Egypt’s tiny blue butterfly makes a comeback from near extinction thanks to Covid-19

Lower footfall in Sinai mountains boosting Baton Blue's population, experts say

The Sinai Button Blue butterfly
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The Sinai Baton Blue is thought to be the world’s tiniest butterfly. Smaller than a single pea, it can be tough to spot.

Ever since its discovery in 1975, its azure wings and uncanny ability to live 2,000 meters above sea level in the Sinai Peninsula’s sparse mountains has fascinated scientists. For Egypt, the insect is a national treasure.

Sadly, the micro butterfly has been on the verge of extinction for years.

In 2012, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a body that inventories at-risk animals, declared it critically endangered. Scientists estimated there to be less than 3,000 of the tiny critters left. It ranks among Egypt’s most endangered species.

Its fragile existence stems from the fact that it’s entirely dependent on Sinai thyme, a rare plant.

In recent decades, the thyme has been ravaged by longer periods of drought that scientists attribute to climate change. To make matters worse, the Bedouins have long prized the plant for its use in homeopathic therapy, leading to overcollection.

“It was already an endangered wild plant owing to overcollection for its medicinal qualities and overgrazing by the local Bedouin community” said Samy Zalat, a professor of Ecology at Suez Canal University.

“But the thyme flower’s nectar was sole food source for the Sinai Baton Blue larvae,” said Zalat.

Fluttering back to life

Researchers at Mount Sinai’s St. Katherine Natural Protectorate say they are seeing an upswing in the butterfly’s population. Esmael Hattab, the director of the protectorate, said patrols to assess the area’s biodiversity are reporting growing numbers of the Baton Blue.

“The world’s smallest butterfly is alive and well. Its population is thriving in Farsh Shoeib and Farsh Loza in Mount Sinai,” said Hattab.

It’s part of a wildlife revival in the area. Other species, like the Nubian Ibex, the Greater Spotted Eagle, and the Egyptian vulture are all seeing a recovery after years of dwindling numbers.

“We’re seeing many endangered species flourish in unexpected numbers,” said Hattab.

So what’s going on?

For the Baton Blue, part of the recovery comes down to smart conservation measures. Back in the early 2000s, the St. Katherine Protectorate established protective perimeters around thyme populations, built dams to retain water from flash floods, and banned the collection of thyme.

They even launched an awareness campaign to protect the butterfly that included school visits, children’s books and a claymation film.

But an even bigger factor could simply be that fewer humans are hiking up the mountain.

Since the outbreak of Covid, tourism in Mount Sinai has dipped to a third of what it was. On top of that, security measures imposed in 2017 to curb terror attacks by militant groups have restricted access. With fewer people making the trek, nature has been given space to breathe.

Rainfall has picked up as well: “The region has seen plenty of rainfall last year, and it’s reflecting positively on the thyme population,” said Hattab.

“That can only mean well for the butterfly population.”

Whether the butterfly’s delicate recovery can be sustained comes down to how well the thyme population holds up.

Here too there are positive signals: Bedouins have been grazing thyme less as they switch to more lucrative jobs in areas like tourism, said Hattab

“Grazing is a dying tradition. A new generation, an educated one, is leaving the mountains for better prospects,” said Ramadan Al Gebally, a local Bedouin.

Part of what makes the Baton Blue so special — its diminutive wingspan of just 0.7 centimetres — is also what holds it back. Unable to traverse long distances, it remains isolated on small patches of Sinai’s mountain range. That gives it no chance to achieve genetic diversity, another blow to its long-term survival.

It was long thought to be endemic only to Egypt. If it died out in Sinai, it would be lost to history. That assumption is now being challenged by Zalat, who says he encountered the same butterfly on an expedition last year to a northern region of Saudi Arabia. The area was covered by the same rare species of thyme and was untouched by human traffic.

“I came across the Sinai Baton Blue in a mountain there. I was fascinated, to say the least,” said Zalat. He’s currently working on a study to compare the Saudi butterfly population with Egypt’s.

“Whether it’s here, or across the Gulf of Aqaba, hope still shines for the Sinai baton blue,” said Zalat.

This article has been published in collaboration with Egab

Updated: February 14, 2023, 8:05 AM