The Butterfly Effect: The Sri Lanka Butterfly Conservation Project

 

 

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“Despite its small size, the island [of Sri Lanka] boasts 248 species of butterflies of which 31 species are endemic.” Dr. George Michael van der Poorten

 

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Tailed-Jay Butterfly

 

Forty years ago Dr. George Michael van der Poorten set out to create a butterfly haven in his property in Rambawewa, in the Northwestern Province of Sri Lanka. What Dr. van der Poorten has achieved since then cannot be described in a sentence or two…you need to write a whole set of volumes and produce a series of documentaries about it as well. But to give just a sense of it, when he started to create butterfly friendly habitats in his coconut estate there were about 20 species of butterflies present. Today there are more than 125 species!

The flutter Michael set in motion way back in time had now rippled across nearly 40 years of time and space and through a process of osmosis has resonated in two organizations, Spa Ceylon and the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) to take up butterfly conservation. The amazing fact is, the SLWCS did not even exist at the time when through his efforts Dr. van der Poorten set a Butterfly Effect in motion.

 

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Dr. George Michael van der Poorten, the most eminent Lepidopterist of Sri Lanka

 

Unknowingly but probably in response to the subtle and sublime vibes set in motion by Dr. Poorten, in 2013 the SLWCS decided to create a butterfly garden at its Field Operations Center in Wasgamuwa. However this project never got off the ground and in 2017 the Society made renewed efforts to initiate the project.

Meanwhile in 2018 independent of the SLWCS' efforts Spa Ceylon the prestigious house of luxury Ayruvedic personal and body care products had decided to sponsor a butterfly conservation project. Forty years after Dr. van der Poorten’s inspired moment to set in motion a flutter of hope for butterflies at his estate – it seems synergistic events had brought the SLWCS, Spa Ceylon and Dr. van der Poorten into a collaborative effort to save the beautiful flying jewels, the butterflies of Sri Lanka.

 

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Narrow-banded Blue Bottle

 

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Crimson Rose

 

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An early effort in 2013 to establish a Butterfly Garden was not a success

 

January 18th 2019. Turning off from the main Puttalam Road we drove through the main gates of Dr. van der Poorten’s estate and headed down a long and dusty unpaved drive way. The entire area looked very dry and parched – so it was hard to believe that soon we will be in a butterfly haven when just finding a torpid grasshopper in these conditions would be a tough assignment. But we were definitely in for a huge surprise!

 

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The closest you can to an earthly paradise…

 

Dr. George Michael van der Poorten is “The Butterfly Expert” or in the jargon of Zoology the most eminent Lepidopterist of Sri Lanka. While I have known about him for ages this was the first time I’m meeting him. Only yesterday I had managed to find Dr. van der Poorten’s contact information and had called him a bit hesitantly not knowing how my request for assistance would be received since it was coming out of the blue from an unknown person. I need not have worried—I was immediately invited to visit his estate the following day and provided with directions to get there. So here I am about to meet the doyen of Sri Lanka’s butterflies, Dr. George Michael van der Poorten and his equally knowledgeable and lovely wife, Nancy.

 

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Nancy and Michael

 

Spa Ceylon that had supported our Project Orange Elephant in 2017 contacted the SLWCS last year to inquire about a butterfly conservation project. As a result of the ensuing discussions, Spa Ceylon committed to support a butterfly conservation project and the reason for my visit to Dr. van der Poorten’s. It was a case of—if we are going to create a butterfly sanctuary, then this time let’s get it right from the very beginning!

 

02. Spa Ceylon Donation 2017

In 2017 Spa Ceylon donated to Project Orange Elephant. Shalin Balasuriya, Shiwantha Dias and Ravi Corea

 

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LOGO ORANGE Very Final

 

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Common Jezebel

 

Immediate we met it was hard to miss Michael’s deep passion for butterflies which radiates in every direction, and his energy and enthusiasm was boundless and infectious. Just keeping up with him was like running behind a weaving butterfly. He was the proverbial fount of knowledge, and this knowledge gushed out in torrents that I wished I had not paid attention to those long ago gender biases and learned Pittman’s shorthand. Not since my university days have I had to take down so many notes. When I look at the notes I had written – just the list of plants and trees alone was astonishing.

 

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Michael's love and passion for butterflies was hard to miss. It was as obvious as a butterfly

 

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Amidst all the running around, lessons and note taking there is still time for a refreshing Thambili

 

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So many notes…

 

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…it was like going back to university.

 

While I was with Michael learning and absorbing information on butterflies, Chandima, Akila, Nisali and a team of volunteers were working to prepare the land at our Wasgamuwa field center where we planned to establish the butterfly sanctuary. We couldn’t have selected a more auspicious day to initiate the project especially to have Michael provide advice and suggestions to the team over the phone as they worked.

 

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Akila…

 

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Nisali…

 

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Chandima impersonating a butterfly…

 

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and volunteers clearing weeds to create the future butterfly sanctuary

 

My first visit to Michael's and Nancy's would be some of my most cherished memories. The welcome and the warm and sincere hospitality that I enjoyed and the generous uninhibited sharing of knowledge, experience and even resources I received. Our Land Rover when we left looked like a veritable roving greenhouse—filled with plants, seeds, and cuttings of various species of plants and vines that provide food for caterpillars and nectar for adult butterflies. Michael’s and Nancy’s largesse was awe-inspiring and made one feel so very special. I went to get advice and maybe some suggestions and tips, but left with so much more it is hard to quantify, and most importantly knowing that our butterfly conservation project would have Michael’s and Nancy’s unstinting support and help.

 

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Gifts of plants for our Butterfly Sanctuary

 

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There were many avian friends as well

 

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It was an honor and a privilege to meet Michael and Nancy

 

Dr. George Michael van der Poorten and Nancy van der Poorten have two recent publications on the butterflies of Sri Lanka which we highly recommend:

The Butterfly Fauna of Sri Lanka (2016)
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Field Guide to the Butterflies of Sri Lanka_ (2018)

The books are available at all leading bookshops in Colombo and online at: http://lepodonbooks.com/

Please stay alert for further updates on the progress of our Sri Lanka Butterfly Conservation Project.

 

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Big, rumbling thanks to our Corporate Partners for their kind support and to everyone who has donated and supported our wildlife conservation efforts!
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Photo Credits:

Chandima Fernando/SLWCS
Indika Samapth/SLWCS
Ravi Corea/SLWCS

 

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