Soon after Europeans discovered New Guinea's remarkable insect fauna around the turn of the century, collectors began arriving, and they have been coming ever since. Many were reputable professional or amateur scientists, gathering modest numbers of specimens for study and for museums, including Papua New Guinea's own national collection. Others, however, were plunderers who carried away large numbers of rare butterflies, giving little or no compensation to the local people and showing no concern for survival of the species.
In 1966 the Papua New Guinea government responded to excessive collecting by designating seven rare birdwing butterflies as protected species. It became illegal to collect these huge, colorful birdwings, and strong measures were instituted - fines for nationals, deportation of expatriates - to halt black market trade.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s commercial collecting of the other butterfly species continued piecemeal and unsupervised. Income was erratic, and expatriate dealers often paid their Papua New Guinean suppliers only a few cents for specimens that retailed for several hundred dollars in Europe and Japan.
The Insect Farming and Trading Agency
When Papua New Guinea achieved independence in 1975, the new government decreed that only nationals should profit from the country's butterfly resource. Since that time only Papua New Guineans have been able to export butterfly specimens (nonprotected species) for profit.
In 1978, to guarantee Papua New Guineans fair prices and stable sales, a marketing agency was established. Its purpose was to protect the resource, to foster butterfly farming, and to ensure a high-quality export product.
Modest in its beginnings, the Insect Farming and Trading Agency (IFTA) was organized by Angus Hutton, a former tea planter and amateur lepidopterist. The business side of the agency was later developed by Peter Clark, who had worked with Hutton. Identification and production of food plants was advanced by Michael Parsons, Robert Pyle, and others.
IFTA provides a market for those Papua New Guinea nationals who farm and collect butterflies and other insects. The agency allows them to obtain fair and fixed prices, maintains quality control, and ensures that current data accompanies all specimens. It also pools the insects from many sources and fills large orders from overseas dealers.
Of the butterflies IFTA exports, about 30 percent are from village farms and 70 percent are collected in the field. However, more than 50 percent of the revenue is made up of the farmed butterflies because of their better quality.
The agency strives to sell only highest-quality insects; it rejects many butterflies as substandard. Most specimens are sold as named subspecies and to identify and name them requires much skill. Staff members have been specially trained to do this. (To a large extent, the area of origin, particularly in the case of the offshore islands, defines the subspecies concerned.) Locality data, usually consisting of village, province, and month and year of collecting or emergence, is affixed to all butterfly envelopes before they are pooled at the agency.
IFTA stores its collection by species, in simple wooden boxes kept in cupboards lit from below (to lure potential pests away from the insects and to warm the cupboards and prevent mold).
The agency makes up orders and dispatches them (with the required export permits) to customers "on trust." Although this is open to abuse, most buyers pay promptly and the system is easy and convenient. Careful records are kept of all suppliers, customers, and species in stock.
At the time of the panel's visit, about 80 percent of the agency's business consisted of responding to requests from dealers. However, less than 10 percent of the orders received from all sources could be filled. Some requests were too small and others too specialized; in some cases the agency simply didn't have the specimens on hand (for example, a request for all the subspecies of a given butterfly). Furthermore, the agency has neither the office staff nor space to cope with every order in a business whose volume is almost doubling every two years.
Wildlife extension officers periodically visit clients and new villages to sustain or develop enthusiasm for insect farming. They explain and demonstrate the procedures of butterfly farming and collecting and teach potential farmers how to recognize a valuable species in each of its life stages. Above all, they demonstrate how to prepare specimens for sale. This is because it is often difficult to convince farmers of the need for extreme care and delicacy in handling, and many inexperienced farmers send in bruised or hopelessly damaged specimens. Although about 500 villagers were farming butterflies at the time of the panel's visit, fewer than 50 were supplying good material regularly.
These contacts are also important because the butterfly farmers easily become discouraged if no interest is shown in their work. In the Papua New Guinea countryside there is often little need for cash; people can obtain all their food, clothes, shelter, and resources from their gardens or from the bush. Money received from one shipment of butterflies may last a subsistence farmer for months, making it difficult for the agency to sustain his interest in providing regular shipments.
The agency's extension officers have initiated a number of butterfly farming projects at primary, secondary, and vocational schools. These projects have proved most successful. Apart from the practical education they give students, they provide early insight into one of Papua New Guinea's most useful resources. Several vocational schools also provide training in mounting butterflies and beetles as souvenirs for tourists, as well as in the construction of hatching cages and solar driers. Beautiful wooden cabinets to hold butterflies have also been made by some teenage students.
Research and Monitoring
In addition to teaching Papua New Guineans to collect and farm insects, IFTA promotes research both to conserve species and to make them available in quantity. Success has already been achieved in farming the common birdwing butterflies by planting large numbers of the Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia tagala) vines that they feed on.
The agency's staff includes an ecologist, indicating the importance of the scientific basis for conservation in this project. The ecologist is at hand to conduct research on life histories, farming methods, and management measures for rare species.
IFTA staff are now identifying new food plants that will permit more species to be farmed. Research into the life histories of many butterflies with economic potential is well under way, so that an increasing number of species will become "farmable" and will be available in future in perfect ex pupa condition.
The sources of all specimens received by IFTA are recorded on a map so that a butterfly's range and rarity or abundance can be assessed and conservation measures implemented where necessary. In this way, even insects too damaged for sale at least have value to conservation efforts. All specimens of unusual scientific interest are lodged in the national insect collection for future study.