Are Collectors Key to Saving Giant Butterfly?

Papua New Guinea is home to the world's largest butterfly, but oil palm plantations are threatening the rare species' habitat. Conservationists and local residents alike would like to save the species by lifting a ban on trade in the butterfly and selling it for thousands of dollars to collectors.

The insect makes a wide circle around Grace Juo's small stilt house and lands on a bright red hibiscus blossom. In Jimun, the language of the indigenous people, the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing butterfly is called a dadakul. It's the world's largest butterfly, with females attaining wingspans in excess of 25 centimeters (10 inches). "We are proud of our butterfly, and we take good care of it," says Juo, glancing at the insect, which has now inserted its long proboscis into the flower.

Juo, a Melanesian, lives in Kawowoki, a small village of huts on the Managalas Plateau in eastern Papua New Guinea. The volcanic soil here is dark and heavy, and the rainforest is an exuberant shade of green. The plateau is the last remaining habitat of any significant size of the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing butterfly, one of the world's rarest insects. Some butterfly collectors would pay thousands of dollars for a single specimen. Local residents like Juo hope that they will soon benefit from the appetites of trophy-hungry collectors.

But multinational corporations believe that oil and natural gas deposits lie beneath the tropical paradise and the rainforest is threatened. Prospectors have also found copper and gold, and oil palm plantations are proliferating in the region.

The temptations of the modern age are reaching Papua New Guinea, a country divided into hundreds of ethnic groups. It has a disastrous infrastructure, is wracked by tribal feuds and is at a high risk for disease epidemics. The history of the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing butterfly isn't just the tale of a rare species. It also revolves around the question of how to go about protecting species in a developing country that is undergoing rapid change.

The search for answers begins behind a barbed-wire fence in Port Moresby, the capital city. Armed guards provide security against the city's criminal gangs, known as "rascals." A rattling air-conditioner helps to stave off the heat and humidity in the office of the organization Partners with Melanesians.

A Conservation Plan

Kenn Mondiai and Rufus Mahuru are sitting at a dark table, explaining their rescue plan. "For the last seven years, we've been discussing ways to save the Managalas Plateau together with the local people," says Mondiai, a heavy man with a round face and a moustache. The activist wants to transform the habitat of the giant butterflies into one of the largest conservation areas in Oceania. "The butterfly helps us convince the people to support this cause," he says. "It symbolizes the diversity and value of our nature."

British naturalist Albert Meek was the first European to spot the giant butterfly in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. Hired by the zoologist Lord Walter Rothschild, Meek explored the region in 1906 to find fresh trophies for Rothschild's private zoological museum in the English town of Tring.

One day, Meek discovered a butterfly flying at a high altitude, and promptly brought it down with a shotgun. The adventurer dissected the butterfly and sent it to England. Rothschild named the animal "Ornithoptera alexandrae," in honor of Queen Alexandra, the wife of King Edward VII.

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