Butterfly effect

The erato longwing (Heliconius erato) rests on a flower at the Butterfly Garden, Royal Botanic Gardens, Port of Spain. - AYANNA KINSALE
The erato longwing (Heliconius erato) rests on a flower at the Butterfly Garden, Royal Botanic Gardens, Port of Spain. - AYANNA KINSALE

THIS IS the land of the hummingbird, but a case could be made for the butterfly too.

For a country of our relatively small size, we have an incredibly large array of butterfly species. At least 760 types have been recorded here, according to the University of the West Indies. (By way of comparison, Britain has just 58.)

But when did you last lay eyes on a majestic emperor butterfly, the iridescence of its blue wings caused by the diffraction of light from millions of microscopic scales? When last did you see a bamboo butterfly, which circles for hours just above the trees in the sunshine before coming down to drink from flowers? Or a scarlet peacock? Or an andromeda satyr?

An ongoing effort by a group of volunteers to attract more butterflies to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Port of Spain, by restoring soil and indigenous flora, points to the sad fact that while this country is world-famous for its biodiversity, that biodiversity is in decline and under serious threat.

The group, led by Serina Hearn of the non-governmental organisation Friends of Botanic Gardens of TT, recently received permission from the Ministry of Agriculture to expand their project. Last week, they reported success in their efforts to get more butterflies to return to the gardens, which is a protected heritage site.

As is the case all over the world, butterflies play a key role in our island’s ecology, but there is ample evidence to suggest they have been on the decline for a while now.

In 2017, one researcher from the UK’s Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International noted that about a third of the 150 species found in Tobago had not been reported in 80 years. This suggested two possibilities: either the butterflies had simply not been seen, or they are now extinct.

The impact of the climate crisis on the global ecosystem is a likely factor.

Yet, as noted by Ms Hearn and her volunteers, so too are practices adopted by communities and, sometimes, even state entities like the CEPEP Company, which can inadvertently remove butterfly host plants and create dangerous “methane bombs” by disposing of cuttings in plastic bags.

The Botanic Gardens project is a good example of community mobilisation. But the truth is, it should not be necessary in the first place. It is the kind of intervention that should have more than just the blessing of the State which should be adopting a more robustly co-ordinated effort if it is serious about environmental issues and the protection of tourism hubs and heritage sites.

To paraphrase Denyse Plummer’s classic song, Let the Flowers Bloom Again, we all need to come together to let the butterflies fly again.


"Butterfly effect"

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