This is my first day at the Butterfly Conservatory, located in El Castillo, Costa Rica. I leave the volunteers’ house and climb up the dirt road with the Arenal volcano at my back. I arrive at the reception at 8 o’clock sharp.
It is a small house decorated with hand-painted animal frescoes. I look at the information boards, at the framed insects, at the different pearlescent chrysalis, and at the butterflies’ life cycle diagram printed on a faded poster. Through the windows overlooking the Conservatory, the local wildlife is throwing a joyful morning party. There are small red parrots, graceful hummingbirds, several howler monkeys in the middle of a huge breakfast orgy, and a big iguana sitting high on a tree.
Founder and director, Glenn arrives and shows me around. We stroll in the rainforest they regenerated, the butterflies’ greenhouses filled with beautiful multicolored flying creatures, the greenhouses where they reproduce the « host » plants, and the space devoted to frogs, turtles and lizards. I follow him on few guided tours and quickly learn the basics of my new job.
Blue Morpho, Golden Caligo, Floatting Tigre, Glasswing, Paradise, Blue Wave, Mosaic, Julia…Only 3 days later, I am able to point and name the different butterflies species of Costa Rican. I know about their food, their flying pattern, their social mores and their sexual preferences. I am fascinated of how quick one can learn new things. A few days ago I didn’t know anything about butterflies or frogs. And today, I am guiding tourists’ groups by myself and share with them my brand new knowledge. « Ranger Butterfly, to serve you! »
Visitors ask me: « Are you a biology student? »
« No, I studied arts, design and architecture. »
« Ah, then this has nothing to do with your background… »
« Well yes, precisely, it has everything to do with it! »
The Butterfly Conservatory
A retired American engineer, Glenn has worked in every country in the world. He bought this piece of land near the Arenal Volcano in the early 2000’s. The place had been abandoned after being used to raise cattle, the cow farms having completely destroyed the original rainforest ecosystem.
Within 15 years, Glenn and his team have planted one by one the endemic species and fully regenerated the land with tropical plants of all kinds.
Since it is a very remote location, they built the butterfly greenhouses to attract tourists and to make the project economically viable. At first, he did not know anything about butterflies. He just learned everything on the job. Now, the Conservatory raises 30 different species hosted in 4 different regional ecosystems. Each greenhouse is home to a different habitat of specific plants and species. Glenn’s wife, Anna, from Costa Rica, looks after the plants and supervises the butterflies’ reproduction process with the help of a biologist. Bismark, Girardo and Cheppe take care of the gardens, while Glenn and the volunteers guide the tourists.
Codependency & ecosystem services
Each species of butterfly has a different « host » plant. Females of each species lay their eggs on the leaves of a specific plant, which the caterpillar will feed from for several weeks, before becoming a butterfly. If the « host » plant disappears from the environment, butterflies lose their source of food and their place to lay.
The survival of each species depends on the presence of the « host » plants in its immediate surroundings. The more diverse the plants are, the more diverse butterflies.
In return, butterflies play a key role for plants. They ensure their natural reproduction by redistributing the pollen that they involuntarily carry on their bodies and their wings. Although bees are considered as pollination’s stars, butterflies are also crucial in this process because the more hairy the insect is, the better the pollen grains hangs on.
To regenerate the land, and gradually recompose the fauna and flora, Glenn and Anna have traveled the country to salvage endemic plants that compose the tropical rainforest. The different plants’ species are reproduced in greenhouses. Then, they are planted on site, increasing the biodiversity coefficient of the land and attracting new insects, birds and animals. Butterflies mate naturally in greenhouses. Their eggs are collected daily and hatch in the laboratory, in order to increase the larvae and caterpillars surviving chances.
From deforestation to regeneration
Before becoming the greenest country in the world, Costa Rica had initially screwed their own natural environment.
Until the 1960’s, their economy was mostly based on coffee, bananas and sugar cane. At that point, the country started to massively invest in cow farms. Hectares and hectares of lush primary forest were devastated in order to set up ranches, as well as pesticides-fed monocultures. Endemic species disappeared and soils eroded in a dramatic way.
In the early 1990’s, the government’s natural resource management politics changed drastically. The country established innovative programs to promote private reforestation and ecosystem’s regeneration initiatives. Landowners are granted a certain amount of money per year and per hectare of nature preserved. Environmental services provided by landowners include: tree plantation, safeguarding biodiversity and water management. Theses grants are funded through international donations and nationwide taxes.
« Costa Rica’s development will be green or will not be » said Oscar Arias, President of the country in the early 2000’s.
Scientists, non-profits and patrons (mostly American) bought many pieces of land to convert them into private natural reservations. Costa Rica became a private environmental protection initiative laboratory. In the early 1980’s, the first butterfly farms opened and started to breed different species to sell them to foreign countries.
Today, a quarter of the country is an ecological protected area. Pioneer in eco-tourism and green energy, this country -as big as Switzerland- possesses 6% of worldwide biodiversity. It is their goal to become one of the first carbon-neutral countries by 2021.
An inspiring project
Seen from ecosystems’ design perspective, the Butterfly Conservatory is a very unique project because it offers a programmatic mix that is both virtuous and innovative. It combines different venues in one: a sanctuary for protection and reproduction of local species, an endemic nursery of tropical plants, an endemic tropical plants’ nursery, a place of scientific research, a tourist attraction, as well as a learning center promoting environmental education.
In a time where the budget of public projects collapse, the Butterfly Conservatory gives us a hopeful alternative. It is a private project that improves the public good in a sustainable way.
This project show us that a business model can regenerate the local ecosystem and promote the village economy, while being a source of income and pride for its owners.
To apply as a volunteer, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Lire l’article en français ici)
> My article: « Daily life next to the volcano Arenal »
> Butterfly Conservatory on Youtube
> Butterfly Conservatory website
> More volunteer opportunities in Costa Rica on this blog post
> My article: « Cabuyal camp: saving the turtles on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica »
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