The Sri Lanka Lesser Albatross (Appias galene) is a butterfly species endemic to the island.

“Butterflies are facing rapid extinction and need creative conservation methods,” Gamage says. “In Sri Lanka, there are butterfly houses with an indoor setup. We envisaged a conservation model with an open environment — without any form of species in captivity.”

He studied suitable host plants and nectar plants for creating a “walk-through” sanctuary, now extremely popular with children and researchers alike. Next, some 70 host plants and 20 nectar plants native to Sri Lanka were introduced to create the habitat. While some butterfly species have a single host plant, others have a few.

“In choosing species, we eliminated those requiring special conditions for survival, such as forest habitats,” Gamage says. “In the very first month, we recorded five species [of butterflies], and within six months, about 12. Within the first one and a half years, we recorded over 50 species and significant butterfly populations.”

Sri Lanka Tree Brown (Lethe daretis) is an endemic butterfly species restricted to cloud forests of Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands.

The butterfly presence eventually stabilized, with about 15 species a day, including seasonal migratory species. A few threatened species and more widespread ones, like the common tiger butterfly (Danaus genutia), are regularly sighted here. “It is now a sustainable ecosystem,” says Prasad Tharanga, arboretum coordinator at Dilmah Conservation. “It is important to maintain sufficient sunlight, plant height and the micro habitat for species survival.”

The garden, besides forming a natural habitat for the more common butterflies to reside in, offers a perfect setting for learning about the insects.

First described by John Westwood in 1848, the Sri Lanka Tree Nymph is endemic to Sri Lanka.

Gamage says butterflies are more important as an indicator species than as a pollinator. “Bees are better pollinators while butterflies are more important as an ‘indicative’ species. They are found in rich habitats with high levels of diversity, especially plants,” he says.

Sri Lanka has failed to recognize the importance of these species beyond their ornamental value, says Gamage.

The Crimson Rose (Pachliopta hector) is a large swallowtail butterfly.

With butterfly populations on the wane, Gamage says the rate of biodiversity loss needs to be addressed. “There is an increase in invasive plants, thus altering our plant diversity. Nectar is more difficult to find while changes in weather patterns are robbing us of marked wet seasons, when butterflies lay eggs.”

The Sri Lanka Rose (Pachliopta jophon) and  Sri Lanka Birdwing (Troides darsius) are presently included in the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The Sri Lanka Birdwing is Sri Lanka’s national butterfly and the largest endemic butterfly, is found in large numbers in the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, while a majority of endemic butterfly species are found in the wet zone forests.

Troides darsius, the Sri Lanka Birdwing, is the largest butterfly recorded on the island. It is also the national butterfly of Sri Lanka.

Gamage offers two solutions for butterfly conservation, the first focused on urban environments. “Much of urban landscaping can be done with some uniformity, ensuring the maintenance of biodiversity. Before landscaping begins, ideally, an ecologist should work on it. We need a national approach to ensure minimum ecological balance in maintaining spaces like home gardens, work spaces and even road sides.”

The second solution: maintain butterfly conservation zones in every national park. “Visitors drive through these nature reserves to watch four-legged animals. Butterflies cannot be observed that way. We can create habitats at each national park for a walk-through butterfly experience.”

All butterfly images courtesy Dilmah Conservation/Himesh Dilruwan Jayasinghe

Banner image: As Sri Lanka’s butterfly populations continue to drop, a new private sector initiative attempts to create supportive environments through the setting up of urban butterfly gardens. Photo by Dilrukshi Handunnetti/Mongabay.

Article published by Dilrukshi
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