BIG MYS­TERY

The African gi­ant swal­low­tail re­mains an enigma for re­searchers who have never been able to study it as a cater­pil­lar or chrysalis

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES -

Sus­pended from branches high above the ground, Ni­co­las Moulin looked through his binoc­u­lars over a seem­ingly end­less sea of emer­ald green.

Some­where be­neath the for­est canopy was the African gi­ant swal­low­tail: The largest but­ter­fly to ap­pear by day on the African con­ti­nent, vir­tu­ally un­recorded in sci­en­tific an­nals but known to be ven­omous.

The species, known in Latin as Papilio

an­ti­machus, was dis­cov­ered in 1782. Its black-streaked or­ange-brown wings are ex­tra­or­di­nary. They reach up to 25cm (9.8 inches) across, mak­ing it one of the largest but­ter­flies in the world.

But, just as re­mark­able, no­body has ever been able to study the crea­ture in its state as cater­pil­lar or chrysalis - keys to un­der­stand­ing its life cy­cle and longevity.

Seek­ing to un­lock the mys­tery, a pri­vately-fi­nanced French ex­pe­di­tion of about 20 peo­ple set up camp in the far south of the Central African Repub­lic, on the banks of the Lobaye river, which winds like a cop­per snake through pri­mary for­est.

"This is a place for poach­ers - the male (but­ter­flies) come to in­gest min­eral salts on the bank and are cap­tured," Moulin said from his perch 40m above the ground.

Col­lages cre­ated from the wings of but­ter­flies are a prized art form in the CAR and pro­vide a liv­ing for many hunters. Abroad, a gi­ant swal­low­tail spec­i­men can sell for € 1,500.

The males flut­ter close to the ground but the fe­males live right up in the for­est canopy. There, they feast on flow­ers ex­posed to di­rect sun­light and are hardly ever seen.

"This species, like many oth­ers, is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly rare," said the ex­pe­di­tion's se­nior sci­en­tist, en­to­mol­o­gist Philippe An­noyer.

But how rare is the big ques­tion.

P an­ti­machus is so elu­sive that there is in­suf­fi­cient data to de­ter­mine its con­ser­va­tion status.

"The de­tails we have date from the 1960s and con­sist of half a page in a sci­en­tific jour­nal," said An­noyer.

Poi­sonous

The re­searchers spec­u­late that the gi­ant but­ter­fly most likely gets its venom when its cater­pil­lar in­gests the leaves of Stro­phan­thus gra­tus - a thick, woody liana that winds among the tree­tops and bears fla­grant flow­ers.

The team planned to pin­point the flow­ers in the for­est canopy with the help of a drone.

Then, it was hoped, they could set up a so­phis­ti­cated network of ropes en­abling peo­ple to move around the heights to ex­plore the whole length of the liana.

That way, they might find a P an­ti­machus cater­pil­lar, ac­cord­ing to this scheme... even though no­body knew quite what these cater­pil­lars looked like.

The un­cer­tain­ties were no de­ter­rent to sci­en­tists whose faces light up at the sight of a rare fern or a pray­ing man­tis. The team was given three weeks to study in ideal ter­rain.

Hope to breed species

The chal­lenge was rugged but An­noyer, a French­man born in Ivory Coast, was in his el­e­ment.

An en­to­mol­o­gist who might almost be an an­cient bush­man, with chis­elled fea­tures and a thick beard, he has been study­ing the but­ter­flies of central African forests for more than 30 years.

For three decades, An­noyer has also sought to alert the general pub­lic to the ex­tinc­tion of these ex­quis­ite species, largely in vain.

He hopes that in un­veil­ing the cru­cial early stages of the life cy­cle of this African gi­ant, this will en­cour­age peo­ple to breed the but­ter­fly.

"The idea is that the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion will be able to pro­vide in­sects to col­lec­tors and (lo­cal) artists, and this will brake but­ter­fly hunt­ing," he says.

But after three weeks of trekking, climb­ing and mak­ing in­quiries in sur­round­ing vil­lages, the team had still found no trace of the cater­pil­lar or the chrysalis.

Strange si­lence

Around the camp, the for­est fell strangely quiet.

There were no ro­dents on the ground nor pri­mates or birds in the branches.

But wire snares left by hunters were ev­ery­where. Each hol­low in the stream was deep­ened by a hole dug by ar­ti­sanal gold or di­a­mond min­ers en­gaged in the main form of sub­sis­tence for many lo­cal in­hab­i­tants.

The armed groups that con­trol twothirds of the ter­ri­tory in a coun­try long riven by vi­o­lent up­heaval have never taken root in this forested re­gion - but its eco­nomic prospects are as bar­ren as for the rest of the poor, land­locked CAR.

The pass­ing days brought their share of dis­ap­point­ments to the ex­pe­di­tionary team, height­en­ing the frus­tra­tions.

In one trau­matic set­back, army ants found their way into a cage hold­ing one of the few spec­i­mens of male African gi­ant swal­low­tails cap­tured in the ex­pe­di­tion.

The ants de­voured the but­ter­fly in mo­ments, leav­ing just one wing and a flimsy leg to take back to the lab­o­ra­tory.

The last best hopes now lie with botany sam­ples, which may help to iden­tify the plant that fe­male but­ter­flies use to lay their eggs.

But even if this does not work out, the ex­pe­di­tion will at least have en­abled a first-hand look at the state of forests in this im­pov­er­ished con­flict-rav­aged land.

(AFP pho­tos)

Ni­co­las, an en­to­mol­o­gist, scans the canopy of the for­est, corded in a 40m high tree, in search of the but­ter­fly, near Mo­goumba. There is no data to en­sure the con­ser­va­tion status of this species

An ex­pe­di­tion mem­ber notes the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a but­ter­fly on a note­book, near Mo­goumba. In the Lobaye for­est, south­west of the Central African Repub­lic, an ex­pe­di­tion is try­ing to find the first lar­val stage of the gi­ant swal­low­tail

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