Butterfly Farms

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Butterfly Farms

By Fluttertime

How Do Butterfly Farms Help Save the Rainforests?

Butterflies are among the most colorful and charismatic of insects, and their extraordinary diversity has been the focus of studies by amateur naturalists and professional entomologists for over two centuries. Butterflies have long been model organisms for basic biological research in the fields of behavior, population genetics, and systematics. More recently, studies of butterfly life cycles in tropical rain forests have resulted in a cottage industry: "farms" or "ranches" where live butterflies are reared under controlled conditions to provide a supply of pupae for exhibits of live insects. Live butterfly pupae are sold to museums and zoos for public education and enjoyment along with preserved specimins to be used in framed butterfly displays..

Butterfly Farms and Butterfly Ranching
How do butterfly farms and ranches operate? One pioneering project developed by the government of Papua New Guinea encouraged farmers to take part in commercial exploitation of a renewable resource -- insects.

Queen Alexandra's Birdwing

The rain forests of Papua New Guinea are home to some fantastic insects: the world's largest and second largest butterflies (the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing and the Goliath Birdwing), huge and bizarrely shaped beetles and mantids, the longest walking stick, the largest katydid, hammer-headed flies, and a weevil with a garden of lichens and mosses on its back. The butterflies have historically been among the most avidly sought by collectors around the world, and rare specimens can fetch hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

In the 1970s, government officials became aware that expatriates involved in the commercial collection of insects were enlisting the aid of local farmers who lived adjacent to rainforest habitats. The farmers were paid a small fraction of the market value of the specimens. The government was determined to change this state of affairs to ensure the locals received a larger share of the profit. So the expatriates were expelled from the country, and the Insect Farming and Trading Agency was born. Now the IFTA controls all trade in insect specimens and has fostered a program of butterfly ranching to encourage protection of remnant rainforest habitats in the vicinity of a farm or village.

The basic principle behind butterfly ranching is diversification of crops in a small garden plot to include the host-plants on which caterpillars feed. Only a small fraction of these larval host-plants are known to science. The main "research and development" activity of butterfly ranchers is discovering unknown host-plants through careful observation of egg-laying female butterflies. Once the host of a particular species is known, it can be cultivated in the garden near the edge of the rain forest to attract egg-laying females. If the natural concentration of a particular plant species is one per square mile of rain forest, and a farmer plants several dozen of the species, the result is a dense concentration of caterpillars in a short time. Butterfly ranching thus involves artificial manipulation of the natural density of caterpillar host-plants.

I.F.T.A. Office Workers

Biologists from the Insect Farming and Trading Agency go to interested villages and provide food plants for a single, local species of butterfly to one or two people and instructs them in butterfly husbandry techniques. The vines are planted at the edge of the forest, typically on small plots of land originally cleared for vegetable gardens and since abandoned. The adult butterflies, which are wild, come out of the forest to feed and lay their eggs. The larvae that hatch feed on the vines until pupation. Most of the pupae are then collected and placed in protected hatching cages. In the wild, less than 7% of butterflies and eggs will survive to adulthood. In contrast, captive breeding programs such as this on the butterfly farms achieve 70-90% survival rates to ensure species preservation.

Butterfly ranching is a passive approach relative to farming, in which enclosures (ranging from large cages to sleeves of fine netting) are used to protect butterflies from natural enemies during all stages of their life cycle. Parasitic wasps that attack butterflies in their vulnerable immature stages are the most dangerous enemies.After emerging, most butterfly farms release 10% to 20% of the butterflies back into the wild to ensure wild populations continue to grow and flourish. Additionally, flowering plants, such as Hibiscus and Lantana, attract female butterflies, which need the nectar to renew their energy reserves after a bout of egg-laying. Many farmers have learned that they can sell butterflies to supplement their income if they protect the remnant patches of rain forest that form a reservoir for this renewable resource which also helps in butterfly conservation.

Slash Burning the Rain Forest

Sustainable Resource Utilization and Conservation
Tropical rain forests contain most of the world's plant and animal species. Unfortunately, these forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Experts estimates that we are losing 137 plant, animal and insect species every single day due to rainforest deforestation. That equates to 50,000 species a year. As the rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases. Currently, 121 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. While 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less that 1% of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists.

There were an estimated ten million Indians living in the Amazonian Rainforest five centuries ago. Today there are less than 200,000. In Brazil alone, European colonists have destroyed more than 90 indigenous tribes since the 1900's. With them have gone centuries of accumulated knowledge of the medicinal value of rainforest species. As their homelands continue to be destroyed by deforestation, rainforest peoples are also disappearing. Most medicine men and shamans remaining in the Rainforests today are 70 years old or more. Each time a rainforest medicine man dies, it is as if a library has burned down. When a medicine man dies without passing his arts on to the next generation, the tribe and the world loses thousands of years of irreplaceable knowledge about medicinal plants.

Economic arguments are essential to convince the custodians of these forests -- primarily developing countries with rapidly growing populations -- that renewable resources are more valuable than non-sustainable exploitation of the forests for wood and fuel.

Butterfly farming and ranching have demonstrated that one such renewable resource can provide economic incentives to villagers and farmers who may have to decide where to harvest firewood or clear forest for agriculture. By offering supplemental income in exchange for preserving and enhancing butterfly habitats, many plant and animal species native to tropical rain forests will indirectly benefit. Today, successful commercial butterfly farming and ranching projects are operating in North, Central and South America, Uganda, Madagascar, China, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Australia. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund have included such projects in their conservation programs for countries with rich rainforest biodiversity, such as Indonesia. If carefully managed farming and ranching programs are introduced to areas with dwindling rain forests, economic incentives for conservation can play an important role in a transition to sustainable use of the earth's most diverse ecosystems.

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