The LARGEST Selection of Butterfly & Nature Gifts on the Internet!
secure online ordering
Farming Butterflies to Save the Rainforest

Killing Butterflies to Save Butterflies

Larry Orsak

Director, Christensen Research Institute
P.O. Box 305, Madang, PAPUA NEW GUINEA

Tropical nuts? Eco-tourism? Sorry. Raising or collecting insects to sell is the only incentive some indigenous peoples have to save their tropical forests. Will you support them?

You probably know that virgin tropical forests are declining at an alarming rate — over half have been cleared in the last 40 years. And you may be aware that up to 2/3rds of all living species are tropical — an immense wildlife storehouse that contains untold medicines and other products for our future. The case for saving tropical forests is clear. Many support this by buying “products of the rainforest,” or helping conservation organisations working in tropical nations.

In the face of all this, collecting or buying
tropical butterflies seems nothing less than a way to speed up their
extinction. Right?

Wrong! Those who equate killing butterflies
with destroying butterflies don’t know much about butterflies, the tropics, or
what strategies have gotten people in developing countries to save their
forests. The fact is, buying tropical insects for your collection may be the
best investment you ever made in tropical forest protection. This fact sheet
tells you why.


Papua New Guinea (PNG):
World Leader in Conserving Tropical Butterflies… by Utilising Them!

Papua New Guinea (PNG), a small nation located
north of Australia, in another 20 years will likely be one of the last 4
places on earth to still have large tracts of virgin tropical forest (1). And
it has some pretty fantastic insects, including the world’s largest (Queen
Alexandra’s Birdwing) and second largest (Goliath Birdwing) butterflies, the
world’s longest walking stick, largest katydid, hammer-headed flies, and a
weevil that grows a garden of lichens and mosses on its back. Added to this
are 3000+ species of orchids, 10% of the world’s rhododendrons, and most of
the world’s birds-of-paradise and bower bird species.

From an insect perspective, PNG is unique in
other ways too. It is the only country whose constitution designates insects
as one of its renewable natural resources (2). It’s also the only country
whose government set up an entity to develop this insect resource in a
sustainable way — the Insect Farming & Trading Agency (in Bulolo, Morobe
Province). The agency started in 1978 (3) and now sells nearly $400,000 worth
of PNG insects yearly to collectors, naturalists, scientists and artists
around the world. It buys these insects exclusively from Papua New Guinean
villagers (4). Most of these are collected, but in the case of the common
birdwing butterflies, the PNG government requires that they be bred.


How Can Killing Butterflies
Save Tropical Rain Forests?

In developed countries, the “national
park” strategy for conservation — buying land and setting it aside for
wildlife — worked well. People violated the rules sometimes, but it was
rarely too much for a few rangers and the law to handle.

With that kind of track record, it was natural
that the “national park” strategy would be tried in the Third
World(5), e.g., to protect Africa’s big game wildlife. But over 30 years ago,
conservationists noticed that the strategy wasn’t working. Income earned from
these national parks was largely going into government coffers. The
surrounding people were benefiting little, if at all. Small wonder: they had
little or no incentive to keep those parks intact. On the other hand, they
could make money by poaching. And where human populations were increasing and
survival was at stake, it was far more rewarding to cut firewood or make
gardens inside those parks, than to leave them untouched. Think about it: Why
would anyone who just barely eked out a living, elect to leave the wildlife
alone, just because “it’s nice to have around?” That naive
assumption typically comes from people who have all their basic needs met, and
forget that their fortunate lifestyle gives them a unique perspective.

The International Union for Conservation (IUCN)
recognised that the “national park” strategy had failed for
developing countries in its 1980 World Conservation Strategy (6). They
recommended instead a strategy called ‘conservation through development’ (7).
Basically, it entails finding out the needs of the local people, then offering
incentives which provide rewards to help them better themselves, in return for
work and behavior that helps wildlife. Culling and selling excess wildlife is
a very effective incentive. This is simply because everyone likes a tight
“cause and effect,” and this incentive tightly links conservation
with development opportunities (8): the peoples’ livelihood is closely tied to
the survival of that wildlife population. This explains why elephant
populations were stable in southern African countries where sustainable
harvests were carried out; in contrast, the “totally protected”
national park populations further north were being decimated by poaching.

In PNG, villagers collect butterflies and other
insects from their forests to sell. Or they plant caterpillar food plants and
sell the adult butterflies that develop on those “extra” foodplants
(a process known as “butterfly ranching”; touted as an almost
perfect expression of the ‘conservation through development’ strategy –(9)).
Many make hundreds of dollars a year in a country where there is only 15%
formal employment. Villagers realise that the forest is the source of this
income. That gives them greater incentive to leave the area alone,
particularly when they’re shown how those insects require the forest to
survive. The money they earn is important. They need it to pay their
children’s school fees (sorry, education is never free). Also, just like you
don’t forego arguable luxuries, such as a private car, PNG villagers don’t
care to forego their morning tea, their cooking pots, and other simple items
that cost money.

PNG villagers are clamoring for money. If they
can’t make it off of forest butterflies, they will find other ways. Cash crops
require forest clearing; logging royalties require forest clearing. Are those
better alternatives than collecting and selling butterflies?


Aren’t the Villagers
Collecting Too Many Butterflies?

They might if they could. But the fact is,
insects are awfully hard to overcollect (10). The only insects that seem to be
vulnerable to overcollecting are those whose populations (1) were naturally
very small, e.g. relictual or small island populations, or (2) were already
decimated by habitat destruction. In fact, two imminent biologists, Drs.
Robert MacArthur and Vincent Dethier, once purposely tried to overcollect a
localised eastern US butterfly, the Baltimore. They failed (11)! Essentially,
their actions were little different than that of any predator (e.g., a bird,
or an explosion of spiders) that had found the population. With each
caterpillar collected, the next one was harder to find. Those few caterpillars
that escaped detection actually had a greater probability of developing into
butterflies (according to the ecological theory of “density-dependent
population regulation.” Because the resulting butterflies were scarcer
than usual, they weren’t so likely to be found by naturally occurring
predators — so the butterflies were more likely to survive and reproduce. So
the following year, the caterpillar population had bounced back to usual
numbers. The population was not hurt — yet this was a sedentary, localised
population that should have been exceptionally vulnerable to overcollection!

The fact is, many biologists take population
management concepts based on vertebrates (e.g., birds, deer), and apply them
to insects. That is wrong. Nearly all insects have far greater reproductive
capabilities than vertebrates; they can sustain far greater
“harvest” rates. In short: it doesn’t matter whether the ‘harvester’
is a bird, a praying mantid.. or a butterfly collector!


Aren’t the Birdwing
Butterflies Being Sold, Endangered?

Generally no! That politics sometimes masks
fact is evident for the spectacular birdwings, the largest butterflies in the
world, with numerous species distributed from southeast Asia to Australia.

In PNG, the only birdwing that is even
potentially endangered right now is the world’s largest butterfly, Queen
Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae). For years it was touted as a
‘world conservation priority’ by IUCN, and protected by PNG and international
legislation. It’s on the U.S. List of Endangered Species too. And what
happened during all that attention and protection? Its habitat was steadily
decimated by logging and oil plantation expansion (12). So much for the
“old way” of saving wildlife. Had PNG villagers been given forest
conservation incentives (raising and selling the butterfly being the easiest
and cheapest to promote) and absolutely no protective legislation had existed,
it is probable that more habitat would survive today. Remember: “people
can alter their behavior when they see that it will make things
better….”(6). All the endangered species legislation did nothing to
improve the well-being of the Papua New Guineans.

When PNG’s birdwings were first protected by
the PNG government (13), little was known of their distribution. Subsequent
surveys show that PNG’s birdwings are often localised, but are widely
distributed (14); new populations discovered all the time, most recently of
the world’s largest butterfly (15). Except for the world’s largest butterfly,
all other birdwings are on ‘Appendix II’ of CITES (Convention International
Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora). Being on Appendix II does not
mean the species is threatened or endangered. It only means that trade in the
species is being monitored (16).

The PNG government has allowed the Insect
Farming & Trading Agency to help one village grow and sell the Goliath
Birdwing. A village-based butterfly ranching program for the Meridionalis
Birdwing is in the works, and possibly one for the Paradise Birdwing. Now that
outsiders have had their chance to save the world’s largest birdwing through
legislation, the PNG government hopes to be able to allow villagers to ranch
and sell about 100 specimens per year to the Insect Farming & Trading
Agency (17).


Does Buying Any New Guinean
Insect Help Save Forest?

No. They have to be legally obtained insects.
Only the Insect Farming & Trading Agency can issue permits to export Papua
New Guinean insects for commercial purposes. This is so the Agency can both
(1) control the market to keep prices for the villagers stable, and (2)
returns maximum revenue back to the villagers.

Occasionally Papua New Guineans sell directly
to dealers, who illegally export the specimens. Ultimately, this hurts the
long-term revenue for the villagers, because it saturates markets and lowers
prices. Moreover, those dealers almost certainly make no effort to link insect
collecting/raising with forest protection.

Every legally exported lot of PNG insects is
accompanied by a PNG export permit (each insect is not given a separate
permit). If the lot involves birdwing butterflies, they must also have a CITES
stamp (which looks a lot like a postage stamp; again, the stamp is issued for
the lot, not for each birdwing individual). Any dealer that buys direct from
the Insect Farming & Trading Agency gets these; it’s up to the buyer to
get a photocopy of the permits, or otherwise certify that such permits are on
file, if forest conservation is of concern.

Since birdwings have been on the CITES list
since 1977, it is doubtful that any papered specimens bought from dealers
(except perhaps for very rare species) were collected before listing (thus,
exempting then from the CITES stamp requirement). Again, it’s up to you, the
buyer to decide whether you accept lame excuses that specimens were collected
“before CITES,” or instead adopt a buying strategy that maximises
conservation prospects.


Can’t Villagers Protect
Their Forest & Make Money In Ways that Don’t Require Killing Things?

Some conservation organizations are developing
markets for nontimber forest products (e.g., nuts, fruits) so their revenue
can be used as an incentive to protect tropical forest. Also,
“ecotourism” is widely touted as another way to convince people to
protect their tropical forests. Why not promote these more
“palatable” initiatives, instead of teaching indigenous people how
to kill animals?

First off, there is some deception concerning
the “fruit and nuts” incentive. “Tropical juice blends”
whose “forest products” include banana, papaya, and similar juices
probably do nothing to protect virgin forest — those fruits come from gardens
cleared from tropical forests! Second, some tropical forest areas have few
edible fruits and nuts to exploit. PNG’s forests are an example (probably why
Papua New Guineans turned from hunting and gathering, to agriculture, over
4,000 years ago); these island forests historically had few large animals that
could have dispersed large fruits.

And ecotourism? It’s overrated. Objective
analyses by respected conservationists (8, 18, 19) indicate that it won’t be
able to save most tropical forests: “only a small minority of protected
areas attract significant numbers of visitors…. In particular, the potential
for many tropical moist forest sites to attract large numbers of tourists is

The fact is, the world’s dwindling tropical
forests will be saved only through a creative array of strategies. Different
forest peoples have different options. They traditionally lived off their
forest by killing animals. So long as they do it sustainably, the results of
those harvests can be channeled to protect forest. Alternatively, outsiders
from other nations can impose their cultural peccadilloes concerning wildlife
use on these people — a form of modern-day colonialism.


(1) Myers N (1988) Tropical forests and their species: going, going….? pp.
28-35. IN:Biodiversity,ed. E.O. Wilson. Nat’l Acad. Press, Washing 521 pp. (2)
Independent State of PNG (1975) Papua New Guinea Constitution, Part III, Basic
Principles of Government, Division I, National Goals and Directive Principles,
Port Moresby, PNG. (3) Hutton A (1983) Butterfly farming in Papua New Guinea.
Oryx 19:158-162. (4) Clark PB & A Landford (1991) Farming Insects in Papua
New Guinea. Int’l. Zool. Yrbook. 30:127-131. (5) Machlis GE & DLO Tichnell
(1985) The State of the World’s Parks: An International Assessment for
Resource Management, Policy and Research. Westview Press, Boulder (6) IUCN/UNEP/WWF
(1991) World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for
Sustainable Development. IUCN; UN Environ. Prog.; World Wildlife Fund. Gland,
Switzer. 228 pp. (7) Amoseli National Park: enlisting landowners to conserve
migratory wildlife. Ambio 11:302-310. (8) Wells M & K Brandon (1992)
People and Parks: Linking Protected Area Management With Local Communities.
World Wildlife Fund. US-AID. 99 pp. (9) Morris MG (1983) Cashing in on the
insect trade. Int’l. Agric. Dev. 3:26-27. (10) Pyle RM, M Bentzien & P
Opler (1981) Insect conservation. Ann. Rev. Ent. 26:223-258. (11) Dethier VM
& RA MacArthur (1962) A field’s capacity to support a butterfly
population. Nature (12) Parsons M (1990) Re-establishment of the Ornithoptera
alexandrae (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae) conservation project…. Unpubl. report
on a World Bank Consul. in Papua New Guinea from 1-21 June 1990. Glendale,
California, USA 62 pp. (13) Shaw DE (1969) Conservational ordinances in Papua
New Guinea. Biol. Cons. 2:50-53. (14) Parsons M (1983) A conservation study of
the birdwing butterflies, Ornithoptera and Troides (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae)
in Papua New Guinea. Unpul. report to PNG Dept. Primary Industry. 112 pp (15)
Mercer C (1992) Survey of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Butterfly on Managalase
Plateau, Papua New Guinea. Proc. PNG Biol. Soc. 9 pp. (16) CITES (1973)
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and
Flora. Special Suppl. to the IUCN Bulletin 4(2):35-40. March issue; reprinted
April 1983. (17) Orsak LJ (1992) Saving the world’s largest butterfly, Queen
Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithopter alexandrae)…. Unpubl. report to PNG Dept.
of Environ. & Conserv. Waigani, PNG 732 pp. (18) African People, African
Parks. An Evaluation of Development Initiatives as a Means of Improving
Protected Area Conservation in Africa. US-AIDS Biodiv. Support Programme,
Conservation Int’l. Washington. 76 pp. (19) MacKinnon JK, G Child & J
Thorsell (1986)Managing Protected Areas in the Tropic. IUCN, Gland, Switzer.
295 pp.