Are Collectors Key to Saving Giant Butterfly?

The Queen Alexandra's Birdwing is on the red list of threatened species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and its international trade is banned. From the perspective of species conservationists, the butterfly satisfies all of the criteria to make it a critically endangered species: It lives in only one area, Oro Province, its numbers are unknown, and its habitat is increasingly disappearing. Farming Threatens Butterflies

The problem is already obvious in the flatlands around the provincial capital Popondetta, which is surrounded by plantations of tightly packed oil palms. Local farmers also grow coffee and cocoa. Hardly any of the rainforest, together with the vines that the butterfly urgently needs, is still left.

Eddie Malaisa is a wildlife officer with the Oro provincial government. He has been concerned with the giant butterfly for the last 25 years. "The butterfly population continues to drop," he warns. "We only find two or three per month on the lowland plains."

On this particular day, Malaisa has an appointment with Paul Maliou, a manager with New Britain Palm Oil Limited (NBPOL). Large trucks are parked on the grounds in front of Maliou's office, fully loaded with the red fruits of the oil palm. Across the street are long rows of the trees. When sunlight strikes the long palm fronds, they create shimmering patterns on the ground.

NBPOL signs contracts directly with the farmers and sells their crops for them. Maliou's job is to ensure that this is done in a sustainable way. "We assure that our operations don't go into areas that affect the butterfly," he asserts. But wildlife officer Malaisa begs to differ. There were once 27 butterfly reserves planned for the region, he says, and now "twenty of the areas went to palm oil." Malaisa is left to manage only seven small reserves.

The government employee seems helpless. His budget doesn't even include money for a car, which he needs to patrol the reserves. Ironically, the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing is depicted on the flag of Oro Province.

"The butterfly is an important part of our culture," says Malaisa. But he too recognizes that farmers will only protect the insect if they can make some money with it.

To address the problem, Malaisa has proposed compensating all landowners who preserve the insect's habitat by leaving some areas unfarmed. He also favors lifting the ban on trade with the butterfly. "If the landowners don't get anything out of protecting the butterfly, they will change the butterfly habitat to oil palm, cocoa or coffee and the butterfly will become extinct," the wildlife officer warns.

Could Lifting Ban on Trade Help Save Butterflies?

A softening of the trade ban could indeed be the butterfly's last chance. Buyers on the black market would pay up to $10,000 a specimen. If the trade were legalized, Malaisa argues, the farmers could charge several thousand dollars per insect. "What is worse?" he asks, "To legally trade a few butterflies or to watch the animal go extinct?"

Do conservationists have to revise their thinking and accept that species like the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing can only be saved if they have a market value? Activist Kenn Mondiai of Partners with Melanesians also favors adopting a new strategy. "If we want to preserve the forest on the Managalas Plateau, and if no oil palms are to be grown there, then we have to propose alternative sources of income to local residents," he says.

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