The world’s largest butterfly is now also one of the most endangered, surviving only on a tiny plot of coastal rain forest in the Popendetta Valley of eastern Papua New Guinea. The spectacular Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) has been forced into an ever-smaller range by decades of deforestation and natural disaster.
This species, which feeds exclusively on the vines and foliage of local pipevine (Aristolochia) plants and thrives only in lowland old-growth rain forest, lost a large part of its habitat with the eruption of Mount Lamington in 1951. Habitat loss later escalated as forests were cleared for logging and farming— for rubber and cocoa plantations and, increasingly, for large-scale palm-oil operations. To add to the pressure, collectors continue to chip away at this fragile population by paying high prices for Queen Alexandra’s specimens on the black market, even though commercial trade in this species is illegal.