disreputable” companies are circumventing regulations governing logging, further eroding the butterfly’s habitat.

SABLs were introduced in 2003 under the government of former PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare. Current PM Peter O’Neill was sworn in August 4 after a protracted legal battle that lasted more than a year. O’Neill has previously launched investigations into Somare’s forest concessions, but a report was tabled in May until elections were settled, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Although unproved, there may also be some illegal trade in the massive butterfly, which could be valued by collectors. The species is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which forbids any sales outside of PNG.

While Greenpeace calls for an end to logging under the SABLs, Vigus is calling for greater awareness of the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing as well as international support to establish conservation areas in the customary lands. “You need to get people together to save whatever remnant rainforest that is left,” he said.

Photo 1: Female Queen Alexandra’s birdwing by Mark Pelligrini via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons license. Photo 2: Museum samples of male and female Queen Alexandra’s birdwings by Don Ehlen via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. pgh@whitchurch 5:44 pm 08/11/2012

    It’s not just the Queen Alexandria’s Birdwing butterfly that prompts my comments. I have been to Malaysia several times, and in Borneo in particular, seen the new oil palm plantations extending as far as one’s eye can see, and to Brazil to see from an aircraft the enormous areas of the rain forest sacrificed to create ranches to farm beef cattle. (Judging by their appetite for meat one of the biggest consumers of beef are probably the Brazilians).
    Once I tried to source a soap that did not contain palm oil and could not find any which made me feel pretty useless. If anyone can help with the soap I would be pleased to hear but basically the problem is always the same. What can an individuals do? We need an organisation more ‘forceful’ than Greenpeace, because laudable that their actions are, neither they nor us are having a sufficient impact to bring about a significantly a effective change. Or perhaps, in some or most cases, we as individual consumers are the problem.
    What else can we realistically do about it apart from than just complaining and not much else? I wish I knew.

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  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 9:10 am 08/12/2012

    Hi PGH — I feel your pain! It’s hard to find products that don’t contain palm oil, or at least sustainable palm oil.

    This article from The Ecologist talks about the palm oil problem and offers a few ideas on what consumers can do to request better labeling:

    This Australian website lists several good alternatives (as well as products to avoid):

    If I come up with anything else, I’ll let you know!

    Link to this
  3. 3. American Muse 10:44 pm 08/13/2012

    For those who visualize in the fps system: 30 centimeters of wing span is almost a foot (11.81 inches).

    Link to this

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