Farming winged creatures is a burgeoning business in Costa Rica.
THEY DON'T LOOK LIKE MUCH, THESE DRIED LEAVES AND TWIGS carefully being packed into boxes between layers of cotton. But don't be fooled by appearances--these aren't dried leaves and twigs. These are live butterfly pupae. Inside what looks like a withered leaf is a fragile heliconius hecale waiting to emerge. The broken twig is the disguise of the giant black and yellow swallowtail.
This is export day at the Butterfly Farm, a commercial butterfly operation on the outskirts of San Jose and the longest-running and largest such farm in Latin America. Within 48 hours, some 2,500 chrysalises will be arriving at such destinations as the San Diego Wild Animal Park Callaway Gardens in Florida and the Niagara Falls Butterfly Conservatory in Ontario. During March and the rest of the seven-month busy season, two such shipments will go out each week.
Talk about a non-traditional export. Bananas, coffee, maybe even microchips come to mind when one thinks of Costa Rica. But butterfly pupae? While Southeast Asia was the first region to begin breeding butterflies for exhibit, Latin American butterflies have begun to overtake their eastern counterparts in popularity due to the high quality of the region's pupae producers and the beauty of the butterflies.
Within the hemisphere, Costa Rica is the largest butterfly supplier, exporting more than 300,000 pupae a year. That's not surprising, given that Costa Rica's diverse microclimates are home to 5% of the 20,000 species known to man. Packed into an area the size of West Virginia, 120 of these species are exported.
Orgy of color. Not all the pupae survive the journey. But the 90% or so that do will be released into carefully managed jungle-scapes enclosed by everything from modest wood and screen houses to towering glass pyramids. The transplanted butterflies will live a short but good life--sipping sugar water to their hearts' content, feasting on rotting fruit, soaking up the suns' rays and having sex, lots of sex--all while the butterfly-bedazzled tourist looks on, doggedly trying to capture the fluttering beauties with a point-and-shoot camera.
"Zoos and natural history museums have done panda bears and lions. Now they're looking for what's next," says Maria Sabido, who owns the farm with her husband, Joris Brinkerhoff. "Butterfly exhibits are one of the few places in a zoo where people can actually enter the animal kingdom."
Sabido pauses to...