The Queen Alexandra’s birdwing is the largest butterfly in the world, with a wingspan a foot wide. They are singularly gorgeous to behold, with the females black with cream patches and bright yellow abdomens and the males, who are about a third smaller, with gleaming patterns of gold, turquoise, green and black.
The fast-flying butterflies live only in the rainforests of Oro province in northern Papua New Guinea and face the loss of their habitat due to the growth of oil palm plantations, as well as farms for coffee and cocoa. They are currently classified as an appendix 1 species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and cannot be traded as specimens for overseas collections. But would it be better to loosen these regulations and downgrade the Queen Alexandra’s protected status to appendix 1, to “incentivise poor subsistence farmers to protect the butterfly’s habitat by allowing them to sell an agreed quota of specimens,” asks the Guardian?
Eddie Malaisa, wildlife officer for Oro provincial government, argues for such. He notes that he is “very worried about this butterfly’s future because on the lower plains [he knows] of only seven isolated blocks where it’s found but these are small patches of rainforest between 100-200 hectares surrounded by oil palm.”
The global butterfly smuggling trade is estimated to be worth about $200 million a year, with a pair of Queen Alexandra’s birdwings potentially fetching $8,500 on the black market. The gigantic butterflies were first sighted in 1906 by British naturalist Albert Meek:
The fast-flying butterfly frequents high rainforest canopy so Meek resorted to blasting them down by shotgun. The Natural History Museum taxonomically allocated his buckshot-peppered specimens into the birdwing genus (a tropical grouping possessing super-elongated forewings) and named it after Edward VII’s wife.
One possible reason for why the butterflies are thought to grow so large is their lack of predators due to thier “unpalatable” nature:
Queen Alexandra’s eggs are laid on the poisonous leaves of a tropical pine-vine called aristolochia, found in Oro province’s rainforests. Emerging caterpillars feeding on aristolochia ingest its toxins throughout all stages of growth until they pupate into chrysalises. Red hairs on the emerged adult butterfly’s thorax warn predators that it remains highly toxic.
Sadly, the survival tricks that have aided Queen Alexandra’s birdwings for centuries can do little against the ever-rising threat of habitat clearance. Would it be better to, as Malaisa argues, allow the butterflies to be legally traded or remove their habitat, and them, forever?
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