Africa’s giants – a term generally used to describe elephants, giraffe, maybe crowned eagles or the big apes. But the trip we embarked on was different. We were after Africa’s biggest butterfly.

The giant African swallowtail, or Papilio antimachus as it's known by scientists and insect collectors, is certainly one of the strangest butterflies on the planet. Its wingspan can reach 25cm (almost 10 inches), securing its position as the largest butterfly in Africa, and one of the largest in the world. While most other swallowtail butterflies are black with white, yellow, or sometimes blue markings, this one is orange, and its wings are narrow and curved like a sickle, making it even more unique. 

Photographs of these magnificent insects are easy to find online, but virtually all of them depict set specimens offered for sale to collectors scattered across the world. The reason? This is one seriously elusive butterfly. So elusive that even leading African butterfly experts have not seen this species 'on the wing' during their lifetimes. 

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Liberia is one of the few places in this part of the world where towering forests like this one still exist. Image: Andre Coetzer.

Although it's quite widespread (from Uganda in the east through most of central Africa and as far west as Sierra Leone), its wide distribution does not mean the species is safe: the majority of primary forests within this vast area have been levelled to a maze of mud tracks where trees as tall as 80m once stood. And where some forest cover remains, the situation looks perilous. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic and Ivory Coast have all been plagued by brutal and long-lasting civil wars – conflict and conservation don't mix.

Our search for the butterflies led us to Liberia, a tiny country in West Africa. Embroiled in a civil war from 1980 until 1996, and then rocked by a second wave of violence under the rule of Charles Taylor that lasted until 2003, it's a nation that is still emerging from the adversities of its recent past. The ever-present UN soldiers with their blue berets patrolling the capital city of Monrovia are just one reminder of that.  

But despite its small size and violent past, it's claimed that Liberia is still home to more than half of the remaining West African forests. Throughout Africa, but specifically in West Africa, large-scale logging has wiped out everything that stands more than two metres above the ground.

The larger trees are shipped to Europe and Asia, where they become furniture; everything else is cut down and sold as charcoal on the roadsides. Even in Liberia, where some forests remain, charcoal bags are stacked up high along virtually every stretch of road. After virgin vegetation is cleared, land is then frequently transformed into rubber plantations or into farmland (the latter is mostly doomed to fail because of the high rainfall that leeches the soil, making it unusable). 

Of course, some Liberian forests are protected, but enforcing that protection is not straightforward, and there are signs of illegal logging and hunting. Many of these protected forests border on community forests, where locals manage the resources and a fee is charged for visitors to enter. Although these conservation tactics are still in their infancy, they do seem to be working – and conservation certainly cannot succeed here if local communities are not involved and do not benefit.   

After arriving in Monrovia, we braved the 10-hour drive to the town of Yekepa, which lies in Nimba county in the north-east. The Nimba mountains stretch from Liberia into Guinea, and are still mostly covered in towering trees, dwarfing the forests I know from the southern tip of the continent. The area receives nearly 6,000mm of rain each year, and although our trip was planned for the middle of the dry season, there were still puddles of water in every depression.

The mountain range has considerable mineral wealth and an iron ore mine used to exist here. It was abandoned in the 1970s because of unrest in the country – but signs of it are still deeply etched into the landscape. The highest peak has been completely obliterated into a deep pit (in fact, its exact height is not known because it was removed before it could be accurately measured). Old rusty drill rigs, graders, trucks, overgrown silos and other mining structures can still be seen all along the way up the mountain.

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A butterfly bonanza awaited within the forest. Image: Andre Coetzer.

On our first trip into the surrounding forests we arrived before the butterflies had woken, taking in the eerie silence of a place that is usually buzzing with insect life. When the sun eventually started baking the vegetation, everything came alive. A different butterfly seemed to greet us every few metres. They come in all shades, shapes and sizes: some slow-flying undergrowth species, others streaking off into the canopy.

Unlike the forests I know, where most butterflies prefer the sun-dappled forest edges, even the darker undergrowth in central and West African forests is alive and buzzing. Forest fairies, or fairy hairstreaks as they are also known, flitted around bushes with their long tails dangling behind. A group of butterflies called foresters brightened up the dark paths as they perched in rays of sunlight that penetrated the canopy, flashing bright streaks of yellow and magenta. 

Giant Epitolas, sometimes as big as the palm of your hand, would rush past in a flash of metallic blue, and our only chance of a second sighting was luring them in with another blue object (such as the water bottles we were carrying). But even with the lure strategically placed, we seldom saw more than one or two of these turbo-charged fighter jets coming down and then spiralling upwards until they disappeared somewhere in the forest canopy.

“Seeing the giant African swallowtail in flight stirs your emotions – awe and sadness in equal measure.”

Then, finally, the encounter we had come for. On reaching a hilltop clearing above the forest, we saw a monster taking off from the bushes and lazily gliding on the air currents, circling. It shared the air space with some well-known butterfly killers – swallows and black bee-eaters – but this specimen did not seem to mind. Occasionally it would dive down and chase the swallows, intimidating them with both its size and colour, before grabbing another air current and returning to its perch. Its wing edges scarred, this giant African swallowtail was clearly a veteran of the forest.

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Despite its distinctive appearance and huge size, little is known about the giant African swallowtail. Image: Andre Coetzer.

Although the lifespans of adult African butterflies are not well studied, it's been shown that they generally live for a few weeks only. Most have many natural enemies, including birds, spiders and predatory insects like praying mantises. But what happens when a species has evolved to be big and toxic enough to overcome these threats? Could it be that this butterfly before us was one of the longest-living butterfly species? 

I don't know the answer to that question. Unfortunately, very little is known about these huge swallowtails and observations so far have been limited. What we do know represents only a fraction of their lives, and finding out more may require cutting-edge technology – studying a butterfly that's at home high up in the canopies of these remote forests is no easy task.

Seeing the giant African swallowtail in flight stirs your emotions – awe and sadness in equal measure. Watching it I was suddenly keenly aware of what lay just beyond these shrinking islands of forest.