Conservation Spotlight

A Butterfly Ranch Takes Flight in Costa Rica

Exerpted from J. Bowdoin, AZA Communique May 1995

Butterfly ranching has proven to be a valuable conservation tool in several countries such as Papua New Guinea, where it is used as an economic incentive to protect wild butterflies and their rainforest habitat. This approach, however, has not been taken in other developing countries where very few of the numerous and prosperous butterfly farmers tie their product to the health of the surrounding eco-community. In fact, most butterfly farmers live and rear their crops in captivity, within the suburbs of large cities, ignoring the conservation potential of this 10-15 million dollar per year trade.

The Zoological Society of San Diego, in collaboration with the Xerces Society and support from the J. W. and Ida M. Jameson Foundation, has initiated a butterfly ranching program in Costa Rica which ties together economics, conservation and education. The site of the program is the small village of Barra del Colorado. The village is located along the Rio Colorado River in the wet, northeastern corner of Costa Rica and is accessible only by boat or air. While much of the economy of Costa Rica thrives on eco-tourism, economic opportunities in this remote area are few and the local economy has traditionally been entirely dependent upon fishing. As a result, the surrounding rainforest remains largely intact and is rich with wildlife, including many butterflies. The butterfly ranching program focuses on teaching butterfly ranching, opening a display to attract tourists, and funneling the money earned from tourism and exports back to the people of Barra del Colorado.

The design of the project allows for involvement of the entire community. Children are involved in the project because the butterfly ranch is being developed in collaboration with the local elementary school. Older residents of Barra del Colorado have been encouraged to plant nectar and host plants around their homes to draw butterflies from the surrounding rainforest. The process is then quite simple. The butterflies lay their eggs on the host plants. These eggs are collected and brought to the school in plastic petri dishes. The resulting caterpillars are placed on host plant cuttings maintained by the students. The caterpillars develop and eventually pupate, producing a collection of beautiful butterflies.

A live butterfly house with a walk-through display has been developed in hopes of making the community an eco-tourist destination for travelers taking wildlife tours in the canals reaching out from the Tortuguero National Park to the south. Participants in the program plan to produce enough butterflies to stock not only the school's butterfly house, but also to export pupae internationally for income. The variety of customers includes scientists for research, interior decorators using butterflies for decoration, and private collectors buying and trading perfect specimens as others do rare stamps and coins. Most significantly, the pupae can be sold to zoos and aquariums and other public attractions that exhibit live specimens for education and appreciation.

The butterflies' delicate nature, striking beauty, and interesting behaviors make them perfect ambassadors for conservation of important rainforest habitat. Collaboration with the local school in Barra del Colorado provides an excellent opportunity to educate tomorrow's leaders in the community about the importance and long-term value of their rainforest assets. The display of their product in the zoos and aquariums of the United States provides another, equally important, opportunity: to show the people of a developed, consumption-oriented country the results of a community-based program for economic development and environmental protection. Today, the school in Barra del Colorado has a butterfly house and the beginnings of educational curricula on conservation. Additionally, income from the butterfly ranching project has funded better lights in the classrooms and books for use by the students.

For More Information, Contact:

William Toone, Project Coordinator
Curator of Birds and Invertebrates
San Diego Wild Animal Park
15500 San Pasqual Valley Road
Escondido, CA 92027-7017
Tel: (619) 738-5069

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