The Scrappy Team Putting Colombia’s Incredible Butterfly Diversity on the Map

How one nature photographer’s effort to identify the insects in his photos morphed into ambitious nationwide documentation project.

In the 1990s, at the height of Colombia’s civil war, Juan Guillermo Jaramillo embarked on a new hobby documenting butterfly species in his native Colombia. Every morning he left his house, camera in hand, to add photos to his butterfly species directory.

“I wanted to show the biodiversity of our country,” says Jaramillo, who has no formal training as a biologist or researcher. “It is our greatest national treasure, and we are destroying it.”

When Juan Guillermo Jaramillo set out to identify the butterflies in his photos, he noticed that many were missing from Colombia’s principal species archive. He soon realized he had many new discoveries on his hands. Photo of Greta oto, or glasswing, by Juan Guillermo Jaramillo.

He had no idea at the time that his informal pastime would later become a key resource for researchers documenting how biodiverse his country really was.

It all started when Jaramillo set out to identify the species captured in his photos. He began to notice that dozens appeared to be missing from the country’s principal species archive at the National University in Bogota. Confused, he reached out via email to Kim Garwood, a butterfly expert from the United States known for her photography work in Central and South America.

“And I started to realize that we had dozens of new discoveries on our hands,” Garwood said by phone from Mexico, where she was conducting photography fieldwork. “It was really a ‘wow’ moment for us.”

That initial online conversation led to a years-long collaborative partnership documenting the country’s thousands of butterfly species. The two set up an online butterfly database for Latin America, known as Butterfly Checklist. By the early 2000s, Garwood was making regular trips to Colombia, for both bird and butterfly photography, all the while recruiting local photographers to contribute to the checklist. Today, over 350 photographers are credited in their comprehensive documentation, a catalog that includes more than 400,000 photos.

Indigenous communities have also been invaluable to the effort in areas with little state presence, such as Putamayo, Chocó and parts of Cauca. “Many of these regions with large indigenous populations have never been formally studied by biologists in Bogotá,” she said. Indigenous communities “know species even lifelong experts in the region don’t.”

“Their [ancestral] knowledge of their territories goes back hundreds, perhaps in some cases, thousands of years,” she said. “They have shown us when and where butterfly migrations happen, or helped us identify species that were common to them, but unknown to Western researchers.”

“For me, watching hundreds of other people get excited about this project, and watching it grow beyond what we ever imagined, is a powerful feeling,” Garwood added.

The directory was a key source for a 2021 study conducted by the Natural History Museum in London that identified Colombia as the country with the most species of butterflies in the world. And it is still growing. In 2022, their project identified more than 230 additional butterfly species in Colombia, bringing the total number of identified species in the country to 3,877, roughly 20 percent of known butterfly species globally. Jaramillo is certain the new discoveries are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to undocumented species.

Juan Guillermo Jaramillo

Jaramillo (above) reached out to butterfly expert Kim Garwood (right) for help identifying the species in his photos. Image courtesy of Jaramillo.

Together, the two created a butterfly catalog that has become a key resource for researchers and helped confirm Colombia’s status as the country with the most butterfly species in the world. Photo courtesy of Kim Garwood.

“The pace of discoveries in recent years shows how little we understand about our biodiversity,” he said. “And this is keeping in mind that some regions of the country remain relatively inaccessible to photographers due to ongoing conflict.”

Unfortunately, that conflict puts this vast biological diversity at risk. Since the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), deforestation has ramped up in areas previously controlled by the rebel group, to the great disappointment of researchers and environmentalists who had hoped the deal would have the opposite effect. Illegal mining, cattle farming, and production of coca — the base ingredient in cocaine — have all exploded in those regions, becoming major drivers of deforestation. And as criminal groups battle one another to control these industries, violence has risen as well.

Jaramillo explained that this has been a critical missed opportunity, as access hasn’t gotten any easier for researchers who have long been excluded from these regions.

“There are areas that are simply too dangerous to enter,” he told Earth Island Journal, speaking from Medellin, where he lives. “And we know there are likely hundreds more species yet to be discovered.”

But conservationists haven’t given up hope. President Gustavo Petro, who took office in August, promised on the campaign trail to rein in Colombia’s economic dependence on petroleum and mining industries and invest instead in sustainable tourism efforts. Such a shift could be an opportunity not just for economic growth, but also for conservation of endangered habitats.

Haemactis sanguinalis

A Haemactis sanguinalis, or blood red skipper butterfly. Colombia is home to roughly 20 percent of known butterfly species globally. Photo by Juan Guillermo Jaramillo.

Lasaia agesilas

A Lasaia agesilas, commonly known as a glittering sapphire or black-patch bluemark butterfly. Photo by Juan Guillermo Jaramillo.

“The driving factors behind deforestation and habitat destruction of birds and butterfly species in Colombia are economic,” said Alberto Gómez Mejía, a biologist and president of the National Botanical Garden Society, “and carried out principally by people who lack other options.”

Gómez once worked for the government spraying the pesticide glyphosate on illicit coca fields as part of aerial fumigation projects in the 1990s, but quit the program after seeing the devastation it had on rainforests, killing not only the coca but also the plants and ecosystems around them. He now calls the program, which has since been discontinued, an “ecological massacre.”

Since many of the areas subjected to spraying were also conflict regions that haven’t been well studied, he says the full impacts of the aerial coca eradication program are still unknown.

“Seventy-five percent of fauna species unique to Colombia live in forest regions,” he said. “How many have we destroyed before they were even documented?”

Gomez, who went into conservation and environmental education work after leaving the fumigation project, says new laws and enforcement alone won’t stop deforestation in Colombia’s delicate rainforests. “There has to be an economic incentive for communities to protect these regions,” he said, “and ecological tourism, if it is carried out sustainably, can be a wonderful short-term solution.”

“We have proof this works,” said Jaramillo, camera in hand, smiling. “Bird-watching is already a huge factor in Colombian tourism.”

Colombia is home to more than 1,900 bird species — 20 percent of all bird species in the world — and a thriving tourism sector for those who wish to see that rich diversity on display.

And “any ecosystem good for birds is good for butterflies,” he said. “If our work can draw attention to that natural wealth, which is Colombia’s greatest treasure, well, that’s why I do what I do.”

Jaramillo climbed into his aging sedan. He was headed north to spend the weekend taking photos of butterflies in northern Antioquia. “Maybe this is a lucky weekend,” he said before leaving. “Maybe I find a species no one knew existed.”

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