The scientific documentation of threats to endangered species is the first step in any effective conservation programme. In 1985, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published “Threatened Swallowtail Butterflies of the World”, a thorough assessment of every species of papilionid1,2, concluding that dozens of species are at risk worldwide, and many others are insufficiently known. The full volume, with references, is available from the IUCN Library System. The Lepidoptera Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, followed up by publishing “Swallowtail Butterflies: an Action Plan for Their Conservation” in 19913, the first such plan for any group of insects. They identified 34 priority projects, requiring actions that include community education, protected areas, control of trade, captive breeding and scientific research.
IUCN, working with experts worldwide, continued to assess the status of swallowtails, publishing regular updates in The IUCN Red List, an online catalogue of threatened species that replaced the traditional Red Data Books.
As a result of these publications, countries worldwide agreed to list all birdwing butterflies, and many other swallowtails, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). This recognition of the problem prompted initiatives to protect swallowtails and other butterflies through national legislation, and to set aside protected areas that include important butterfly habitats. The illegal trade in certain very rare species was suppressed, although certainly not eliminated but at the same time, many common species of swallowtail became more familiar to the general public through the establishment of living displays in glasshouse visitor attractions known as butterfly houses4.
Today, enthusiasts worldwide are increasingly determined to conserve these iconic species to enrich local environments and for the enjoyment of future generations.
The flagship international project for the Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust is the conservation of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing. This magnificent species, which can achieve a wingspan of 30cm, was discovered in Papua New Guinea in 1906 by A.S.Meek, naturalist to Walter Rothschild, and named after the Queen Consort of King Edward VII and mother of King George V. Confined to a few hundred square kilometres of the Northern (Oro) Province of PNG, and with a density of less than 10 females per square kilometre, this is one of the world’s rarest, most endangered and most beautiful species. A recent in-depth study and conservation analysis has brought together all existing knowledge into a comprehensive and up-to-date book5 that will elevate this species to the insect equivalent of giant pandas and orangutans, a part of our natural heritage that simply must be saved.
The Trust is helping partners in the region to establish a captive breeding facility to strengthen butterfly populations, provide conservation incentives to local landowners and, with knowledge gained from the project, to be in a position to publicise and promote swallowtail and birdwing conservation worldwide.
Notable examples of other endangered swallowtails around the world include species such as Pachliopta jophon in Sri Lanka, Papilio homerus in Jamaica, and Papilo chikae in the Philippines. Although Papilio machaon is a widespread species, the British subspecies, Papilio machaon britannicus, is one of the UK’s rarest species, now confined to a few sites in the wetlands of Norfolk.
NETWORKING AND COMMUNICATING
Swallowtail experts around the world are being contacted, encouraged and incentivised to initiate programmes and projects that build on the momentum that the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing project will provide. New research projects and publications will be devised, leading in time to the development of a cohesive and proactive swallowtail conservation community across the globe.
Honorary advisors will be identified and recruited, covering such areas of expertise as butterfly ecology, CITES regulations, captive breeding, conservation, taxonomy and, importantly, fundraising and IT specialisms.
SUPPORT FOR THE NEWLY ESTABLISHED TRUST
The Trust has received encouragement and support from corporate partners as well as private individuals and, in time, we hope for support from philanthropic foundations and grant-providing bodies. A founding Patron, Chairman and Trustees have committed to building the Trust from these small beginnings.
1 Papilionidae (collectively swallowtails) includes apollos (Parnassius), festoons (Allancastria and Zerynthia), gorgons (Meandrusa), kites (Eurytides)., dragontails (Lamproptera), swordtails & jays (Graphium), windmills & clubtails (Atrophaneura), birdwings (Trogonoptera, Troides, Ornithoptera), & fluted swallowtails (Papilio).
2 Collins, N.M. and Morris, M.G. (1985). Threatened Swallowtail Butterflies of the World. The IUCN Red Data Book. IUCN, Gland and Cambridge. Vii+401pp. +8 pls.
3 New, T.R. and Collins, N.M. (1991). Swallowtail Butterflies: An Action Plan for Their Conservation. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. 36pp.
4 Collins, N.M. (1987). Butterfly Houses in Britain: the conservation implications. IUCN, Cambridge. 60pp.
5 Mitchell, D.K., Dewhurst, C.F., Tennent, W.J. and Page, W.W. (2016). Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing. Southdene Sdn. Bhd, Malaysia. 88pp.