Mysterious Birdwing sheds new light on Mt Kinabalu
Published on: Sunday, May 26, 2019
By: Leonard Alaza
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Since it was first discovered 127 years ago, the Kinabalu Birdwing butterfly (Troides andromache) remains pretty much unknown to the world.

Entomologists and butterfly enthusiasts from around the world have heard about it but most of them have never seen it. The species is so rare and elusive that not much information about it can be found online.

The butterfly – the size of a small dinner plate – is, in the world’s term, non-existent except in Borneo, specifically on Mount Kinabalu.

Indigenous communities living around the mountain must have occasionally sighted it but probably thought it was just one of the many butterflies they often see out there.

But the Kinabalu Birdwing is different. Not just that, it is mysterious.


Dr Sutton showing a moth to visitors at the Sabah Bird and Butterfly Festival held at Kg Kiau Nuluh recently.


It even boggles the scientific mind of one of the world’s most experienced entomologists, Dr Stephen Sutton, who still cannot figure out why this butterfly species is largely distributed in the harsh environment between 1,500 to 2,000 metres above sea level on the sacred mountain.

He could only guess that there was a time the butterfly was driven up to the higher altitude on the mountain in the same way the Celtics people in Britain, who had once controlled the country, were driven out to the west in remote and less productive areas because of the arrival of the Anglo Saxons.

“The worse the weather gets, especially at 2,000 metres, and the cloudier, colder and mistier – you’ll find the butterfly most happy. 

“It’s a paradox because it’s a butterfly… and butterflies only fly in the sunshine. So what is it doing in the worst part of the environment?


School children having a closer look at some stuffed birds.

“The answer is, presumably, there were species at lower altitude which were probably more efficient at utilising resources so they sort of drove them up to higher ground,” he explains. 

Dr Sutton, who is a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society (UK) and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (UK), first sighted the magnificent butterfly five years ago on the mountain and got the international community of scientists and butterfly lovers excited.

“It all started in 2014 when I visited Kinabalu Mountain Lodge. There, I saw this very rare butterfly which I’ve heard about called the Kinabalu Birdwing.

“I observed that every day at around 10am when the sun came up over the hills, they would come down to take nectar from the flowers.

“Then I realised that on a good day, you might get to see three of four of them. It’s not very many at all but for a rare butterfly, it’s a lot.

“This butterfly is hardly seen. I know people, experts in entomology, who haven’t seen it because it’s so rare,” he shares.

When word got around about his “discovery”, the Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust, a UK-based organisation which is the only one in the world tackling the threats to butterflies on a global basis, sent out money so he could carry out a survey. 


Henry with his tools.

No significant research of conservation work is known to have been done since this species was first listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) and on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as Near Threatened.

Endemic to the island of Borneo, the stronghold of this large, beautiful and sexually dimorphic birdwing butterfly now appears to be along the boundary of the Mount Kinabalu National Park.  

“This butterfly has got a very limited distribution. It’s mainly on Mount Kinabalu. There’s a mysterious record from Kalimantan but yet to be verified and we can’t even find its locality,” he says.

If Mount Kinabalu is found to be the butterfly’s last stand, Dr Sutton’s research might be its hope for survival. And he is not alone. Other than his supporters from the UK, the Rotary Club of Kota Kinabalu came on board to help by matching the fund he had received.

The club’s involvement has led to a successful community engagement, particularly with homestay operators in the Kiau Valley, located at the foot of the mountain. 

“Actually, our engagement with the community goes back few years ago after the devastating earthquake that hit the mountain. As a result, the livelihood of the mountain guides were badly affected.

“It dawned upon Dr Sutton to find a way to help them. That’s how it got us to organise the first bird guides training in the hope that with better knowledge, they would be able to get hired as bird guides.

“This led to us organising a bird and butterfly training course in October 2018 and in the following month, we organised the homestay operators in Kiau to start what is called the Kiau Nature Farm where they can plant some unique plants, one of which is a special food plant to attract the Kinabalu Birdwing butterfly,” says Philip Koh, past president of Rotary Club of Kota Kinabalu.

The club also sought financial support from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment on its breeding programme by producing more food plants for the caterpillars. 

The hope for the future is that the breeding programme would not only contribute to science but also give the local indigenous community the opportunity to participate in nature tourism which Mount Kinabalu is already so famous for.


School children admiring some of the butterflies on display during the Sabah Bird and Butterfly Festival.

For one, homestays operated by the villagers of Kg Kiau will benefit financially from an increasing traffic of tourists who come to see the rare butterfly up close.

Dr Sutton and the Rotary Club of Kota Kinabalu have seen how their bird and butterfly course have transformed some of the mountain guides to becoming bird “experts”, and are now earning a living from their self-acquired knowledge.

One of them is 40-year-old Henry Sapinggi who claims to be able to list more than 400 out of the 630 species of birds recorded in a book called Birds of Borneo. It was the first comprehensive guide to the varied avifauna of the island comprising Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak and Kalimantan, Indonesia.

His effort in trying to identify as many birds as he could began when he switched career as a mountain guide to a tourist guide few years ago. 

“Many times when I guide tourists, they would ask me, ‘what bird is that?’ when they see one. I was frequently asked this question. That got me interested in learning about birds so that I’d be able to tell them everything they want to know,” he says.

In 2018, at the Borneo Bird Festival held in Sandakan, Henry’s knowledge about birds earned him and his team-mates a cash prize of RM16,000 after they managed to list 117 bird species.

The father of two children currently works as a freelance tourist guide who gets paid RM500 per day when taking tourists, mostly from Europe, birdwatching. 

He says although he gets hired based on word of mouth, the commission he earns has been able to feed his young family and upgrade his tools of trade such as some high-end binoculars and camera lenses.

“Most of my clients have been those referred to me by tourists whom I have taken birdwatching. It’s nice to be called as a bird specialist although I don’t consider myself to be one because to have such title, I’d have to be a scientist. I’m just someone who is passionate about birds,” he says. 

While birds are his expertise, the Kiau Nuluh native believes that the Kinabalu Birdwing butterfly will certainly be another rising star for Sabah’s eco-tourism industry once the world becomes more aware about it, especially the fact that it is only found on Mount Kinabalu.

Like Henry, newly-inducted Rotarian, Victor Tsen, hopes to gain from the natural gems that the mountain area has to offer.

The 32-year-old is currently developing what he calls a boutique forest lodge near Bundu Tuhan and is hoping the Kinabalu Birdwing butterfly would because the centre of attraction in time to come.

“When I learned about the Kinabalu Birdwing from the Rotary Club of Kota Kinabalu and what the club has been working on with the communities, I thought it would fit well with my project.

“After all, my project is basically based on triple bottom line of responsible tourism which is the three P’s – People, Planet and Profit,” says the young entrepreneur. 

By and large, the Kinabalu Birdwing butterfly is a mystery. But this mysterious species has so far brought many people – a scientist, club known globally for its problem-solving work, the government, an environmentally conscious entrepreneur and humble communities – all on a common path of conservation.

It is hoped that more will follow soon as the butterfly slowly introduces itself fully to the curious world.



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