January 27, 2022

The QABB breeding project

Conservation and restoration
Conservation of the world’s largest butterfly
With a wingspan of 19–30cm, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Butterfly (QABB) (Ornithoptera alexandrae) is the largest globally and one of the rarest. Endemic to Papua New Guinea’s Northern Province (also known as Oro Province), it can only be found in two locations: the forest areas of the Managalas Plateau, 1,000 metres above sea level, and the coastal lowlands of the Popondetta Plains. QABB numbers in the Managalas Plateau are relatively healthy and thriving, but the Popondetta Plains are small and patchy.  

The QABB is one of only three butterflies listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and is classified as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. On a positive note, the Papua New Guinea government declared the Managalas Plateau a conservation area in 2017, and it is now a protected National Park. However, much more needs to be done to ensure the survival of the species.  

The NBPOL QABB captive breeding programme
We are privileged that part of our Higaturu operations is home to the QABB species. Consequently, we have designated certain forest areas in the company’s lease area to preserve its habitat so that the butterfly can thrive in a legally protected environment.  

To further strengthen our conservation efforts, with a long-term aim that the QABB will no longer be an endangered species, NBPOL has built and equipped a new laboratory, flight cages and foodplant nurseries. This has been established at our secure residential and operations compound in an attempt to breed the QABB in captivity. Our objective is to eventually release them into previously inhabited areas enriched with additional foodplants.  

Some fundamental questions need to be addressed as the breeding programme continues to develop. We know now there is little genetic variation between the sub-populations. However they may still have different ecological requirements, even in their specific food plants. This is vital information for breeding success. Before any releases can be contemplated, past surveys of existing populations need to be consolidated and possibly repeated so that a conservation baseline is established to measure any future success. NBPOL has engaged a birdwing butterfly expert from France to conduct genetic analysis across the two populations. Although the results have been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are advancing with other aspects of the trials.  

Given that the QABB species is so rare, we have started developing breeding protocols with a closely related but common species – the Common Birdwing Butterfly (Ornithoptera priamus). We will only begin the QABB breeding programme when we have demonstrated two successful Common Birdwing Butterfly egg-to-adult life cycles. NBPOL recorded successful results for the first round of breeding in September 2020. We noted the butterflies were naturally feeding, courting, and mating – a development that bodes well for the second cycle.  

Inside the lab
Construction of the breeding laboratory began in February 2018 and was completed in May 2019. We also built staff accommodation and hired full-time researchers, ground staff, and a Lead Entomologist. The laboratory contains two primary structures: the breeding room and the flight cage. Our breeding room hosts the caterpillars where they are fed until they pupate. We grow the vines that the butterflies feed on in specially designated onsite nurseries. When the pupae are close to emerging as butterflies, we move them to cool dark boxes to enable the adult butterflies to harden their wings for 24-48 hours after emergence. They are then transferred to a flight cage designed to replicate the QABB’s natural environment: a large tunnel-shaped enclosure. We also developed a bespoke ventilation system to recreate the temperature and humidity of the natural forest habitat. Throughout 2020, we worked on improving the flight cage conditions and enhancing our knowledge of butterfly behaviour within the captive rearing environment.  

The results are promising, and we plan to build a more extensive flight cage to house more butterflies.  

Working with communities, organisations and partners
A significant component of this project involves working with local communities, such as the Hombareta Butterfly Conservation Reserve. It is hard to overstate the importance of the QABB to local communities. The Oro provincial flag includes the QABB (representing wildlife) on a green background (for vegetation). QABB sightings in this region are rare. Given the local community’s proximity to the QABB’s natural habitat, we will seek their help in locating and nurturing the QABB. Higaturu Oil Palm Limited has supported this programme by building a guesthouse in one of the villages near a birdwing butterfly farm to house researchers and visitors.  

The QABB have long been targeted by poachers and can fetch up to US$5,000–10,000 each on the black market. Unfortunately, some community members have been coerced to help meet this growing demand. NBPOL is actively encouraging local stakeholders to shift their attention towards a conservation focus. NBPOL also works with local community-based organisations, such as Partners with Melanesians (PWM), to help in butterfly conservation efforts in the Managalas Plateau Conservation Area.  

NBPOL is grateful for support from the Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA). They closely tracked the project’s progress and approved our permit to handle and breed the birdwing butterflies in captivity.  

The project is financed by Sime Darby Foundation, whose representatives conduct regular visits and assist in the programme’s implementation. The project will run from August 2020 to December 2022, and we hope to raise independent funding to ensure that the project is maintained into the foreseeable future.