My family-run, home-based travel agency’s name is TROJANA World Travel. I love butterflies, so I named the agency after the magnificent birdwing butterfly, the Trogonoptera trojana, found only in Palawan and nowhere else in the world.
After ten years of existence, I have noticed that my agency’s name still has a poor recall among my regular passengers, consolidators, and airline staff. Likewise, in Palawan, when you mention the name Trojana, it does not ring a bell at all even to the locals despite this butterfly being in the midst of their existence for hundreds of years. Only a handful of people, like those who live in the forest areas, know the Trojana very well—although when I ask them if they have heard of the birdwing, they would give me a cautious look and choose to remain mum. But if you nudge them a little more, start being comical, or sound curious but seemingly uninterested, or maybe take their photos for a souvenir shot, they will soon finally start to share and show some specimens of their favorite butterfly catch. Catching Trojana butterflies is a source of livelihood for these mountain folks. They have been trained by butterfly traders on how to easily catch them in the wild, and how to preserve the fragile specimens with chemicals and neatly wrap them in wax paper ready for turnover. They have also been taught to keep silent about their trade.
The Trogonoptera trojana is one of the largest and most beautiful of the birdwing butterflies. It has a wide wingspan (15cm.), soars very high, and flies long distances. It also has a very strong similarity to Malaysia’s Trogonoptera brookiana. Because of its beauty and size, the Trojana is a highly priced butterfly and is very much in demand among foreign collectors, traders, and exporters supplying butterfly houses all over the world. This is unfortunately why the Trojana is in the protected species list of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
It should be another icon of Palawan, similar to the Palawan Peacock-Pheasant, But as the motto of the International Lepidoptera Society goes, “You cannot protect that which you do not know.” Over-collection and habitat destruction are the two major threats facing Trojana butterflies. Overgrazing, indiscriminate clearing, slash and burn (kaingin), introduction of exotic plant/tree species that are not host to the local wildlife, land conversions for housing and agriculture, and misguided eco-tourism projects that happen inside our remaining forests can create irreversible consequences. With butterflies, the disappearance of the larval food plants as well as the nectar sources for the adult butterfly can lead to the extinction of the species. The loss of butterflies can indicate that thousands of other smaller wildlife and organisms may be suffering the same fate.
According to the local folks, the Trojana used to congregate in large numbers along the riverbanks to drink. Children used to catch them by the hundreds. Now, in a river where they usually congregate, one is lucky to see even one Trojana drinking.
In Mt. Salakot in Puerto Princesa, a portion of the forest had been cleared to build a resort (now dilapidated) and a road to the military camp. As someone familiar with the Trojana traverses the road, numerous very old Aristolochia foveolota vines, the larval host of the species, could be seen cut down. Stumps of the old vines can also be found near the Salakot Waterfalls. Why were they cut down? It is simply because people don’t know.
It is ironic that even in tree planting activities in the wild, a great portion of the undergrowth is cleared. People need to be aware that the vegetation around and under the trees are hosts to a thousand species of insects. As a matter of fact, more than half of the animal kingdom depends on the lower vegetation.
Learning about the relationship of caterpillars (the larva, the immature butterfly) with trees, plants and grass is learning about ecology, about biodiversity and about the relationship of all life forms.
The butterfly man of Palawan, Roy Rodriguez, who has been familiar with the birdwing since he was a young boy, trains the locals who live in the forests how to “ranch” the Trojana. The idea is to continuously plant the larval host plants (from seeds or cuttings) to keep the cycle of the butterfly’s life going. After a period of time, they can catch the adults but leave enough parental species to reproduce in the wild. They earn from “ranching” the birdwings and at the same time they also become the protectors of the habitat.
I go butterfly watching with a friend every year in Palawan. Butterfly watching has not gained popularity among nature lovers yet. The butterflies’ predators have more following. Birdwatching is fast becoming a favorite nature activity among locals who have learned to appreciate and care for the environment because of the beauty of our birds. Likewise, butterfly watching can be a means to introduce to nature enthusiasts the wonderful, colorful world of butterflies and their role in our ecosystem. Butterflies are not only important for their aesthetic and economic value; they act as environmental barometers by telling us if the air we breathe is safe or not, and if the health of our forests are in peril. The beautiful Trojana, the Creator’s gift to Palawan, can be a tool for nature advocacy.
It would be wonderful if in our next visit to Palawan, the good Mayor of Puerto Princesa, will be wearing a shirt with the image of the magnificent birdwing, the Trogonoptera trojana, close to his heart.
[Photo credits: Lydia Robledo]