Chin’s Butterfly Gallery
CHIN'S BUTTERFLY GALLERY ~ NOTEBOOK ~ MALAYSIA'S VERY OWN KING OF BUTTERFLIES
Malaysia’s very own king of butterflies
By Simon Chan
AS BUTTERFLY ENTHUSIASTS, we have often heard comments about the beauty or sheer size of the Papua New Guinea birdwings, such as Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae). The female of this species, though rather drab, is the world's largest butterfly with a wingspan of 28cm (just over 11 inches). In contrast, the smaller male has uniquely shaped wings awashed with glittering colours of blue, green, yellow and black. Close contenders for the beauty stakes are the Morphos of South America. With luminescent colours which may range from silvery white to iridescent blue, they are surely some of the world's most beautiful butterflies. So magnificent are they that ancient civilisations used them as jewellery. Thank goodness this practice has been outlawed.
Many a time we have looked at a foreign land and remarked that "the grass is always greener on the other side", even in the matter of natural assets. Most of us are ignorant about, or fail to appreciate, the flora and fauna of our own country. Sometimes, it takes an outsider to remind us of our immensely rich natural heritage that we should treasure and cherish.
In the case of butterflies, the Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing (Troides brookiana) can rival the most beautiful species from other parts of the world. This birdwing was discovered by famous British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace during one of his expeditions to Borneo in 1855. He named it in honour of his friend Sir James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak.
I remember the first time I saw the Rajah Brooke... or rather a drawing of it. I was only ten years old then. My elder brother had borrowed a book from a school friend whose father was an entomologist. Its pages were filled with colourful illustrations and descriptions of some of the commoner butterflies of Peninsular Malaysia. What struck me at the time were the virtually unpronounceable names attached to each butterfly. This I found out a few months later to be the scientific names, which were almost always Latin.
My immediate impression then was one of disbelief; the butterfly looked more like a creation from an artist’s fertile imagination than anything that was real. Visualise this. All the wings on the upperside were of a uniform jet-black colour. On each forewing, which was extremely long than wide, there were altogether seven luminous green triangles, each with a faint black line bisecting it horizontally. Of the seven, the two triangles nearest the dorsum, or the horizontal part of the forewing, were joined. On each of the very much smaller hindwings the green pattern became a broad band near the wing bases, broken up only by the black veins that radiated from the wing cell. To top it all there was a red hollow triangular mark on its neck, reminiscent of a musical instrument not unlike those found in a symphony orchestra. In retrospect, although the artist had taken certain liberties in portraying the insect, the overall picture is a true one. Looking at it now, I find it particularly surprising that even though the Malaysian forests are among the oldest on Earth, the pattern on this butterfly seems ultra modern. Certainly the fauna here would have a longer time to evolve and change than the rest of the world. Whatever the case, nature sure works in wondrous ways, although I am of the impression that God has a hand in most of them.
I saw my first live Rajah Brooke during an end-of-year school excursion to Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, in 1976. We students had alighted from our bus for lunch after what seemed to me a long and horrendous journey from Kuala Lumpur full of many sharp corners expertly negotiated by the elderly bus driver. It had appeared quite suddenly, looking like a swallow silhouetted against the clear blue sky. Only the flashes of dazzling green hinted at its true identity. It was a male gliding towards our direction on its way to the forested hills behind us. Like the birds that were circling the skies then, it was also taking full advantage of the lift created by the thermals to reach its destination.
On a recent trip to Fraser’s Hill, my NSS (Nature Society Singapore) buddies and I were most fortunate to see more than 20 Rajah Brookes over a span of three days. The highlight of the entire trip must be the sighting of five magnificent females fluttering about the canopy of a 50-ft high flowering tree on our second day there. The female possesses the same ‘handsome’ characteristics of the male, although the green colour is not as deep. What she lacks in luminescence, she adequately makes up by having an additional colour, that of white on the tips of her forewings and as submarginal spots on her hindwings. There were also ten males, each trying his utmost to out-display the others for the attention of the females. This episode mirrored scenes in a singles bar where the males would try to pick up the females. For most of the time, the females were indifferent to the antics of the males, preferring to spend each precious second sipping the nutritious nectar. This they did with their wings opened flat, exposing their charms for all to see and teasing the males no end with this flirtatious posture. Up till then the only female specimens the four of us have ever seen were dead ones in glass frames exhibited at souvenir shops. Furthermore, of the
A female Rajah Brooke's Birdwing. Copyright © Chin Fah Shin.
three who joined me on this trip, two had not seen this species before, let alone the female. So you could just imagine our joy in witnessing this rare event. In fact, we all agreed that this one sighting alone was worth the trip. But that was not all that we saw. We encountered many other species, including the very rare White-headed Batwing.
Nothing comes close to the thrill one experiences on seeing a Rajah Brooke in flight. The overwhelming sense of exhilaration defies words. It is certainly a sight to behold, one that will remain etched in our memory. Some butterfly watchers who have been lucky enough to see this have likened the Rajah Brooke's flight manuoevres to the dance movements of that hauntingly beautiful ballet, the Swan Lake.
They say opportunity knocks but once. So, we were indeed very lucky as we had three excellent opportunities to see the Rajah Brooke at close quarters. In flight, the green triangles on the forewings and the broad green bands on the hindwings merge to form a long band of shining green on black. We were having lunch at the Gap rest house (at the foot of Fraser's Hill) when a big male flew past. It was only about two metres (seven feet) away, and we could even see the double red stripes on its thorax and its legs tucked tightly against the body.
Unfortunately, the very same qualities that have made the Rajah Brooke an icon of Malaysia's rich natural heritage have also rendered it highly coveted by collectors and souvenir hunters for a long time. Each year an estimated 100,000 specimens are captured in the wild to meet the demands of collectors worldwide. If this carnage continues unchecked, the future of this remarkable creature will be very bleak indeed. Although the Rajah Brooke has been declared a protected species, more needs to be done to ensure the survival of this species. Action will no doubt speak louder than words.
Until recently, its life history was quite unknown although the larval food-plant was believed to be one or more of the Aristolochia species... a conclusion no doubt based on the fact that many birdwing species feed on them. In Singapore, one good example of this is the Common Birdwing (Troides helena), a threatened species whose very existence hangs in the balance. As vast tracts of land are being cleared for development, its food-plant, Aristolochia tagala, which was once very common, has dwindled to just pockets in the Central Catchment Area.
The Rajah Brooke's larval food-plant is now known to be Aristolochia foveolata. Its life history has been described by Chey Vun Khen in the Malaysian Naturalist (Vol. 51 No. 2) (a quarterly magazine produced by the Malaysian Nature Society) in an article entitled "Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing ~ From A Caterpillar To A King". Even before this, some butterfly farms had succeeded in breeding the species. Now that its life history is no longer a secret, it is fervently hoped that butterfly farms all over the country will initiate breeding programmes instead of "harvesting" these butterflies from wild populations.
Much can be learned from the efforts of the Rainforest Habitat, a project undertaken by the Insect Farming and Trading Agency in liaison with the Papua New Guinea Wildlife Division, where vast areas of virgin forests and the rare Goliath Birdwing (Ornithoptera goliath samson) have been saved. With the success of this project, the villagers living on the forest fringe are assured of a consistent livelihood. Where previously these same villagers had used the slash and burn method to grow cash crops, they now cultivate the known types of larval food-plants for breeding butterflies... a scheme that ensures the survival of butterfly species and a livelihood for man that is far less destructive to the rainforests that sustains the both of them.
The biggest threat to the survival of other creatures is man. Somehow we must find it in our hearts to co-exist in harmony with the other species on this Earth. There is an urgent need now more than ever to preserve our rainforests and its inhabitants so that they will still be around for our children to enjoy. Obviously, as nature lovers, all of us would like to see that man succeeds in maintaining sufficient habitats for the other species. I for one would like to see that becoming a reality because, in the case of the Rajah Brooke, it would mean the survival of one of world's most beautiful butterfly species, our very own King of Butterflies. Copyright © Simon Chan
THIS PAGE REVISED ON MARCH 24, 2018. COPYRIGHT © Chin Fah Shin.