Barely a flutter at the world's first walk-through butterfly zoo

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A visit to the world's first walk-through butterfly park can be a near disaster at 4 p.m. About that time there are no butterflies fluttering about this truly remarkable, ``open concept'' zoo, part of Sri Lanka's Dehiwela Zoological Gardens.

Nothing will rouse them, or almost nothing, as I discovered. It seems they rest during the afternoon, hiding themselves mysteriously amid the resplendent and lush garden of orange and citrus trees, shrubs, and creepers.

But with the aid of the educational officer, Gamini de Silva, we shook the branches gently, then more aggressively. Finally, in desperation, we called for assistance, and a rather astonished ``breeding officer'' appeared. The attack on the bushes became guerrilla warfare. Finally, a sweet little girl intervened and gently scolded: ``You're going to kill the eggs.''

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By then, I had seen one butterfly. But, we were so agitated that nobody else saw it -- so its species was never identified.

The purpose of this somber message is: If you go to butterfly park, do so in the morning, or very early afternoon.

The zoo itself, reputed to be one of the finest in Asia, founded by the German brothers John and Carl Hagenbeck at the turn of the century, sprawls over 54 acres of animals in their natural habitat -- the elephants dance each day at 5:15 p.m., but, even through their acrobatics, the 100 or so oblivious butterflies maintain an uninterrupted sleep.

A minimum of 50, from Sri Lanka's 242 species, are in butterfly park at any given time. Here they are bred, exhibited briefly, then returned to the wild.

There are no records on how many have passed through Gamini de Silva's greenhouse -- and it is really more of a greenhouse than a park -- since the sanctuary was first established in 1979.

``Tens of thousands have come and gone since then,'' says Gamini de Silva. ``One butterfly will lay 100 eggs per season, or more. What we're interested in is breeding them, then releasing them to the wild. We're not interested in counting . . . but, do come again. Foreigners, in particular, really go wild, especially when 40-50 of the largest ones are flying about.''

He and other specialists collect the butterflies from the wild: then nurture their eggs through the 45-48 day period that it takes for a butterfly to be born.

They bring in new stock for breeding, so that no species becomes inbred.

Some of the butterflies are quite ordinary. Some are extremely rare. Others are seasonal. But, they've all come and gone -- the catopsilia pomona, hypolimnas bolina, elymnias hypermnestra fraterna and the misippus, the polydorus hector, and, for novices like myself, the ``common birdwing'' and the ``lemon emigrant.''

Every leaf in the one-eighth of an acre greenhouse is checked manually for minute, barely discernible eggs each day.

It is a unique concept in the world. In Japan, one can look through glassed-in enclosures, and see butterflies. But, in Dehiwela, you are with them, there in the open air.

``Why was the park established?'' I asked a startled Gamini De Silva.

``Because people love butterflies.''

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