Preserving the Ecological Diversity of the Planet: Conservation of the World’s smallest butterfly, the Sinai Baton Blue.
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Nottingham
Unit of AssessmentBiological Sciences
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Environmental Sciences: Environmental Science and Management
Biological Sciences: Ecology, Other Biological Sciences
Summary of the impact
The Sinai Baton Blue is the world's smallest butterfly, and is restricted
to the St. Katherine Protectorate in the South Sinai region of Egypt.
Research by Francis Gilbert's group on climate change and biodiversity in
Egypt surveyed populations of the butterfly for the first time and ensured
it received IUCN Critically Endangered status. The butterfly became the
focus of biodiversity awareness campaigns in Egypt: appearing on a stamp,
in Government-backed educational programmes in schools, and as the
flagship species for conservation in Egypt's most important National Park.
Current work contributes to international conservation of this extremely
rare species and its host-plant, respecting indigenous Bedouin knowledge,
benefitting their tribal community, and ensuring international
conservation strategies incorporate local pastoralist traditions to
sustain the genetic diversity of the planet.
One of only a few plant and animal species endemic to Egypt, the tiny
Sinai Baton Blue (Pseudophilotes sinaicus) is the world's smallest
butterfly1. It occurs only in Egypt's St Katherine Protectorate
above an altitude of 1800 m, within an area of just 7 km2,
dependent upon a single endangered host-plant, Sinai Thyme (Thymus
decussatus) on whose flowers both the adults and larvae feed1,2.
Its stronghold is Jebel Safsafa, the massif from which Mt Sinai springs.
Marooned on the tops of the Sinai mountains by climate change over 5000
years, and isolated on each side by the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, the
butterfly and its host-plant inhabit a very harsh, hyper-arid, mountainous
environment, which may suffer years of little or no rainfall3.
Barely recorded since its discovery and classification by Nakamura in
1975, the Sinai Baton Blue has been rediscovered and studied intensively
by Francis Gilbert's research group from 2000 onwards, both in the field
(Mike James, 2000-4; Amy Shepherd, 2009-10; Katy Thompson, 2009-12) and by
modelling (Martin Hoyle, 2000-4). In 2001, the entire world population was
surveyed, with adult numbers estimated at 3000. Some 50 patches of Sinai
thyme were also catalogued, only two-thirds of which are occupied by
butterfly populations. The butterflies are not particularly good fliers,
but low levels of butterfly movement between patches maintain the species
as a meta-population, distributed amongst the patches of thyme1.
Larvae of the butterfly live in a complex dependency on two species of
ants, one of which is nurtured by the caterpillars. This ant species then
protects the larvae from predation by the other1,2.
Threats to the survival of the butterfly include anthropogenic climate
change, the effects of grazing by goats and camels tended by Bedouin
herdsmen, human disturbance by visitors to the National Park, and
collection of the host-plant for medicinal purposes, all pushing both the
butterfly and host-plant towards extinction. This was demonstrated by a
second survey a year later, by which time the population had crashed to
only 601,2. Gilbert's research suggests numbers fluctuate in a
three-year cycle, with lows that threaten the species' survival3.
Modelling4 showed that extinction was highly likely if the
effects of global warming continue. Two central large patches of thyme
have been shown to be critical to long-term survival of the butterfly
meta-population. This remains the only comprehensive study of the impact
of climate change on biodiversity in Egypt, with important implications
for conservation projects throughout the world.
Gilbert's group are now concentrating on the role of patchiness, grazing,
and synchrony (both of the butterfly with the host-plant and among
butterfly and host-plant populations) on the survival of the
meta-population5,6. The host-plant populations flower at
surprisingly different times, while butterfly emergence is more uniform
across populations. However, the poor flight capability of the butterfly
restricts its ability to migrate to other flowering host-plant patches.
Understanding what triggers flowering is therefore critical to survival of
the butterfly. Grazing had previously been designated the main threat to
the thyme, and measures were instigated to control grazing. However,
Bedouin herdsmen — traditionally expert in local ecology — claim that the
plants need grazing to produce the flowers upon which the butterfly
depends7. The group's ongoing experiments on artificial grazing
and fertilising indicate that limited grazing does not harm the plants.
This offers a mutually-beneficial long-term conservation strategy based on
locally-managed, controlled grazing to promote new plant growth to feed
butterflies and livestock.
References to the research
Key Publications (Nottingham authors shown in bold, key author
1. James M, Gilbert F and Zalat S (2003) Thyme and
isolation for the Sinai Baton Blue butterfly (Pseudophilotes sinaicus).
Oecologia 134: 445-453. DOI 10.1007/s00442-002-1123-1
2. James M (2006) The natural history of the Sinai Baton Blue:
the smallest butterfly in the world. Egyptian Journal of Biology 8: 67-85.
A pdf copy of this article is available and can be provided.
3. Gilbert F, Rashad S, Kamel M, El Din IA, James M
and Zalat S (2010) Monitoring of the endemic Sinai Baton Blue butterfly
Pseudophilotes sinaicus in the St Katherine Protectorate, South Sinai.
Egyptian Journal of Biology 12: 18-26. A pdf copy of this article is
available and can be provided.
4. Hoyle M and James M (2005) Global warming, human
population pressure and viability of the world's smallest butterfly.
Conservation Biology 19(4): 1113-1124. DOI:
5. Newbold T, Gilbert F, Zalat S, El-Gabbas A and
Reader T (2009) Climate-based models of spatial patterns of species
richness in Egypt's butterfly and mammal fauna. Journal of Biogeography
36: 2085-95. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2009.02140.x
6. Leach K, Zalat S and Gilbert F (2013) Egypt's
Protected Area network under future climate change. Biological
Conservation 159: 490-500. DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2012.11.025
7. Grainger J and Gilbert F (2008) Cultural and spiritual
values of Protected Landscapes — the St Katherine case study. pp. 1-17 in
Mallarach JM (ed) Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Landscapes
and Seascapes. IUCN. A pdf copy of this article is available and can be
2011 Mohamed bin Zayed Foundation Species Conservation grant $1500
2011-4 Leverhulme: Sustainability and Bedouin traditions £ 216,849
2012 Mohamed bin Zayed Foundation Species Conservation grant $2500
Details of the impact
The UoN has a long-established track record for conservation of rare
species, starting from the 1970s: Bryan Clarke's studies of evolution
rescued an entire genus of Pacific partulid snail from extinction (for
which he received the Darwin-Wallace  and Darwin  medals). By
developing a suitable diet, these snails were captive-bred in Nottingham
and then zoos worldwide. The UoN's conservation research over the last 40
years provides the background to conservation of the Sinai Baton Blue
butterfly. Francis Gilbert's long-standing research programme in South
Sinai has enabled the work of his research group to have a far-reaching
impact in Egypt and more broadly for conservation worldwide. This work
specifically led to the butterfly being declared Critically Endangered by
the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2012A.
Impact 1: Conservation of Sinai Thyme and the Sinai Baton Blue
The underlying context of the conservation activities is based on changes
to the traditional Bedouin desert-dwelling, nomadic lifestyle. Bedouin
families, usually accompanied by small herds of goats and camels, would
migrate between wadis seeking fresh grazing for their livestock. The
Bedouin managed their grazing lands through a tribal agreement, termed
`hilf', not to graze in certain wadis for a defined periodB.
However, exploitation of traditional grazing land by the Egyptian
government from the 1980s onwards as developments for the Tourist
industry, coupled with a desire by the Bedouin for a higher standard of
living, has resulted in Bedouins settling around the outskirts of cities
and seeking employment within the cityB. This has increased
grazing pressure on the local environment, and led to abandonment of
`hilf' agreements. Fortunately, the inaccessibility of the regions in
which Sinai thyme grows has somewhat protected it from over-grazing.
Nevertheless, the effects of grazing on the condition of the Sinai thyme
and the survival of the butterfly are key to successful conservation
strategies. In 2009, as part of a Rufford Foundation Small Grants AwardC
to an Egyptian collaborator working with Francis Gilbert, fencing was
erected around a central region of thyme to prevent access by livestock.
Paved paths were also laid by local Bedouin workmen (using local stone as
building materials, in keeping with the aesthetics of the region) for use
by tourists visiting the Protectorate (bringing employment and financial
benefits for local tribes). A traditional `hilf' agreement was also
reached with Bedouin herdsmen not to graze their stock near thyme patches
for a defined period during 2009 to determine the effect on the thyme.
This seemed to indicate that the Bedouin were correct and that lack of
controlled grazing may prove harmful to the thyme, threatening the
survival of the butterfly. Such observations are transforming the
conservation strategy of the Protectorate to one that encourages
traditional Bedouin natural resource management.
Impact 2: Ecological Awareness in Egyptian and Tourist populations
St Katherine Protectorate (established in 1996), was declared a UNESCO
World Heritage Site (Cultural Landscape) in 2002. Gilbert's research made
the butterfly a major target for conservation in the Protectorate
management plan in 2003D, which it has continued to be since
2007E. The area has enormous cultural and religious
significance, attracting 300,000 visitors every year and hence provides a
significant opportunity for raising public awareness of its unique
biodiversity. Due to the close collaboration of Gilbert's research group
with the Protectorate, photographs by Mike James feature prominently in
the Protectorate's Visitor Centre. The butterfly has a display panel to
itself. It features in all of the Protectorate's literature and websites,
has acquired its own Wikipedia pageF, and is emphasised in
ongoing management work and evaluationE. It also featured on an
Egyptian stampG. As a result, countless Egyptians and tourists
have had an opportunity to reflect on its beauty and ecological
importance, all stemming from the efforts of Gilbert's group. Few
organisms receive such exposure and prominence in the public eye, and few
ecological studies can claim such an impact on public awareness.
Gilbert's long-standing association with Egyptian ecology led in 2005 to
his appointment as International Director of BioMAPH, a
$1-million Egypt-wide project running from 2005-8 inclusive, aimed at
improving biodiversity research, monitoring and assessment across the
Egyptian national park network. Project outputs included raising public
awareness of biodiversity among Egyptians, which was woefully low despite
indications of interest among young people. Its public awareness campaign
targeted school children and the educated elite. A set of children's
stories were writtenI, each structured around a different
environmental issue using a particular organism in a specified Protected
Area. One of these was based on the biology of the Sinai Baton Blue
(called `Farfousha' — farasha is Arabic for `butterfly').
Gilbert's group wrote, produced and printed four sets of each story (two
Arabic, two English), with one pair aimed at young children aged 4-8, and
the other at the 10-14 age-group. The story was converted into a short
claymation film (Wallace-and-Gromit-style clay animation) in ArabicI.
In collaboration with the Ministry of Education, a team of people was then
commissioned to take these stories to more than 100 schools, and also to
out-of-school clubs and school conferences all over Egypt. In each school,
a lecture was given to 100-300 participants, followed by a discussion and
writing/art competition, with prizes given by the Ministry of Education.
More than 5300 books and 1350 CDs were distributed in this way. A further
output of the story was a booklet and PowerPoint presentationG,I
on the science behind each story, aimed at teachers and other adults.
These materials are used as teaching resources in school in all regions of
Egypt to this day.
Senior-level dissemination of Sinai Baton Blue educational materials on
climate change and biodiversity conservation was achieved in national and
international presentations to policy-makers by the head of Egypt's Nature
Conservation Sector — the Government official responsible for Egypt's
national parks. Additionally, academics, wildlife consultants and Nature
Conservation Sector staff were trained in the Red Listing of Egyptian
fauna and flora, at a workshop run by BioMAP and the IUCN in 2007, using
the Baton Blue as a model.
Thus the Sinai Baton Blue butterfly has become one of the best-known
examples internationally of biodiversity within Egypt, as a direct result
of Gilbert's research work.
Impact 3: Influencing Worldwide Conservation Policies
Unchallenged narratives of pastoral destructiveness have informed
conservation policies worldwide. In Egypt, the Protectorate's conservation
policy remains grounded in the assumption that overgrazing of the
host-plant by Bedouin herders is the most significant threat to the
butterfly's survival. However, both indigenous knowledge and recent
research by Gilbert's group cast doubt on that assumption, providing the
evidence needed to challenge the Protectorate's policy, to allow instead
an effective, evidence-based conservation policy to be applied. This sets
a precedent for replication elsewhere. Adoption of traditional land
management habits into local conservation policies across the globe will
have beneficial repercussions for conservation strategy and pastoralist
indigenous peoples worldwide.
Sources to corroborate the impact
A. Thompson K and Gilbert F (2012) Pseudophilotes
sinaicus. In: IUCN (2012) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Version 2012.1. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/195289/0.
C. El-Din IA (2010) Sinai Baton Blue butterfly conservation project.
Rufford Small Grant Foundation, Final report;
D. Grainger J (2003) The St Katherine Protectorate Management Plan
Reference Edition. Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), Cairo.
E. Paleczny D et al (2007) The state of St Katherine Protectorate and
World Heritage Site: an evaluation of management effectiveness. EEAA,
I. Zalat S & Gilbert F (2007) The Sinai Baton Blue: the story of the
smallest butterfly. BioMAP, EEAA, Cairo. (4 versions + animation film)
J. Gilbert F et al (2007) Climate change and biodiversity conservation in
Egypt. BioMAP, EEAA, Cairo.
Corroborative documents and copies of webpages are held on file and are
available on request.