When we, Team VIII, went to Luang Prabang for our holidays in March 2019, we visited the Kuang Si Butterfly Park, located about 300 meters next to the Kuang Si waterfalls about 30 kilometers outside of Luang Prabang.
After we visited the waterfalls we spontaneously decided to also pay the Butterfly Park a visit. We had recently heard about it and saw that it had received reviews praising its fauna and flora, especially the different kinds of colourful and rare butterflies. The park, we found, is open to any visitor who enjoys nature and butterflies. When we first entered, we did not exactly know what to expect – but then we saw beautiful butterflies just everywhere!
We were welcomed by a very lovely lady who turned out to be one of the founders and owners of the Butterfly Park. She handed us a map so we could find our way around. The property was very beautiful and well maintained. There were lots of plants and little paths all around.
After a while, we came to a small butterfly house where one of the volunteers working at the farm showed us some of the caterpillars of the butterflies. We were all stunned by the beauty and the colours of those caterpillars! Some dazzling golden – they almost looked like they were painted. On narrow pathways, we treaded more deeply into the butterfly house to find more butterflies and were surprised by the great variety of different butterflies surrounding us.1 At the end of the walk, we came to a little café with delicious food and beverages, ran by the owners of the park with help of local staff. I jumped at the chance to ask them all sort of questions.
The idea of the project was initiated by a Dutch couple in January 2014. Their vision was to create a learning center to make people aware of the importance of preserving nature and its inhabitants on this planet – and their choice fell on Laos. An idea was born, and following their passion to make this dream come true, the couple sold everything they owned back home in the Netherlands.
They had visited Laos a few times prior to moving there entirely. After their move, it took them eleven months, a lot of strength and volition to build the park, but they received overwhelming support from the local community. In the beginning, the property they rented was full of wild plants and weeds, because no one had put a step onto it for years, but month after month, it became more and more structured and shaped until every plant had its own place. Most of the trees and bushes were integrated in the park, because it was also their wish to leave as many plants and trees in their original places.
Part of the project was also to create a research center in Laos, where they themselves and teachers, scientists, and anyone else with interest would be able to learn about and explore Laos’ plants, nature and insects, especially butterflies. I was also very impressed by the couple’s fluency in Lao. For them it was obvious from the very beginning that they had to properly learn Lao to successfully communicate with the locals and to further their vision of the Butterfly Park.
Raising butterflies involves a lot of work, so the owners are always looking for entomologists,2 biologists, and botanists to help and develop the center and to train their local staff. The couple also offers the possibility for volunteers and travelers from all over the world to come and work there for food and accommodation, guiding visitors and promoting the park, which I think is a great way of enhancing nature, education for environmental issues in Laos, and protecting butterflies.
One of the long-term goals of the Butterfly Park is to publish research results and to raise awareness of environmental issues primarily concerning Laos. Another long-term goal is to also get in contact with the local community, especially children, to establish co-operations with different schools to make pupils aware of the beautiful but also vulnerable nature in Laos.
Initially, the couple only wanted to do research about the plant- and wildlife in Laos. However, the more of nature in Laos they studied, the more they felt the need to protect it and raise local awareness about nature. The park provides students and school classes who come to visit with different materials (such as leaflets and booklets) to teach them about the eco-system and their local nature to draw their attention to the necessity to protect nature for a healthy future. Yet another important goal of the center is to draw attention to sustainability, which the couple wants to further integrate into the project in the coming years. This is also why they kindly shared their story with me on my visit.
School classes who visit the park learn about the evolution of butterflies, the diversity of insects in Laos, and the importance and impact of nature on the human body. The center wants to illustrate the beauty their own local nature to the pupils, also why it should not be taken for granted, and why it is important to protect it:
- Nature is not an endless resource and should be treated cautiously;
- A healthy and clean ecosystem supports human health and well-being;
- Animal wildlife profits from a healthy environment.
Butterflies are a good approach to see the beauty and wonders of nature at its greatest, because one can observe the development of a butterfly from the egg to the caterpillar, to the cocoon and the butterfly at the end.3
The Dutch owners of the park made it their vision to inform and enlighten students about the unique beauty of Lao nature, to actively pay attention to the environment and to become aware of its influence on health, both physical and mental. They try to make students aware of the connection between nature and the handling of plastic and waste, which has a severe impact on Lao nature.
Speaking from my own experience, Laos seems to have difficulties with pollution, especially with plastic waste. There seems to be no system of how to dispose and recycle the waste – most cities lack public wastebins. People often throw their rubbish outside or burn it on the side of the street or their backyards. This is harmful both to human health and the environment, as these burnings can lead to burning eyes, headaches, nausea, and increased risks of lung cancer.4 The smoke itself negatively impacts and poisons wildlife and vegetation, because of contains toxic chemicals which are set free during the buring.5 Microparticles of plastic waste also pollute soil and water, and, in turn, the wildlife itself. Another danger occurs during the rainy season, when rivers rise and plastic waste congests drains, which can cause flooding.
At the same time , more and more people and restaurants try to avoid plastic by using bamboo straws and recyclable containers for takeaways, made from sugarcane.
Curiously, plastic bags were only introduced to Laos some ten years ago: Before that, people used banana leaves for packaging goods. After those leaves had served their purpose, people would throw them outside and the leaves would “recycle themselves”. With the change to plastic bags, which are often even used when there is no need (for example, we once received a plastic bag after buying one jug of milk which even came with a handle6), the habit of throwing away the packaging stayed the same, but plastic bags of course need over thousands of years to decompose instead of a few weeks. Even though plastic bags are more convenient and “modern” in the eyes of Lao people, using banana leaves is certainly more sustainable. 7
The “Butterfly Park” is one approach to call for attention and to raise awareness of general conservation of nature in Laos by explaining this to young adults and students in a comprehensible way. Because the younger generation will shape the future of Laos, it is of the highest importance that they take responsibility for the flora and fauna in their country.
Text by A.-S. ten Brink
Photos by A.-S. ten Brink, S. Hadatsch & M. Dimtsiou
1 Species found in Laos include the chequered swallowtail, the dead leaf, and the Blue Tiger butterfly.
2 Entomology is the scientific study of insects.
3 A picturebook that perfectly captures this development in a comprehensible way is The very hungry caterpillar by Eric Carle (1969).
4 Cf. https://www.vitalstrategies.org/breathing-smoke-city-air-pollution-lung-cancer/ or http://bengaluru.citizenmatters.in/garbage-burning-bangalore-health-effects-7180
5 Cf. https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/OpenBurning/Impacts.html
6 We even received a second plastic bag wrapped around the first one, in case the first one would break.
7 It is twisted how we in the “modern” world now newly try to avoid plastic now, and a whole new movement of “Unverpackt Läden” (“no-wrapping shops”), reusable fruit bags, glas waterbottles, hair soap, wooden toothbrushes conquer the market, because people become more and more aware of the severe impact plastic and microplastic has on health and environment, whereas so-called “developing” countries try to keep up with and copy the “modern” world and are themselves now at the (interim?) stage of using plastic all the time, which we (in the western world) did until recently. Hopefully it will not take too long until all countries go “back” to using sustainable packaging, because this is the only way to secure the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 for this planet. There is no plan(et) B.