Our home library in Georgia is brimming with all kinds of dog-eared books about adventure, conservation, economics and science. The exception is a dozen of wooden boxes piled up high on top of the shelves, smelling of camphor and filled with pin-mounted butterflies. When my kids beg, I open the box named “Ecuador, 1995” and show them both sides of the most valuable insect among them—the Agrias claudina sardanapalus.

Olaf Malver's children looking at butteflies

This beautiful South American butterfly is prized by collectors and was first discovered by the legendary British naturalist Henry Bates. With its intricate patterns, purple-red and blue lustered forewings, and brilliantly sapphire-blue hind wings, it is simply stunning; one of the most magnificent butterflies that nature has ever produced.

Bates wrote:

“It is quite impossible to capture it except when it is sitting. The first specimens I saw were baited by the sap exuding from a tree… the continual coming and going of the greedy predators made this wonderful Agrias extremely timid and wary, so that I could not grasp it. When being met alone in the roads sitting on defilements, it was much easier to capture, but only three or so times during the long years in the Amazon did I succeed meeting it in such a sedentary position.”

Agrias claudina sardanapalus

Image credit: Hectonichus, via Wikimedia commons

So how did this hard-to-catch jewel of nature end up in my possession? Well, 23 years ago I stepped into a bar in Banos, Ecuador, after climbing the nearby volcano Tungurahua (sounds like the beginning of a bad bar joke—but wait!). It turned out that the blue-eyed waitress behind the counter was Danish, and we quickly connected in our mother tongue. She told me that her Quechua husband was a professional butterfly collector and had something special to show me. From beneath the bar desk came a collection of neotropical butterflies, and the Agrias was among them. She confirmed Bates’ assertion that this one was particularly difficult to catch. However, if one thoroughly mixed pee from a menstruating woman with fermented banana paste into a bowl, the smell of the brew would lure this middle-canopy butterfly down. The alcohol from the fermenting brew would make the butterfly drunk, sedated and easy to catch. An old Quechua trick!

I purchased the magnificent Agrias in addition to a few other easier-to-get and more common butterfly species, packed them all up in glassine envelopes and brought them home, where I mounted them on pins in a box above my natural history books. These butterflies became the start of a lifelong obsession with these beautiful creatures.

Butterflies - Agrias Claudina Sardanapalus

Image credit: William Chapman Hewitson, via Wikimedia Commons

Through my new brotherhood of butterfly collectors, I subsequently heard about a conservation initiative in Papua New Guinea—sustainable butterfly ranching. The concept behind this initiative was to teach locals living next to a threatened habitat to harvest a few of the butterflies at the edge of that same area. This could create a sustainable income higher than what they could earn from destructive logging, slash-and-burn farming practices, or poaching. In other words, this could be an economic incentive to conserve the forest.

The rain forest in Papua New Guinea is home to the largest and priciest butterfly family in the world—the birdwings, which are swallowtails belonging to the genera Trogonoptera, Troides, and Ornithoptera. Due to their huge size and brightly colored males, they are much sought after by butterfly collectors, and can be easily ranched on specific vines on small plots of village land. Today, the worldwide butterfly trade is in the tens of million dollars annually, mostly driven by the decorative market in Asia. For some Papuan communities, these conservation initiatives generate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. This income is more than enough to justify the preservation of the larger butterfly habitat, the adjacent reservoir of the primary tropical forest. The principle of sacrificing a few of the butterflies for the sake of preserving the larger habitat (and all other species within it)—including 99.5 percent of the same butterflies—has proven successful.

I loved the logic behind the sustainable use of natural resources as a innovative way of conserving threatened habitat and saw the potential for expanding the concept to other threatened wild butterfly habitats. The key was to identify other communities near habitats in peril that had a connection with butterflies embedded in their culture (the Papuans have this, for sure). The habitats also had to have enough valuable butterflies that they could be ranched sustainably and profitably.

So my family and friends created a little non-governmental organization—The Wings for the Earth (WFTE)—which addressed this need by bringing scientists, communities and larger NGOs such as Conservation International together to catalyze the implementation a network of sustainable butterfly ranching projects in the tropics. Projects were initiated in Colombia and Uganda, and one of the most memorable fundraising events took place in San Francisco. The theme of this artistic event was “Wings!” and we had volunteers from the San Francisco Ballet fluttering across the stage as courting butterflies, insect poetry being read aloud, and even buzzing blues songs being performed to the donors. All in the spirit of supporting insect habitat conservation.

Apart from the jungle field work, we also brought together zoo management from across the U.S. They were realizing the benefit of showing more than just large primates to their visitors. It turned out that enclosed habitats filled with live butterflies were a huge success, especially with families. What could be more magical for a kid than to have a beautiful butterfly land on the palm of their hand and quietly lick some salt? These insectariums are still very popular today and provide educational, financial, and conservation links to the sustainable butterfly ranch initiatives worldwide.

Monarch butterflies, El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, Mexico

It was therefore with great satisfaction when I later discovered that Natural Habitat Adventures also was involved in conservation-oriented butterfly projects. Each year, NHA offers clients the opportunity to visit the monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico. These are the wintering grounds for monarch butterflies that have migrated south from the Northern Hemisphere over several generations. Our guests, many of whom are wildlife aficionados, are simply blown away by the display of these small critters. To stand quietly in a monarch butterfly glen is an almost surreal experience, with millions of monarch butterflies covering the fir trees in a quivering blanket of black and orange. When they lift off, the sky gets darker and you can actually hear the myriad of butterflies’ wings beating.

The local communities around the monarch sanctuaries benefit from tourists coming to the marvel this natural phenomenon. Our friends at WWF also support tree nurseries that help restore the forest in the monarch reserves. The success of these butterfly enterprises shows that ecotourism can be as viable a source of economic well-being as natural resource development.

Butterfly tourism, sustainable butterfly ranching and zoo insectariums are all great conservation initiatives based on insects—we should be indebted to our small planetary co-inhabitants. They are a key part of solving the difficult global conservation puzzle.

Thank you, butterflies!