Saving the Caribbean’s butterflies | Discover

Erline Andrews reports on the invaluable work being done in Jamaica to document and protect these beautiful, critically important pollinators

  • A monarch butterfly. Photo by Kathy Servian, courtesy Unsplash
  • A monarch emerges from the chrysalis, wings still wet. Photo by Joshua J Cotton, courtesy Unsplash
  • Endangered endemic Jamaican giant swallowtail (<i>Pterourus homerus</i>), also known as the Homerus swallowtail, in Jamaica’s rugged Cockpit Country. Photo courtesy Vaughan Turland

The blue kite swallowtail butterfly — swaths of bright blue cutting across black on its wings — used to descend on Kingston, Jamaica once a year in large numbers, bringing a beautiful touch of nature to the bustling city.

That was a long time ago. They haven’t been seen in the city since the ‘60s — their numbers drastically diminished by human encroachment on their habitats. It’s the fate of many butterfly species around the world.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently has 258 butterflies on their Red List, designating them vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

Newly included among the endangered is the migratory monarch butterfly, a subspecies of the iconic orange and black monarch butterfly that travels from North America to Mexico for the winter.

The announcement last year made many headlines around the world.

The blue kite swallowtail’s situation is arguably worse. It’s endemic to or found only in Jamaica, giving it a slimmer chance of long-term survival. Once filling the sky over the capital with tufts of blue, they’ve become a rare sight, found only in a few small, forested areas. Unlike the monarch, their plight isn’t making headlines.

“Butterflies are just not important in most people’s lives,” said Vaughan Turland, an entomologist and photographer who has been studying and capturing images of Jamaica’s butterflies for decades.

He and lepidopterist Tom Turner are co-authors of Discovering Jamaican Butterflies & Their Relationships Around the Caribbean, which is promoted as the most comprehensive look at the country’s butterflies since 1972.

The two men probably know more about the blue kite swallowtail than anyone else in the world.

“The monarch butterfly continues to fall in numbers despite the extensive conservation efforts and enormous publicity that rightly surrounds its spectacular migrations in North America and Mexico,” said Turland via email.

“In Jamaica, very few people have heard of the blue kite swallowtail or remember its colourful mass migrations from Rozelle in St Thomas parish through Kingston in the 1960s,” he said. “Even fewer will have seen this butterfly.”

Turland and Turner want the IUCN to list the blue kite swallowtail as critically endangered, and have prepared a research paper making the case. The butterfly is currently listed as vulnerable.

Much more has to be done to save the species, and the men have suggested ways to do so — including employing and training wardens to patrol breeding sites.

Another butterfly found only in Jamaica — the yellow and black Homerus swallowtail (aka the giant Jamaican swallowtail, the largest butterfly in the Americas) — is listed as endangered. The men are pushing for another Jamaican endemic — the Atlantea pantoni or Panton’s fritillary — to be categorised as endangered by the IUCN.

“It is the continuing loss of habitat year by year that is at the root of the problem for all species, not just in Jamaica but worldwide,” said Turland.

Jamaica is the only country in the English-speaking Caribbean with endemic butterflies on the IUCN list. This doesn’t mean Jamaicans are taking less care of their butterflies. It suggests the opposite.

To be listed requires advocacy from people monitoring the welfare of the animals. An animal not being on the list doesn’t mean it isn’t threatened. It means its situation hasn’t been brought to the attention of the IUCN.

Jamaica has a long history of charismatic scientists advocating on behalf of butterflies, starting with John Parnell in the 1960s. A short documentary he released in 1985 first highlighted the plight of the Homerus swallowtail.

His students, Tom Turner and Eric Gallaway, continued in his footsteps after he left the country in 1984. Both write books and papers, and give talks about the country’s butterflies and the need to protect them. They keep track of population levels at breeding sites.

Making an online presentation to the Natural History Society of Jamaica (NHSJ), Gallaway tells of how he, Parnell, and others — in a demonstration of dedication — camped in the forest for weeks in a van with no air-conditioning, getting showered with rain, to film Parnell’s documentary.

Turner spent six years tracing the origins of the blue kite swallowtail. He and Turland took more than eight years to research their book, with Turland capturing the very first images of many of Jamaica’s butterflies at all stages of their lifecycle. He photographed 126 of Jamaica’s 138 butterfly species (and 40 of the 43 endemic ones) — a painstaking task.

“In all, we spent eight years of regular field work, visiting all corners of Jamaica, trying to get photographic records. Even then, there were rare species that we observed on only one or perhaps two occasions … Two of these not photographed are known only from a museum specimen and the other — well, who knows? Very elusive,” he said.

Through their arduous work, the duo discovered the first butterfly genus endemic to Jamaica (Troyus turneri or Turner’s gold-striped skipper), and a new species: Pyrisitia euterpiformis turlandi or Jamaican yellow.

By protecting butterflies, he said, we’re protecting the environment and human welfare

Deforestation and limestone and bauxite mining in Jamaica threaten butterflies and other wildlife, as well as charcoal-making and the expansion of human settlements and roads.

Oxandra lanceolata, the plant the blue kite larvae feed on (known colloquially as lancewood), is cut down in large numbers to make “yam sticks”, which are used to hold up the vines of that popular human staple.

“This practice is a major contributor to deforestation in Jamaica,” Turner said in an online presentation to the London Natural History Society.

The situation is not entirely bleak. Dr Gallaway and colleagues have been working for decades on community engagement, and their efforts have reaped rewards.

The Wildlife Protection Act was amended in 1988 to include the Homerus swallowtail. And a system of protected areas was established in 1990. The National Environment & Planning Agency banned collection of the blue kite and Homerus swallowtail.

When the government in 2017 announced a bauxite mining project in Cockpit Country — a rugged stretch of rainforest, hills and caves that is rich in biodiversity and contains breeding sites for the threatened butterflies — it drew protests. The project has been delayed.

Gallaway told the NHSJ about his encounter with three little girls when he went to Millbank to do field research after having not visited for a long while.

“Three young girls came out of the river and threatened to call the police to arrest me. Because I was going to capture the butterfly,” he said, sounding pleased. “This was the highpoint of my life as a conservation biologist. The message had come down the generations, guys!”

Concern for protecting the butterflies has waned partly because of increasing economic hardship in recent years. In discussing ways to protect Jamaica’s butterflies while helping residents and the country earn income, Dr Gallaway has suggested butterfly farming, something that has been highly successful in Belize.

Turland is sceptical that farming would help the blue kite swallowtail.

“For farming purposes, it would be essential to find and collect late-stage larvae and rear them to the pupal stage in readiness for release into the wild before emergence as an adult,” he said. And this would be a challenge given that, in some years, adult emergences are not recorded, and numbers are very low. “A lot more research is needed to determine the feasibility of this approach,” he said.

Garraway has acknowledged farming would not be a quick fix. It would be many years before it yields benefits.

Turland said there has been a positive response to his and Turner’s call for action on the blue kite swallowtail. The organisation Coastal Area Management Foundation has prepared a four-year conservation action plan — sponsored by the European Union — for the subpopulation of the species located in Portland Bight, a protected area.

Turland has trained community members to identify the butterfly and report sightings. “Once our paper is published, we would very much hope that similar interest will be shown in the other subpopulations,” he said.

By protecting butterflies, he said, we’re protecting the environment and human welfare.

“The loss of habitat for butterflies, which may often be caused by reduction in forest cover,” he said, “has a tangible link to rainfall patterns, and perhaps availability of good quality and sufficient drinking water in a world where climate change is a stark reality … In caring for butterflies, we are directly benefiting ourselves.”

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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