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Butterfly Farming in Papua New Guinea
close this book Butterfly Farming in Papua New Guinea
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View the document Acknowledgments
View the document Panel on Butterfly Farming in Papua New Guinea
View the document Contributors
View the document Preface
View the document 1 Introduction and Summary
View the document 2 Butterfly Status and Conservation
View the document 3 History and Government Policy
View the document 4 Operating a Butterfly Farm
View the document 5 Application to Other Nations
Open this folder and view contents Appendixes
View the document Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation
View the document Board on Science and Technology for International Development

1 Introduction and Summary

The international demand for tropical butterflies is much greater than is generally recognized. Each year millions of them are caught and sold throughout the world. Many buyers are scientists engaged in research on aspects of systematics, ecology, ethology, evolution, and conservation. Others are individuals who like expensive curios that incorporate butterflies, such as display cases, coffee tables, wall hangings, or other objects. But increasingly, the fragile, iridescent creatures, mounted in plastic or glass, are used to decorate less-expensive items such as purses, trays, platters, screens, and other common objects in Europe, North America, and Japan. In addition, amateur butterfly collecting, which reached a peak in Victorian times, is again becoming popular.

All this has produced a strong and active market. The current trade is estimated to be between US $10 and $20 million annually, and the demand is rising.

Butterfly Farming in Papua New Guinea

Remote regions of Papua New Guinea are benefiting from this burgeoning interest in tropical insects, and several hundred villagers are rearing or collecting butterflies, beetles, and other insects for export. The Papua New Guinea government now considers insects a national resource, and it has made butterfly farming part of the nation's village economic development. At Bulolo it has established an Insect Farming and Trading Agency (IFTA) to handle the business details of a growing international trade. And Papua New Guinea is the only country so far to specify insect conservation as a national objective in its constitution.

Botanical research is the key to Papua New Guinea's butterfly farming program. Local botanists and ecologists have identified the plants that the various butterfly species use during their life cycle. The butterfly farmers then build up their "livestock" by clearing small areas of ground and planting leafy food plants for larvae, together with the nectar-producing flowering plants that adult butterflies feed on. The combination of flowering and leafy plants provides a complete habitat where butterflies find everything they need to grow and reproduce. Therefore, most remain, and the farmer retains his livestock without fences or walls.*

They are among the most unusual farms in the world. Around their edges are hibiscus and bougainvillea that attract the adult butterflies, whose mouthparts are adapted for drinking nectar from flowers. And inside are leafy plants, such as the strange Dutchman's pipe vine (Aristolochia tagala), on which the caterpillars of several birdwing butterflies feed.

The enriched butterfly habitat in the villager's garden attracts and holds a breeding population that becomes a self-renewing resource. By varying the plant species the farmer can even maintain colonies of different butterfly species. And because insects are so prolific, some butterfly farmers are beginning to have problems with overstocking and have had to shift larvae from plant to plant—rather like moving cattle from one field to the next as the grazing runs out.

Economic Development

The IFTA program started in 1974 with fewer than 30 Papua New Guineans from villages in two provinces. By 1978, more than 500 villagers in 10 provinces had been introduced to farming or collecting butterflies for export. Since then, business has been increasing about 40 percent a year.

Gram for gram, exotic butterflies are far more valuable than cattle. Prices paid by dealers in Europe, North America, and Japan range from 30 cents for individuals of common species to around $10 for the two birdwing species whose export is allowed. A specimen of a rarer species (for example, a female of the mauve swallowtail Graphium weiskei) may bring as much as $50.

The project is still an embryonic activity; it is not large, as development programs go. IFTA has only one professional staff person and two local technicians to handle the distribution of specimens. The agency's goal is to export between 5,000 and 10,000 specimens a month, from which the villages can expect a return of $10,000 or more.

The agency purchases butterflies from villagers and uses them to fill orders from overseas buyers. Colorful beetles, strange-looking stick and leaf insects, and some moths and cicadas are also caught in the wild and sent to Bulolo. The profits, less 25 percent, are returned to the villagers. At the time of the panel's visit, IFTA had received about 4,000 shipments of butterflies and other insects from the rural people and had paid out about US $180,000 to purchase them. In 1979, the average farmer or collector received about $37 per box of specimens. By 1980, this had risen to about $50 per box. In 1981 it was estimated that a diligent butterfly farmer could earn an annual income of about $1,200.

Even so small an annual income is substantial in rural areas where the mean annual per capita income may be only $50. In many remote areas it is difficult to create income-producing opportunities because of illiteracy, dispersed population, and, in some cases, resistance to foreign ways.

Through butterfly farming many rural Papua New Guineans are for the first time participating in a cash economy. The product is a highvalue, low-volume crop. It brings needed or supplementary income to the people of the predominantly rural areas. Compared with farming coffee, another possible industry in Papua New Guinea's rural regions, it requires far less effort or land, and it involves minimal costs to the producer. And where a few expatriate opportunists once made small fortunes exploiting Papua New Guinea's butterflies, the profits now go to the villagers.


Habitat loss is by far the most critical issue in butterfly conservation. If habitat changes, the animals must change, leave, or die. Usually they die, since alternative habitats are already occupied or too distant.

Nearly all the world's butterfly species have suffered diminished ranges, and an estimated half of the world's butterfly populations face threats from human development. From Britain to Bhutan, the insects' habitats have come under siege. In Europe, perhaps one-third of all butterfly species are threatened, owing chiefly to the reductions in their various habitats. In California, half-a-dozen coastal butterflies have been lost since the 1860s, and an equal number are now endangered. In Madagascar and Rwanda, swallowtails and some species that occur nowhere else are being sacrificed to the clearing of forests.

The losses are much more than aesthetic, for many butterflies benefit people. They pollinate crops, are a major link in the food chain, and serve as sensitive indicators of ecological health.

A striking feature of the Papua New Guinea butterfly farming program is that it is designed to conserve and increase the species being traded. It is a pioneering conservation effort that has been endorsed by the Lepidoptera Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. The program helps relieve pressure on endangered populations, because for successful butterfly farms the villagers must retain - and even foster - a healthy wild population on or near their land.

Insect farming also helps preserve habitats because it leaves the bulk of the land intact and it helps landowners earn money without requiring them to cut down the rain forest as they would for timber or for cocoa, coffee, or oil palm plantations. Similarly, villagers can retain their traditional hunting grounds while cropping the insects that rely on these grounds for survival.

The existence of the butterfly farming project has served to focus attention on the status of all butterfly species. In 1968 this led to a law banning the taking of even a single specimen of the seven birdwing species threatened with extinction in Papua New Guinea. These large, brilliantly colored creatures can bring as much as $1,000 each in international trade, but there is a stiff fine in Papua New Guinea for even possessing one.

Enriching habitats with butterfly food plants (notably the Dutchman's pipe vine, Aristolochia tagala) has greatly increased the numbers of Papua New Guinea's two common birdwing species, Ornithoptera priamus and Troides oblongomaculatus. Now the country is taking on the challenge of increasing the seven endangered birdwing species that are protected and banned from trade. Already the IFTA staff has found that at least one of these rare species (Ornithoptera victoriae) is easily reared on the Dutchman's pipe vine. Farms are now being designed and sited with a view to building up the populations of this giant endangered species.


At this stage, the importance of this pioneering activity lies not in its size, but in the new vistas it opens up for the use of tropical resources.

Village Development

In farming butterflies, Papua New Guinea is showing that indigenous wildlife resources (especially those being depleted because of their commercial value) can contribute to economic development and that the farming of indigenous animals can be fitted smoothly into traditional village life.

Providing employment in rural areas is a major problem of developing countries. And in a sense, butterflies are an "appropriate" livestock, particularly for remote areas of the tropics where other income-producing activities are difficult to establish or are harmful to traditional lifestyles and fragile environments.

Butterflies may seem unusual farm animals, but to villagers in the Papua New Guinea jungle it is cattle that are exotic. The villagers live in close contact with their local insects; invariably they know much about butterfly locations, behavior, habits, life cycle, and the food eaten by the caterpillars.

Farming butterflies is proving a business to which villagers quickly adapt. Butterflies do not require the equipment or financing of a conventional farm; no capital is required, except for postage on the first shipment of specimens. Insect farming allows people to participate in the cash economy without causing disruptive changes in traditional village life. The villagers can work long and hard if they wish or they can put in only enough time to produce a little cash for necessities, leaving plenty of time for raising crops and other village activities.

Habitat Conservation

It is often claimed that economic development is necessarily destructive to the environment and detrimental to conservation - that as rural societies develop, their natural surroundings must suffer. The Papua New Guinea butterfly farming project is an innovative program that demonstrates this need not be true.

The program also shows that where human needs are given attention, conservation can be successful. Elsewhere in the tropics, attempts to conserve habitat without considering the needs of the people who live nearby have often failed.

In sum, the butterfly farming program demonstrates that certain natural resources can be used profitably in a way that protects the environment. The program offers a culturally appropriate use of the land; on a broad scale, it could become a force in preventing clear-felling of the forest for timber exports or the wholesale conversion of rain forest to cash-crop monocultures such as coconut, coffee, or oil palm. Most of Papua New Guinea is still covered by primary rain forest; exploiting the economic value of the insects that live there is helping safeguard this increasingly rare habitat, which is fast disappearing in most parts of the tropics.

Species Conservation

The knowledge gained from farming Papua New Guinea's butterflies has already contributed to relieving the threat of extinction from seven endangered species of birdwings. This experience could be replicated in other places where there are endangered butterfly species. Indeed, the program provides a model for nations that could profitably farm butterflies while protecting their threatened butterfly species.

Extension to Other Organisms

This project has a strategy and organizational structure that could well be applied to plants, such as rare orchids, and animals, such as crocodiles, that are endangered because of their commercial value. Indeed, using similar concepts of combining village income and conservation, the Papua New Guinea Division of Wildlife is farming crocodiles,* ruse deer, wallabies, and two native birds, the megapode and cassowary.

Through such husbandry practices, many species elsewhere might be saved from extinction, while providing income to the local people who traditionally have used the resource. Other countries should look with interest at the way Papua New Guinea is handling its wildlife enterprises.