Meek's first specimen was a female. A year later, he captured a male near Popondetta in Papua New Guinea's Oro Province. Today the town can be reached by taking a half-hour flight from the capital. This is followed by an exhausting trip by Land Cruiser on muddy trails.
Several bridges were washed away in a recent flood, and the SUV struggles through hip-high water, even getting stuck in the sandy riverbed for a while. After a grueling, three-hour drive, we reach the Managalas Plateau, 36,000 hectares (about 140 square miles) of privately owned rainforest, populated by about 20,000 people from 10 different cultures, each with its own dialect.
Tall trees, covered with vines and orchids, stand next to wild banana trees, coconut palms and breadfruit trees. The indigenous people grow plantains, yams, ginger, tomato and sweet potatoes on small plots of land.
This is the realm of the giant butterfly. The male looks as if it were wearing a magnificent cloak of turquoise and green, covered with a layer of gold dust. In contrast, the wings of the larger female are a velvety black, interspersed with a few yellow and cream-colored patterns here and there.
Unusual Reproductive Biology
The threatened butterfly is vulnerable because of its unusual reproductive biology. The female lays its eggs exclusively on a poisonous vine called Aristolochia. Once the caterpillars have hatched, they ingest the plant's toxic leaves, making them unpalatable for potential predators.
The Aristolochia winds its way up into the crowns of jungle trees, which can grow to heights of up to 40 meters (131 feet). The butterfly would be lost without the vine, so propagating the Aristolochia is one of the main goals of conservationists.
Conwel Nukara, 31, is the local head of the butterfly project and an expert in Aristolochia cultivation. His teeth are stained red from chewing betel nut, a stimulant commonly used by the indigenous peoples of the region. The Melanesian, walking barefoot, leads us into the garden behind his house, where he has set up a greenhouse made of green gauze.
Aristolochia cuttings are planted in neat rows inside the greenhouse, and a number of the butterfly's pitch-black caterpillars are already nibbling away at some of the leaves. Bright red appendages protrude from the animal's body like poisonous barbs, while a yellow band runs around the middle of its body. "We want the animals to reproduce quickly," says Nukara. "The larvae can develop and pupate in peace here. I release the butterflies once they've emerged." A Threatened Habitat
Nukara is trying to convince his entire community to raise butterflies and, as part of his campaign, he makes regular visits to schools in the area.
A villager brings him a transparent plastic jar. Nukara carefully opens the lid, revealing a dead female butterfly.
"We show these butterflies to our children," he explains, spreading the insect's wings, which have become frayed after being touched by many small hands. "We want them to discover at an early age what a treasure we have in this area."
He means it literally. One of the reasons local residents pay such conscientious attention to the giant butterfly is that they hope to make money with the creatures in the future. But that could prove to be difficult.