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