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The Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterfly

Orinthoptera alexandrae

The Queen Alexandra Birdwing ButterflyThe Species and its Habitat

The Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterfly is both the world's largest butterfly and one of its rarest, restricted to the rainforests of Oro Province only, in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Protected by law since 1966, this butterfly cannot legally be collected from the wild. It has been listed as endangered in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Animals since 1996 and is on Appendix I of the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species.

The Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterfly has an average head and body length of 7.5 cm, large females may have a wingspan of more than 25 cm. The males are smaller and brighter with yellow, pale blue and green wing markings on a black background. The species is found in primary and advanced secondary rainforest from 400m to 800m altitude range on the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea.

Butterfly distribution is extremely limited with continuing fragmentation of habitat, believed to be due to the geographical dislocation and isolation as well as growth and nutritional factors involving the caterpillar's food plant. The greatest threat to survival of the species is habitat destruction due to the expanding oil palm and logging industry. Some habitat alteration also occurs as a result of local villagers expanding their vegetable gardens into forest areas.

Population levels are extremely difficult to quantify as adults are infrequently seen and fly too high to be captured. Caterpillar counts in the 1970s led to estimates of maximum density of 25 per acre, but normally they are much less dense. Scientists believe the butterfly needs vines that are in a phase of prolific new growth to attract egg-laying females and provide enough tender leaves for development of the caterpillars. Recently opening, small tree gaps stimulate rapid growth in any foodplant vines that happen to be growing at the site where the canopy is opened up by the tree fall.

Food plant quality, as well as density within of proposed protected areas needs to be considered in long term species management planning. The ultimate survival of this magnificent species rests in Papua New Guinea's ability to conserve enough habitat to secure a viable population. A strategy of protecting several areas within the known range of the species will most likely achieve the greatest success.

Project Leader: Lester Seri

Lester SeriMy concern for and involvement in nature conservation has its roots in my village and society where I grew up before leaving home for school and ultimately working in town. The people and the society I belong to depend solely for our existence on our natural environment. Hunting and fishing expeditions and gardening have been and continue to be activities I enjoy most when home.

In secondary school I participated in outdoor activities as a member of the school boy scouts association. A turning point came at University due to my involvement in field research with biology lecturers. As a result of that experience I later became full time staff with the Wildlife Research and Surveys Branch of the Department of Environment and Conservation.

Whilst with the Department I had the opportunity to work under a supervisor who encouraged me to participate in field biology research. The conservation and management of wildlife became increasingly challenging to me, especially the practical aspects of the question "How", considering the unique land tenure system in Papua New Guinea where the land is owned by the rural people. This challenge is further complicated by landowner pressure on the use of natural resources for development which is encouraged by the Government's economic development policy targeting natural resource exploitation. Aside from the negative social and sustainable livelihood implications on the bulk of the society living in rural areas from this government policy, members of our common bond in life are also greatly affected.

The survival of the world's largest butterfly depends very much on all of us finding a balanced and workable solution which benefits and satisfies all concerned. Conservation Melanesia launched as a national non government organization, its main goal to develop and promote community-focused environment conservation and sustainable livelihood strategies. However there's no blueprint approach to integrated conservation and sustainable development program activities in my country. Conservation Melanesia provides the platform on which I plan to apply my experience and ideas in facilitating conservation science, to develop and implement a coordinated and sound approach to this butterfly's conservation. Such conservation efforts are only possible with support from organizations such as yours. Conservation Melanesia is grateful for your support and commitment to saving our natural heritage.

The Queen Alexandra Birdwing ButterflyThe Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterfly Conservation Project, Papua New Guinea

Since its discovery in 1907, many national and international scientists have studied this rare species. The Australian-funded Oro Conservation Project (OCP) focused on research and local education from 1995-1999. As a result of these science, education and management activities, the Oro Provincial government adopted a policy of ensuring that development activities are compatible with the long-term survival of their flagship species.

When the Oro Conservation Project came to a close earlier this year, the project management requested that Conservation Melanesia continue to work with the Oro Provincial government to ensure that the framework established by OCP continues for the long term in protecting and conserving the butterfly. Conservation Melanesia and the Oro Provincial Government's approach to conserving the butterfly includes three primary components: science, education, and management planning.

The science of this project will focus on maintaining current, and developing additional, village-based monitors. Village monitors carry out periodic census of early stages of the caterpillar development on foodplant vines. As project manager, I will supervise the monitors and analyze the data collected to identify local population trends. Counting caterpillars is considered a practical and reliable method to assess population trends as adults are nearly impossible to count. Feasible and manageable village-based monitoring will prove critical in ultimate management of the species in local protected areas.

This project will also allow me to serve as liaison with scientists - both domestic and international - to promote and facilitate the applied scientific research necessary for long-term conservation planning. I can then aim to incorporate scientific findings into species management at the local level.

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