The upperside of the body and roughly the inner half of the wings is white, sharply delineated on the forewings parallel to the length of the body, and diffusely delineated parallel to the margin of the hindwing. Outside the white area of the upperside, the wings are orange to brown, with a pattern of lighter and darker flecks. The underside of the body and wings mimic a dead leaf. A slightly diffuse but clear, sepia brown straight line divides the under wing in a zone next to the body and a zone near the wings' edges. The inner zone is mostly light beige with three parallel, curved, interrupted, grey brown wavy lines, circling the wings' attachment to the body. A triangle based on the front of the forewing and bordering the division line has the dark grayish-brown color of the outer zone. The outer zone of the underside of the hindwing has a line of clear eyespots while the forewing has vager markings. The outer spur on the hindwing is well developed. Male and female are alike. A full description is given by Rothschild, W and Jordan, K..
The pearl emperor is a large, actively, fast and high flying butterfly. It is the most common Charaxes in the Gambia, where it is present throughout the year in various habitats. They are usually observed as single individuals flying fast and high. They mostly rest with closed wings, although males may sit high with slightly opened wings.
Charaxes varanes group. Type species of subgenus Stonehamia (Hadrodontes) The group members are:
- Charaxes varanes
- Charaxes fulvescens very similar to varanes
- Charaxes acuminatus very pointed forewing
- Charaxes balfouri
- Charaxes analava
- Charaxes nicati
- Charaxes bertrami perhaps subspecies of varanes
- Charaxes saperanus
- Charaxes defulvata
- C. v. bertrami Riley, 1931 – (Oman, eastern Yemen)
- C. v. torbeni Turlin, 1999 – (Yemen) Perhaps full species
- C. v. varanes (Cramer, 1764) – (southern Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland)
- C. v. vologeses (Mabille, 1876) – (Africa)
- Charaxes varanes at Markku Savela's Lepidoptera and Some Other Life Forms
- Woodhall, Steve (2005). Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa. Cape Town, South Africa: Struik. ISBN 978-1-86872-724-7.
- Penney, David (2009). Field Guide to Butterflies of the Gambia, West Africa. Siri Scientific Press. p. 80. ISBN 0955863627.
- Rothschild, W. and Jordan, K. (1900). Novitates Zoologicae 7:287-524.  page 354; for terms see Volume 5:545-601 
- Victor Gurney Logan Van Someren (1974). Revisional notes on African Charaxes (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Part IX. Bulletin of the British Museum of Natural History (Entomology). 29(8):415-487. 
- Images of C.varanes vologeses Royal Museum for Central Africa (Albertine Rift Project)
- Charaxes varanes images at BOLD
- Charaxes varanes varanes images at BOLD
- Charaxes varanes vologeses images at BOLD
- Charaxes varanes bertrami images at BOLD
- Charaxes varanes torbeni images at BOLD
- Charaxes torbeni images at BOLD
- Charaxes bertrami images at BOLD