Thursday, 4 September 2008 2:02 AM

An Overview of the Butterfly Trade

I've recently read the discourses from George Hoa'au and several others concerning trade in the natural resources of Solomon Islands, particularly butterflies, and would like to expand on and clarify several points.

Let me establish some credentials. As an amateur entomologist (one who studies insects, including butterflies and beetles) I have traveled the globe primarily searching for new insects and/or seeking to document more of their habitat, range, and life history. I had visited Solomon Islands a number of times in the period 2001-2007. My research has discovered two new butterfly species in Solomon Islands; I was the first to survey the butterflies of Tetepare, and have expanded the known range of over fifty known species. For transparency, I will state that indeed I have made local purchases of common Solomon Islands butterflies for resale overseas, since the costs of my trips and research are extremely expensive, and funded by my wallet alone.

Now, to the topic at hand.

First and foremost, natural resources may be exploited responsibly for financial gain. The key word, of course, is "responsibly". The logging in Solomon Islands is an excellent example of irresponsible exploitation, in that the damage done will be hard to recover in our lifetime.

However, there is no scientific cause to eliminate trade in sustainable populations. Some environmental groups would cry otherwise, but simply do not have any basis- beyond emotion- upon which to stand.

In fact, Solomon Islands does have a number of marketable wildlife species which are sustainable and can bring great financial benefit to local villages without harm to the animal's population or the environment as a whole. The most obvious is the Queen Victoria Birdwing butterfly, scientifically known as Ornithoptera victoria. Ornithoptera victoria occurs in the geographic Solomon Islands (including Bougainville) eastward to San Christobal. Several subspecies and forms occur within this range, and further scientific research remains to be done to establish the validity of particular subspecies.

The Birdwing butterflies are large and colorful, which makes them popular with butterfly collectors and researchers alike. Those of the Ornithoptera genus range from the middle of Indonesia to San Christobal. In some cases, particular subspecies, races, and forms are found only on small islands, and thus it may be inferred that the population is small; given this, one could understand concern that the population could be exterminated by disasters such as cyclones, logging, and over-collecting. Indeed there are instances where an entire population (species, subspecies, race, etc.) was eradicated by each of the above means- and this applies not only to butterflies, but birds and reptiles as well.

Thus, when initiated, CITES had all the good intention to limit trade in potentially sensitive species that could be damaged or eliminated by trade. Even at the advent of CITES though, the selective criteria for which species were protected depended largely on scientific ignorance. Now, I do not infer "ignorance" in a rude sense, but rather that the drafters of CITES simply did not have sufficient evidence to judge the strength of populations, and seemingly tended toward a conservative approach.

Ornithoptera victoria is an excellent example of the ignorance of CITES lists. It is a species that ranges throughout geographic Solomon Islands, from the seaside to deep in the rainforest covered mountainous interiors of the islands. Any reasonable student of the species quickly recognizes that no amount of collecting could eliminate the species- it is simply too numerous over such a wide region and through terribly challenging terrain. In John Tennent's astonishing volume Butterflies of the Solomon Islands (2001) the author states, and I concur, that even arming the local people with flyswatters and instructing them to kill all the Ornithoptera victoria would not be sufficient to eliminate the species! In fact, there is but one way to eliminate Ornithoptera victoria, and that is logging, a topic that must be acknowledged but is outside the scope of this address.

Focus now on how this affects Solomon Islands. Ornithoptera victoria is on the CITES Appendix II list, meaning that trade is restricted, not eliminated. Plenty of butterflies- including Ornithoptera victoria- are legally exported from Bougainville in compliance with CITES recommendations. Countries that are not a signatory of CITES simply need to issue with the export package a statement of legal export as a non-signatory; those countries that are signatories to CITES (as Solomon Islands has been since 2007) simply include a copy of the applicable CITES II form.

The problem with CITES and Solomon Islands is one of bureaucracy, a contest of wills if you like, since CITES had specifically banned international trade of Ornithoptera from Solomon Islands (and not from Bougainville). This, I understand, developed following the visit of a CITES bureaucrat to Honiara who tasked Solomon Islands government Dept. of Natural Resources to prove that Ornithoptera were not endangered by trade. Of course, anyone who knows those fine men at Natural Resources know that they are not equipped with the knowledge, time, or resources to provide such proof. So CITES, rather than offer assistance in the matter, simply banned trade on Solomon Islands' Ornithoptera. Note that somehow PNG managed to "prove" to CITES that the same Ornithopera victoria from Bougainville was not endangered by trade, and thus it continues to the benefit of locals. Really, what happened was a political strong-arm tactic in an attempt to force Solomon Islands to become a signatory to CITES.

It is my understanding that since Solomon Islands is now a signatory to CITES, the ban on the trade in Ornithoptera has been lifted by CITES, though I've not actually seen this in writing.

Even if this is the case, trade in Ornithoptera is severely restricted by U.S. law. As a signatory to CITES, and armed with no real knowledge of natural resources, US lawmakers simply took the CITES ban on Solomon Islands Ornithoptera and made it law, word for word. Thus, even if CITES lifted the ban on export of Ornithoptera from Solomon Islands, US law still prevents importation into what is arguably the largest potential market.

With the topic of Ornithoptera rather exhausted, what of other marketable butterfly species? Indeed, there are some Solomon Islands butterfly species that are not managed by CITES, yet are far rarer- and more in demand, and worth much more money- than Ornithoptera. Why is this? The main reason is that they are not as large and showy as Ornithoptera (or elephants or dolphins for that matter) so simply do not "earn" the attention of CITES. Some, such as Graphium meeki are, as far as the scientific community knows, extremely rare (though we don't know why- is the population truly small, or is it more likely that they inhabit regions that are inhospitable to finding them?) Graphium meeki are occasionally exported from Solomon Islands and command a price of several hundred US dollars for a pair. Unlike Ornithoptera, Graphium meeki warrants scientific study and trade restriction until the facts are known.

Note that I suggested trade "restriction" not elimination. This is because even if a population is rare (or unknown) a synthetic population can be established to provide financial income without harm to the wild population.

There are three major recognized sources for wildlife: wild-caught, ranched, and farmed. Ranching involves collecting larvae (caterpillars) and pupae- generally from around a village- and raising them to the marketable adult form. Farming expands ranching by intentionally breeding through the entire life cycle, thereby creating a captive population independent of the wild population. Farming, of course, is popular worldwide with other animals such as birds and reptiles since it not only alleviates reduction of the wild population but offer protection from transnational diseases, some relief from trade restrictions, and is more acceptable to organizations which purport to save the environment.

Farming of Ornithoptera has twice been attempted in Solomon Islands, but failed largely due to government intervention (everyone trying to get a cut of the profits). Farming is an expensive and knowledge-heavy production that in truth bears little in the way of great riches, but does provide substantial trickle-down benefits.

Butterfly ranching, on the other hand, is environmentally sound and occurs as grass-roots operations in several regions of Solomon Islands. It provides significant financial support to the persons and villages where the enterprise operates. To my knowledge, these ranching operations operate without the interference of government oversight. Laws aside, ranching of valuable species is of the ultimate benefit to Solomon Islands as a whole, as it offers what is often the only alternative to logging.

I am no expert on birds or reptiles, but it is well established that these animals- unlike most insects- can suffer damage to populations as a result of collecting from the wild. In fact, during the late 1980s (the last time records were kept) the export of birds from Solomon Islands was five-fold that of butterflies! Almost all of these were wild caught. Ranching- and even more so farming- are viable alternative to wild collecting while still fulfilling local financial needs.

It would be complete ignorance to say that CITES or local controls over the wildlife trade in Solomon Islands has eliminated wildlife exports. Certainly this is not the case, as wildlife is leaving by boat, airplane, and postal courier bound largely for Japan, Korea, Germany, and France. In fact, as long as there is international demand, there will be export in wildlife.

So at some point, Solomon Islands government needs to get involved. Note that I said "involved" not just "control". Not only does Solomon Islands need reasonable controls, but the government must provide education and logistical support to grassroots efforts.

Certainly, some oversight is required. But again, this means oversight as in a guiding hand, not looking for handouts. Case in point, as late as 2001 Solomon Island one government agency- if I recall it was Development Trust (SIDT)- acted as a clearing house for the sale of Ornithoptera butterflies, selling pairs for US$120 while if one purchased them from locals the price was US$12. Obviously, this will not work- it encourages direct (illegal) trade while putting the money into the wrong hands.

Still, a government agency (part of Natural Resources, I presume) could act as not only as an export approval stamp, but provide training as well. There are international grants available for rural development, but in reality these need to be applied for by a knowledgeable agency. Once sufficient organization is established to provide a flow of responsibly obtained wildlife material, said agency should have no problem collecting sufficient funds from export licensing and inspection that the salaries of the responsible organization are covered. Perhaps attention can be turned from logging to sustainable wildlife export oversight and control.

Some organizations claim that the export of wildlife in any form, and in any quantity, is detrimental to both the wildlife and the country as a whole. Clearly, this is not the case. Butterfly ranching and farming at the local level is practiced around the world including PNG, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and in the world-leading eco tourism countries of Belize and Costa Rica. Thailand is a stellar example of insect ranching and farming, having developed an entire industry to feed trade in insects, with an annual revenue undoubtedly measuring in the millions of US dollars. Camaroon in Africa has recently become the newest source of insects for trade, resulting in great financial gain for grass-roots collectors and farmers while also creating an environment in which new species are being discovered almost daily.

Another source of potential income comes from ento-tourism, meaning hosting guided groups of amateur insect collectors. Operating mainly from USA and Europe, these tour agencies work in concert with governments to enable legal, permitted collecting of butterflies by interested collectors. The financial gain from such operations is astonishing; by my calculations a group of a dozen visiting three or four locations in Solomons Islands would generate SB$250,000 into the economy. And this is in exchange for some generally common butterflies. Not only that, these tourists, once exposed to the wonderful environments and cultures of Solomon Islands are often determined to return again, many times with their families.

Of course, with everything there is a dark cloud, and that comes with the commercial collectors. These are not tourists, but those who specifically target rarer and highly valuable species, and take as many as possible. They may enter the country as tourists, or may work through a local person, but the goal remains to obtain- often by any means- as many expensive insects (or birds, or reptiles) as possible. This obviously can have an adverse impact on the wildlife populations, though truthfully (and as much as I personally despise the act) the rugged environment combined with the highly prolific nature of insects limits actual damage even by commercial collectors. Now, this is not to say that foreign commercial insect traders are all destructive, that is certainly not the case. In fact, employing commercial agencies for the distribution channels actually regulates trade. The point of caution to watch though is the rouge collector who is more often than not operating totally outside of all laws, local and international.

In summary, it is well established that responsible trade in insects (including those regulated by CITES) can be promoted to the benefit of rural peoples. Despite claims to the contrary, even collecting of wild-caught butterflies in Solomon Islands will have little or no effect on the populations. The opportunity exists, as do established business models, to build butterfly ranching and farming operations throughout Solomon Islands. While the establishment of the regulatory environment, training, and distribution would be no small feat, it can be done. Finally, I can think of no other source of income that might reasonably replace that generated by logging, which is the ultimate death sentence to wildlife. Hopefully, Solomon Islands can emulate successful models for trade and tourism as proven by other eco-nations.


Charles J. DeRoller
New York, USA

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter/article are those of Charles J. DeRoller and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.

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