Butterfly Garden Canadian: Sri Lankan Lepitopterists Protecting Butterfly Habitat

Dr. Nancy and Dr. Michael van der Poorten doing their field work (courtesy of Nancy van der Poorten)

Nancy van der Poorten specializes in dragonflies and is the former President
of the Toronto Entomologists’ Association (TEA). She met her Sri Lankan
husband, Michael, a specialist in butterflies, while he was studying for his
doctorate at Canada’s University of Guelph, after studying at the University
of Peradeniya. They are both lepidopterists and have travelled back and forth
between the two countries.

A practical example of their dedication is the butterfly flowering
garden on the grounds of Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children in Borella. A
recent visit found two Sri Lankan medical doctors, Dr. Athulla Wijesundera
and Dr. J. Dayasena, surrounded by a botany expert from Open University,
a student from the Institute of Indigenous Medicine and dozens of cadets
from the Colombo International Nautical and Engineering College. They
were looking at native flowers (and some exotic or introduced plants too) for
signs of caterpillar growth. Strolling mothers with newborn babies in their
arms looked on bemused. Lady Ridgeway is a busy working hospital after all.
Where did the idea of a butterfly garden first develop at the hospital?
The initial interest of Dr. Athulla was to develop a “healing garden” for
children who needed something to think about, and enjoy, other than
injections and the company of doctors.

Dr. Athulla first approached the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for assistance. He learned there that
butterflies were good for pollination of food crops and an indicator
of environmental health. Butterflies are threatened by loss of habitat,
widespread use of pesticides, extreme climactic variations and the illegal
trade of collectors.

IUCN urged Dr. Athulla to visit the butterfly garden of Michael and
Nancy van der Poorten in Kurunegala. Instead of the Peradeniya botanical
garden symmetry expected, Dr. Athula was confronted with a jungle of wild
native plants. He soon learned that it is often the common, wild, native
plants (e.g. rat mal) that sustain butterflies in profusion in Sri Lanka. Roses
do not work although there are foreign plants (e.g. zinnias, cosmos) that
do attract butterflies. Now, others are copying this example as the hospital’s
empty plot has become a riotous flower garden with butterflies, all in a little
over a year.

The van der Poortens recommended the appropriate plants for the
hospital site: nectar plants for the adult butterflies and larval food plants so
that the butterflies would also breed in the garden. They also gave a talk to
the doctors and staff about butterflies and butterfly gardening so that they
could appreciate and support the work being done. They supplied many of
the plants and seeds, and continue to give advice.

Sri Lanka has a national butterfly; the black and yellow Troides darsius
which is the largest butterfly in Sri Lanka, with a wing expanse measuring
165-180 mm. There are 245 varieties of butterflies of which 20 are endemic
to the island and 66 are listed by the IUCN as threatened due to habitat
destruction and pollution. Butterfly conservation is a concern of the Butterfly
Expert Group which is a division of the Biodiversity Secretariat. The Wildlife
and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka has a book in Sinhala and English
that describes the garden plants necessary to attract butterflies.

The van der Poortens work closely with Dr. D. Weerakoon of the
University of Colombo under the auspices of a Research Permit from the
Department of Wildlife Conservation. They also work with the Department
of Forestry, the Biodiversity Secretariat and civil society to advance butterfly

Committed to research, education and practical example, the van der
Poortens are writing a book on butterflies and dragonflies in Sri Lanka. They
have discovered two butterflies that are new to Sri Lanka, the first new species
to be found in about 60 years. They have also rediscovered some previously
recorded species that had not been seen for almost 100 years. They have
documented the life history of more than half the species, including some
that were previously unknown. To protect butterfly habitat and promote
conservation needs, more information is needed and that is what inspires the
van der Poortens to study up close so many wild areas of the island.

The science of butterfly life may not be well known in Sri Lanka or in
Canada but many Sri Lankans are familiar with ancient beliefs and stories
relating to butterflies. There are 80 species that migrate and they have specific
routes. Adam’s Peak is a special destination known to all Sri Lankans and
many visitors to the Island who walk to the summit. Butterflies are known
to arrive exhausted at the top and die.

Dr. Athulla in the Lady Ridgeway Hospital butterfly garden


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