In 2017 the Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust (SBBT) voluntarily helped sustainable palm oil producer New Britain Palm Oil Ltd and the Sime Darby Foundation, with the blessing of the Provincial Government, to develop a project that draws on authoritative research data in two books authored by SBBT trustees, “Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing: a Review and Conservation Proposals” (see Publications) and “Threatened Swallowtail Butterflies of the World: the IUCN Red Data Book”. An announcement about the project has been made and there has been widespread coverage in the press, including Down to Earth; PNG Today; The Ecologist; The Independent; Eastern Daily Press; BBC News Online; Daily Express; Daily Express. and Star2.com.
The three-year project, now financed by the Sime Darby Foundation of Malaysia, is operated entirely and solely by New Britain Palm Oil Ltd (NBPOL), which has plantations at Higaturu in the Popondetta region. NBPOL is in the process of setting up a breeding facility there within its secure residential and operations compound. The project is now in the process of building its advisory and management infrastructure with local and national government, local NGOs and community organisations.
Companies such as NBPOL have for many years been able to obtain land for oil palm production but within their vast monoculture estates there does remain a residual complex of riverine and topographically dissected habitats that are difficult to access but have potential for conservation of butterfly communities. NBPOL has its own charitable Foundation and is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which requires its members to act as responsible stewards of threatened species on their properties. In reports on the Higaturu palm oil estates published by RSPO in 2016, NBPOL released information 0n some high conservation value sites on its estates that might be suitable for protection and used for the butterfly’s safety and reintroduction.
NBPOL is now in the process of building and equipping a new laboratory, flight cages and some foodplant nurseries to try to breed Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, with a view to releasing it into areas that it once inhabited and that can be enriched with additional foodplants. An entomologist, Dr Darren Bito, has been employed to run the project and he is gaining some hands-on experience at the Kuranda Butterfly Sanctuary in Cairns, which has a breeding facility for the Cairns Birdwing, Ornithoptera euphorion. Hopefully he will also visit the Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society in Brisbane, where a ground-breaking project on the Richmond Birdwing (Ornithoptera richmondii) that has much to offer the PNG project is in full swing.
The Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust is not formally an advisor to the project, but there remain some fundamental questions that need to be answered as the breeding programme gets into full swing. For example, it is not known how much genetic variation there is between the four sub-populations. If they are fairly distinct they may have different ecological requirements, even in terms of their specific foodplants, which is clearly vital information for breeding success. Also, before any releases can be contemplated, past surveys of existing populations need to be consolidated and possibly repeated so that a conservation baseline against which future success can be measured will be established.
Additional information on Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is available from the conservation section of this website here, from Wikipedia, and from SPECIES+. An excellent BBC 4 Radio Programme by Mark Stratton gives an atmospheric sense of the butterfly in its natural habitat on the Managalas Plateau and may be enjoyed here.