Wigan man spreads his wings to help save world’s largest butterfly

A Wigan man is part of a British team involved in a historic effort to save the world’s largest butterfly from extinction.

Friday, 26th March 2021, 12:30 pm
Ian Orrell

Experts have announced the world’s first state-of-the-art nursery for the Queen’s Alexandra Birdwing, which is the size of a blackbird and was first discovered soaring through the rainforest treetops 115 years ago.

The butterflies are being put under 24-hour guard as the biggest threat to their survival is a global poaching trade that has seen them change hands for more than £10,000 each.

The first breeding programme, in remote Papua New Guinea, aims to prevent the extinction of the “magnificent” insect that experts warn might otherwise be wiped out within 20 years.

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The butterfly

Involved in the work is project manager Ian Orrell, who originally comes from Wigan and is now based in Papua New Guinea.

He got involved with Henry Barlow, chairman of New Britain Palm Oil, who discovered the butterfly’s habitat was on land acquired by NBPOL in the 1970s, but had been cleared historically.

Mr Orrell, head of sustainability and quality management for New Britain Palm Oil, said: “Nowadays we have a very strict no deforestation policy in place and we are committed to preserving and enhancing areas of high conservation value.

“This means our contribution to PNG’s desperately needed rural economic development is also balanced with the need to protect and preserve natural habitats and the species that depend on these.

“However, PNG’s forests are under threat from large-scale developments that are associated with forest destruction, the Government is aware of this and is trying to enact policies to protect the high carbon stock and high conservation value forests.

“But we feel the biggest danger for the butterfly is the illegal, global trade in this butterfly.

“It has been going on for decades and I would suspect the supply chains are very mature, very developed and very much under the radar.

“We believe figures for good specimens are up to £10,000 – and they have been found as far afield as Canada. This is of grave concern.”

The new butterfly nursery contains two sections - a flight cage where butterflies can breed and a large nursery for up to 100 caterpillars.

Mr Orrell said: “The eggs laid will be taken into the laboratory where under controlled conditions the life cycle will run through from larvae to pupation.

“Filters bring in clean air at ambient temperature and humidity and the room is under positive pressure which keeps it sterile.

“Up to 100 butterflies could be bred at any one time on a rolling cycle when we reach capacity.”

It is a project that is a far cry from Mr Orrell’s days as a youngster in Wigan, where he attended Beech Hill Primary School, Up Holland High School and Wisntanley College, before studying to become a biologist at Newcastle University.

He said: “Looking back on life, it’s amazing how chance opportunities and choices led me from a grounded upbringing as a Wiganer to a 30-year career in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea.

“No grand plan, no road map, just a chance journey, a step at a time.

“Staying so long was never the intention, but I guess the early realisation of being able to have a real positive impact on the real lives of rural communities needing a better deal in life was a strong anchor.”

The first specimen of this butterfly was caught in 1906 by British naturalist Albert Meek using a shotgun filled with sand and is now kept at London’s Natural History Museum archives, peppered with holes in its wings.

But in recent years, the butterfly has become increasingly under threat due to a global smuggling trade on the dark web, despite the Birdwing being officially recognised as under threat for four decades and protected by Papua New Guinea’s laws and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Mr Orrell and Mr Barlow, who describe themselves as “amateur entomologists” - someone who studies insects – stepped in after they realised the creature’s plight.

Mr Barlow said: “This is the largest butterfly in the world – would you really want to see it go extinct?

“I think it’s almost certainly going to be the case within the next 20 years unless we can get this as a sustained and ongoing project.

“The wingspan of the female is 30cm making it the largest butterfly in the world and around the size of a blackbird but it’s extremely

rare.

“I am fortunate enough to have seen it in the wild three years ago when I went up into a remote plateau – one of two places in Papua New Guinea where there is a population – and I saw two live adults close up and flying up above the treetops.

“It’s like watching a bird fly overhead and is extraordinary.

“When you think the wing span is several times that of many of our smaller birds you get some idea it’s a pretty dramatic sight when you see it soaring above the forest canopy.”

Mr Barlow wanted to do something after learning about the land through his role as chairman of New Britain Palm Oil. The company was taken over by Sime Darby Plantation in 2015.

Despite serious access and logistical problems, they built and equipped a laboratory on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, bringing everything in by sea or air. The project has been funded by Sime Darby Plantation.

They trialled a successful breeding programme for a closely-related species which is not under threat.

Mr Barlow said: “We are now at the stage where we are about to take steps to bring in a small number of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterflies and see if we can get them to also breed in enclosed conditions.

“It is an incredibly exciting development and it brings hope for this magnificent butterfly.”

Some of the butterflies will be kept as part of the breeding programme and others will be released into the wild.

Adult butterflies will have their wings clipped - a harmless process which devalues them on the black market.

Long-term it is hoped it may create eco-tourism opportunities if the breeding programme is a success – the area is famous for the Kokoda track which attracts trekkers from all over the world.

Mr Barlow added: “We can see how the orangutan, tiger and giant panda conservation campaigns, when linked with habitat protection, can save whole ecosystems and the thousands of species that live there, including the iconic species that we love to see.

“This butterfly is equally magnificent and our aim is to protect it for future generations too.”

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