/ 16 January 2022

Snap a butterfly and Whatsapp it to global census

Butterflies Butterfly Insects Climate Change Mumbai Human Intere
Flutter: Become a citizen scientist and take photos of butterflies. Photo: Sanjay Hadkar/The Times of India/AFP

In an effort to map out the global butterfly population and aid conservation efforts, scientists rely on people to send a picture of a butterfly sighting along with the coordinates. 

Friend of the Earth, an initiative of the World Sustainability Organisation, has launched a Global Butterflies Census as part of a drive to end the rapid decline in butterfly and moth species. The campaign is raising awareness and developing conservation strategies to save the pollinators. 

There are more than 230 000 species of butterflies and moths in the world, according to the organisers, who said the insects served as potential bio-indicators. 

“This means, because of their fragility, butterflies and moths are affected by the slightest changes in the environment, making visible alterations in the ecosystems that would otherwise go unseen.” 

This also means that butterflies and moths are key indicators of the effects of climate change. 

“The monarch butterfly, maybe the most iconic species, has declined by 99% in the past 40 years. The IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] has designated the monarchs’ migration, from Canada and the north of the United States to southern lands, as a threatened phenomenon,” it said. 

Organisers said they need everyone to get on board. Pictures should be taken of the butterfly or butterflies on site and forwarded to WhatsApp number +39 351 252 2520, along with the GPS coordinates, after which a scientist will reply with the name of the species. 

Habitat loss is a significant driver in the decline of these insects and experts said the status of only 1% of butterflies and moths species was known. 

Friend of the Earth is awarding the “butterfly conservation hero” honour to the person who submits the most pictures every month. 

There are an estimated 660 species of butterflies in South Africa, with 52% endemic to the region. The Southern African Lepidoptera Conservation Assessment’s latest report says this means extinctions in the butterfly taxonomy in the country often mean a global extinction of that species.

A four-year study by the Southern African Butterfly Conservation Assessment found that three of the country’s butterflies were now extinct, and a further 60 species and subspecies were threatened with extinction. 

About 18 000 submissions in the data recorded came from the public in that assessment. 

A national biodiversity assessment report in 2019 found that increases in invasive alien plant species and livestock grazing in protected areas, often coupled with poor fire management, had resulted in 49 butterfly taxa (7% of all taxa assessed) dropping a category of protection. 

Thirteen butterfly species became more threatened in the period between 2013 and 2018, according to the South African National Biodiversity Institute. 

Some 18% are listed as conservation concerns while 10% are considered threatened. 

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa