A Rare Gem in Puerto Bueno: The Endangered Blue Kite Swallowtail

Let’s take a pause.

As the debate over Puerto Bueno Mountain appears to be becoming more rancorous (at least on social media), I would like to point to what I consider a critical aspect of what has become a “controversy.”

A great deal has been said lately about “environmentalists” – a label that has become almost derogatory. Now, it may not be well known to some Jamaicans (or even to our political leaders and their followers) – but this term encompasses a large and diverse group of people of all ages and backgrounds. Some are advocates like myself (I am not a trained scientist at all, but I am continuously learning from scientists); others are post-graduate science students immersed in their studies and raising their voices (the “Youth for Puerto Bueno”); many are simply those who love Jamaica and its natural resources, and do not wish to see them destroyed – including many tourists and regular visitors to the island.

Most importantly, many of those who are opposed to the mining operation in Puerto Bueno are actually scientists. They are botanists, they are ornithologists, they are geologists, they are marine biologists, they are climate scientists, they are chemists, they are physicists, they are entomologists, they are zoologists. These specialties (and more) are their life’s work. They conduct research (in the field, in laboratories, in libraries and often collaborating with other scientists), they write books, they teach, they present at conferences.

These are the scientists. They are not “unqualified” people, as the CEO of the mining company suggested in a media interview today.

One of these dedicated and learned scientists is Vaughan A. Turland, a Jamaican entomologist and Fellow of the Royal  Entomological Society of London. He is co-author of Discovering Jamaican Butterflies and their Relationships around the Caribbean. Here is what he has written about one precious endemic (meaning: it lives nowhere else in the world) butterfly that lives in the dry limestone forest of Puerto Bueno – the Blue Kite swallowtail.

Many thanks to Vaughan for specially writing this piece for my blog.

The Blue Kite swallowtail (Protographium marcellinus). Photo: Copyright Vaughan Turland

In the 1960’s the Blue Kite swallowtail, Protographium marcellinus, would swarm, dashing like blue flashes of light, through the streets of Kingston after its annual emergence. This sight though is sadly gone forever because of the progressive and ongoing loss of its very specialised habitat and breeding needs. Indeed, the outlook for the continued survival of this spectacular endemic Blue Swallowtail is not favourable. In 1985 when it was first listed in the IUCN Red Data Book, there were five known sub-populations across the island. Since then, destruction of habitat has probably led to the extirpation from at least two of these previously “permanent” breeding sites. The decline in numbers observed has been very rapid and the species is now assessed by some experts as “Endangered”. Of the remaining three small sub-populations the one in the dry limestone forest in the environs of Rio Bueno is an important key to the very survival of the species, and is its sole breeding site in northern Jamaica.

Interestingly, this spectacular Jamaican butterfly only has one larval food plant, Lancewood, Oxandra lanceolata upon which it is entirely dependent. Once the food plant is removed from the breeding site, the butterfly has nowhere to lay its eggs and the larvae, if there were still any, would have nothing to eat. As it is the butterfly only emerges once annually in any numbers, usually around May or June. In some years, there may also be a small emergence in October. In essence, the larvae pupate in leaf litter beneath the food plant trees and lay dormant for many months. Then after the May or October rain when the Lancewood is stimulated to produce fresh tender leaves suitable for oviposition, the butterflies emerge and the cycle starts again.

It was notable that in 2020, very few adult butterflies were seen across the island in May and June, and even fewer in October. The species is undoubtedly on a knife edge and clearance of any site where its larval food plant exists will accelerate the demise of the Blue Kite swallowtail. Dust from any mining operations would of course not just be restricted to the quarrying sites but would be wind-blown for many miles around. Leaves of larval food plants would be covered in this dust, making them unsuitable for larvae to eat and develop on. This reduction in surviving larvae would quickly result in loss of critical mass of the colony and its demise.

That would be a very sad day for Jamaica as custodian and protector of this exquisite species of butterfly that lives nowhere else on earth.

Copies of the book co-authored by Vaughan Turland at the launch at the Institute of Jamaica’s Natural History Museum

We criticize the outgoing President Trump for ignoring science; I sincerely hope that our political leaders, and the mining companies they favor, are not seen to be guilty of the same offence. Unfortunately, these leaders and their associates seem to think they know better than the experts (who are, of course, not always useful, depending on the opinions they give).

Meanwhile, I am thinking about this gem of a butterfly, flitting in the forests of Puerto Bueno Mountain, gleaming blue and red.

There is nothing wrong with beauty, and nothing wrong with wanting it to be preserved for future generations.

Puerto Bueno Mountain (Photo: Wendy Lee)

4 thoughts on “A Rare Gem in Puerto Bueno: The Endangered Blue Kite Swallowtail

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