Butterfly conservation helps replenish rainforests
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Plants covered the property, a sea of emerald and lime and forest greens. Butterflies flitted and danced in the air, like little ballerinas dressed to perform in shades of blue, orange, red, brown and green.
The conservationist sat on a bench, gazing at his creation. A butterfly hung from a nearby vine, its brown and black wings tucked safely together as it rested. Red and yellow and green surrounded the man. This place and these creatures were his element, his home.
“I really enjoy just being here with nature,” said Glenn Baines, founder and director of the Butterfly Conservatory. “I came here when I was 59 years old, and I’m now 75, and I tell you I think I’m younger at heart at least than I was when I arrived here.”
Before Baines was a master of butterflies, he had a long career as an engineer in the U.S. He took a break from his career to travel the world. He was in Costa Rica, standing in front of where the conservatory’s reception now sits, when Arenal Volcano erupted in a mushroom cloud of smoke.
“Six or seven seconds later I heard ‘kaboom,’ and the sound arrived and I said, ‘Holy smokes, that’s an eruption,’” he said. “The volcano started spewing lava, and I said, ‘Holy smokes, that’s got to be a signal or a sign to be here.’ I went ahead and that same day put an option on a piece of property where my house is and decided this is where I’m going to live. I did that the first week I was here in Costa Rica.”
"This project is part of the greater project for Costa Rica to be the first nation on the planet to be
Looking at the conservatory now, visitors would have no idea that just 16 years ago, the land was barren and uninhabitable. Forty years of cattle ranching had destroyed the land to the point where even cows had trouble surviving on the nutritionless grass, and the local dairy and cheese factory shut down because there wasn’t enough milk being produced to keep it running.
Baines decided to try to regenerate the rainforest that had once covered the area. He bought part of a cattle ranch and replenished a small bit of the land, about the size of a large bucket, with organic compost. Sure enough, the plant he put into the ground and covered in dirt lived for over a year.
“Over time, we planted each plant like that very carefully, and they started creating their own soils, because these are the pioneering plants that grow fast and give off a lot of organic materials,” he said. “Over time they would spread and start creating more and more organic soil again.”
Sixteen years later, the staff at the conservatory are now talking about planting trees that could grow for hundreds of years. A project like this is expensive and time consuming. Baines originally brought butterflies in to attract visitors to help fund the regeneration project. The butterflies have now become an integral part of the regeneration itself.
The project raises its own butterflies, keeping about 1,000 in demonstrations of their natural habitats for visitors to admire. Baines and his colleagues also release butterflies into the wild, helping to replenish the forest with creatures. Over the course of a year, they raise about 35 species of butterflies.
Every butterfly on display at the conservatory is from the area around Lake Arenal. The conservatory has four different butterfly habitats on display, each with their own types of butterflies. Visitors can wander the habitats and see the variety of butterflies in the area for themselves.
“We raise the butterflies specifically so we can study them,” Baines said. “We study and learn about butterflies so we can try and make them happy.”
Out of every 100 butterfly eggs that are laid, only two butterflies live through their entire life cycles and lay eggs again. The other 98 percent perish along the way due to predators and disease. At the conservatory, approximately 70-75 percent of the butterflies reach adulthood. This is one of the reasons that a project like this is so important, he said. Butterflies are essential in pollinating plants.
The conservatory attracts both visitors and workers from around the world. Sophia Schoenfeld volunteers for the project. Originally from the U.S., she wanted to go to a place that was creatively stimulating to work on her writing and videography. She found the project online and reached out to Baines about working there.
“I wanted to go somewhere that I could kind of get in touch with nature again,” Schoenfeld said. “I grew up backpacking a lot, and my family are really big outdoors people, so being here has been really refreshing for me.”
Baines said that one of the most important parts of the project is that it shows people what can happen if they set their minds to conserving the planet.
“This project is part of the greater project for Costa Rica to be the first nation on the planet to be carbon neutral,” he said. “That’s a goal that Costa Rica has, and we want to participate in that.”