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News item submitted by Lea Fraenkl
News item dated 31 Jul 2012

The magnificent Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera alexandrae) is disappearing from its rainforest home in Oro Province, Papua New Guinea. This endangered species of butterfly boasts a wingspan of 30 cm, making it the world’s largest butterfly. The birdwing butterfly is found in only one location in northern Papua New Guinea, making it increasingly susceptible extinction as logging and palm oil plantations relentlessly eat away at its already limited habitat.

Photo Courtesy of julie_g

The rare butterfly was named after Queen Alexandra of England (1844-1925) by naturalist Albert Meek, who had to shoot the fast-flying butterfly out of the air from the highest rainforest canopy where it resides. The female of the species is a third larger than the male, with a black-and-cream pattern on their wings and a bright yellow abdomen. The males possess wings patterned in gold, turquoise, green and black. While it is not clearly understood as to why the birdwing butterflies grow so large, the fact that the butterfly has no natural predators is undoubtedly a factor. The butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves of a poisonous tropical pine-vine called aristolochia (Aristolochia schlecteri), found only in Oro province rainforests. The emerging caterpillars ingest the leaves of this poisonous plant throughout their growth stages, thereby becoming distasteful to predators. Red hairs on the emerged adult butterfly’s thorax serve as a warning sign to predators that the butterfly still remains highly toxic.

The biggest threat to this beautiful species is consequently man. Habitat loss and destruction has led to a significant loss of the butterflies range across Oro province. The birdwing habitat is now condensed to a small area on a remote plateau called Managalas. Ornithoptera alexandrae is classed as endangered under the IUNC’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List and is listed as an Appendix 1 species under Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which prohibits the trade of the birdwing butterfly for overseas collectors. This commenced the illegal black market trade of this unique species in order to keep up with demand. Pairs of Queen Alexandra’s can be sold for more that £5,000.

Yet there are those who argue that by downgrading the birdwing’s status to Appendix 2, which would allow controlled limited trade of the species, would in fact serve as an incentive for subsistence farmers to protect the butterfly’s habitat by allowing them to sell a quota of the specimens. So, ironically, weakening the protection of this species could in fact be its best hope for survival.

If you are interested in wildlife conservation and helping to protect endangered species such as the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly, Frontier hosts a number of wildlife conservation volunteering opportunities

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