Building Conservation Capacity in Cambodian Communities

Story and Photos by Kathy West

Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, Cambodia. An effective and easily implemented model for community involvement and collaboration in protecting tropical forests, supporting biodiversity conservation and green tourism

Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia. Tuk tuk transportation from Siem Reap is a pleasant ride of around 1.5 hours.

The Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre (BBC), located just north of Siem Reap, is South East Asia’s largest outdoor butterfly exhibit. It was developed in an area that has a small national park and forests nearby and a predictably steady stream of tourists (that is until the Covid-19 pandemic). Founded by Ben Hayes (UK) to conserve the butterflies and forests of Cambodia, it provides a sustainable, conservation-based income for the local people from villages in the Siem Reap Province. Mr. Hayes is a consultant and biodiversity coordinator with Conservation International and has decades of experience in biological consulting and biodiversity surveys across habitats in SouthEast Asian countries. Over the past 15 years he has replicated this model butterfly program across many countries in SE Asia and Africa, providing financial security and conservation awareness with people in communities that border forest habitats.

Most types of agriculture in tropical countries require forest clearance and this habitat destruction is a major cause of species extinction. Butterfly farming is a partnership between local farmers and conservation scientists – requiring intact forests it provides an economic incentive to conserve habitats. Farmed sustainably, the butterflies are bred and reared in enclosures with limited extraction from the wild, and has a negligible impact on the health of wild populations. Through this community-based program farmers are provided with a secure monthly income for raising the butterfly pupae and gives incentive to protect the forest and thereby its biodiversity. The program also promotes and supports sustainable agriculture programs, reducing the use of natural resources, improving water catchment, and helping people to be less reliant on harvesting from the forest and deforestation.

(L) Traditional farming in Cambodia with mixed forest edges; (R) Leopard lacewings (Cethosia cyane), BBC, Cambodia

Participating farmers prepare a small netted enclosure and plant the particular food plant for the species of butterfly they want to attract. A female butterfly is placed in a breeding cage to lay her eggs which are harvested by the farmer and placed in a container safe from pests. The hatched caterpillars (larvae) are transferred to the netted enclosure and are cared for until they are ready to pupate, when the larvae attach to a stick and shed their skin to form a chrysalis cocoon. A portion of these chrysalis pupae are sold through the BBC to local and international zoos, botanical gardens and butterfly exhibits. The farmer maintains his colony by keeping some of the pupae to hatch and return the adults to the breeding cage, so as not to remove more butterflies from the wild. Additionally, 10-15% of the farmed butterflies are released into the wild to promote local butterfly diversity.

Butterflies farmed in the BBC program are large, colorful and common species (not rare, threatened or endangered) for export to public exhibits. The species are selected are those with a long pupation time in order to transport them from the farm to the international exhibit in time before hatching. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the European exhibit market, one of the main buyers for farmer-raised pupae, has entirely shut down. Not only are exhibits closed but airlines are not flying their normal, frequent schedules and are not able to transfer the pupae from Cambodia to Europe in time.

The pandemic has also had a serious impact on tourism with a 98% reduction in visitors to Cambodia. This lack of tourism in addition to eliminating exports has been devastating both in Cambodia and the European Union.

During this difficult year of pandemic limitations, Mr. Hayes has received some small grants to continue to pay the salaries of BBC staff and farmers, so that the Butterfly Centre is ready to open up to visitors again. He is cautiously optimistic that semi-normal operations will restart by the end of 2021, when flights can resume a more normal frequency and the European exhibit market is functioning. Meanwhile, the farmers continued to get paid for their work thereby protecting the forests and the biodiversity. Currently the BBC supports 20-25 people between the BBC (Siem Reap Province) and another Cambodian butterfly program under development.

BBC staff use adhesive to attach the chrysalises to sticks for pupation inside of the netted center.

(L) Larvae of the Dysphania Militaris moth. As with the caterpillars, the moths of this species are brightly colored and often mistaken for a butterfly; (R) Leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane) caterpillar

With the help of Conservation International, Mr. Hayes has begun to establish more butterfly farming in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains (Koh Kong Province). This new program is centered on the reduction of natural resource consumption, working with communities to reduce their dependence on hunting and logging, and giving them some financial security so that they are not reliant on illegal forest activities. The people have formed a cooperative team and get paid on a monthly basis as staff. This not only reduces the environmental impact of their lifestyles but reduces the need for migrating to find work in other provinces (Conservation International butterfly farming project video).

These butterfly farming programs are excellent examples of sustainable success in community-based conservation efforts. They support local people by providing them with income which encourages them in the protection of forest habitats. Farmers, their families and communities have a secure financial base and become active conservation partners in forest and biodiversity conservation.

A Birdwing butterfly (Troides helena) at the BBC. Commonly found in Cambodia, Troides is farmed locally and not exported as it is protected internationally by CITES restrictions.

Images by Kathy West, Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, January 2017. Special thanks to Lux Phem, BBC Manager, for the early morning tour.

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