Jul 31

Since its inception in 1982 each Wildscreen Festival has utilised wildlife photographs or illustrations to provide each year with a unique and memorable visual identity.  As the 2018 Festival draws closer, we are incredibly excited to introduce the illustrations that will become the face of this year’s Festival!

The 2018 Festival focuses on telling the story of biodiversity – the amazing diversity of life on Earth, from species to ecosystems.  We value the world’s more underappreciated and endangered species and habitats, and have therefore chosen five to showcase as the 2018 Festival Mascots!

Flying the flag for the insects is Queen Alexandra’s birdwing and we’ve been speaking to Dr Mark Collins, Chairman of the Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust, about conserving this legendary butterfly.

Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly. Illustration by Lorna Leigh Harrington

Firstly, tell us a bit about the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing – we’ve heard it can get pretty big!

It’s the biggest butterfly in the world with females reaching a wingspan of up to 30cm! They fly high in the forest canopy of Papua New Guinea, so high in fact that the first specimen, discovered by Albert Stewart Meek in 1906, had to be shot down with pepper-shot and the rather ragged specimen, stored in the Natural History Museum, still bears the scars! The males are rather smaller at 20cm wingspan but make up for it with their amazing iridescent blue and green colours, contrasting with the predominantly brown and cream females.

This butterfly has a very grand name, who is it named after?

Albert Meek was a professional collector who worked for the second Baron Rothschild (he famously put together the collection in Tring, now part of the Natural History Museum). When Walter Rothschild described the species in 1907 he recognised its beauty and rarity and named it in honour of Alexandra of Denmark, the wife and Queen Consort of King Edward VII. A memorial to this statuesque and remarkable lady may be seen in London’s Marlborough Road, opposite St James’s Palace.

Male Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly | © Francois Gilson

How endangered is this species and what threats does it face?

This is one of the most endangered species of butterflies in the world and it faces a very uncertain future indeed. Confined to four sub-populations in secondary forest fragments scattered across only a few thousand square kilometres in Northern Province of Papua New Guinea, and with fewer than 10 females per square kilometre, it is a very difficult species to find. Much of its former habitat in the Popondetta region has been lost to deforestation, agriculture and oil palm plantations. Its stronghold is probably now the Managalas Plateau, a remote and rarely visited area of highland forest.

Ever since its discovery, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing has been highly sought after by collectors and it was declared totally protected from all trade by CITES in the late 1980s. Some poaching and smuggling is believed still to go on, but not enough to threaten the species in the wild, where habitat loss is the real issue.

What conservation projects are the SBBT working on to protect this species?

In 2017 the Trust voluntarily advised on the establishment of a new three-year project, now financed by the Sime Darby Foundation of Malaysia and operated entirely by New Britain Palm Oil Ltd (NBPOL), which has plantations at Higaturu in the Popondetta region.  NBPOL is in the process of setting up a breeding facility there within its secure residential and operations compound. Security is an issue because the butterfly can be so valuable in the wrong hands. The project is now in the process of building its advisory and management infrastructure with local and national government, local NGOs and community organisations. The Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust is not directly advising the project at present but may do so once it becomes more fully operational.

In a parallel initiative, SBBT has proposed to the Animals Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that birdwings in general could benefit from a “Periodic Review” of the current CITES listings of birdwings. There are differing opinions on the value of these listings. Dating back to the 1980s, it has been argued that the blanket regulations have a tendency to suppress a range of scientific and educational activities for the many quite common birdwing species while at the same time driving the international trade in the more endangered species underground. One problem is that identifying the various species is a job for experts and rare and valuable species being internationally traded could be unscrupulously labelled as common ones.

Female Queen Alexandra’s birdwing feeding on hibiscus flower | © Francois Gilson

Why was it important for the SBBT to work in partnership with New Britain Palm Oil Limited (NBPOL) when the palm oil industry is so often involved in controversial conservation stories?

The political, economic and scientific circumstances in the region that Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing inhabits are complicated and it has proved difficult to adopt traditional approaches to conservation, for example by setting up secure reserves and parks in suitable areas. The Wildlife Management Areas system in PNG requires the support of local people and communities who own the land under traditional rights of tenure and they have been challenging to establish and protect for the long term.

Companies such as NBPOL have for many years been able to obtain land for oil palm production but within their vast monoculture estates there does remain a residual complex of riverine and topographically dissected habitats that are difficult to access but have potential for conservation of butterfly communities. NBPOL has its own charitable Foundation and is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which requires its members to act as responsible stewards of threatened species on their properties. In reports on the Higaturu palm oil estates published by RSPO in 2016, NBPOL identified some high conservation value sites on its estates that might be suitable for protection and used for the butterfly’s safety and reintroduction. In May this year, the Rainforest Alliance awarded NBPOL its Sustainable Pathfinder Award, stating that “NBPOL’s diligence in adopting the FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent) in its oil palm development and climate change adaptation as well as mitigation measures to improve farmers’ livelihoods in PNG are some of the works that entitled the company for the award.”

NBPOL is now in the process of building and equipping a new laboratory, flight cages and some foodplant nurseries to try to breed Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, with a view to releasing it into areas that it once inhabited and that can be enriched with additional foodplants. An entomologist, Dr Darren Bito, has been employed to run the project and he is gaining some hands-on experience at the Kuranda Butterfly Sanctuary in Cairns, which has a breeding facility for the Cairns Birdwing, Ornithoptera euphorion. Hopefully he will also visit the Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society in Brisbane, where a ground-breaking project on the Richmond Birdwing (Ornithoptera richmondia) has much to offer the PNG project.

Have there been any conservation breakthroughs since the start of this project?

Clearly it is early days for this project and at this point NBPOL is still building the laboratories and accommodation that it needs. There remain some fundamental questions that need to be answered as the breeding program gets into full swing. For example, we don’t know how much genetic variation there is between the four sub-populations. If they are fairly distinct they may have different ecological requirements, even in terms of their specific foodplants, which is clearly vital information for breeding success. Also, before any releases can be contemplated, surveys of existing populations need to be consolidated in order to establish a baseline against which future success can be measured. NBPOL’s recently-recruited CEO James Graham is charged with ensuring that the Queen Alexandra’s Butterfly project goes from strength to strength.

Queen Alexandra’s birdwing feeding | © Francois Gilson

To find out more about SBBT’s work with the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing, check out their website.

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