One man's DIY conservation effort helps rare butterfly rebound in San Francisco

Tim Wong
© Tim Wong

Many of us tend to think of conservation efforts as a large-scale project that a big organization or perhaps a government agency might undertake. But that's not always the case. One only has to look at the courageous examples out there -- the man who single-handedly saved a species of snail, or the man that courted a rare whooping crane for three years in an effort to get her to lay eggs -- to see that sometimes, one person can make a huge difference in ensuring the survival of an endangered species.

San Francisco-based Tim Wong is yet another one of these inspiring individuals who didn't wait for someone else to act. Twenty-eight-year-old Wong, who is an aquatic biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, has also been passionate about butterflies since he was young, capturing caterpillars and breeding them into butterflies in his spare time.

Well, Wong has parlayed that childhood passion into an one-man effort saving San Francisco's population of California pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor hirsuta) butterflies from disappearing completely. According to Vox, the exquisite butterflies have made the San Francisco area their habitat for centuries -- that is, until it started developing rapidly last century. It's now rare to see these butterflies in the city.

Tim Wong© Tim Wong

Motivated by their plight, Wong researched the species' habits and favourite food -- and discovered that they feed exclusively on the California pipevine (Aristolochia californica) in caterpillar form, a deciduous vine that is now equally rare in the city. Armed with this knowledge, Wong then set out to grow this vine in his own backyard -- but it proved difficult to find in the wild. He says: "Finally, I was able to find this plant in the San Francisco Botanical Garden [in Golden Gate Park]. And they allowed me to take a few clippings of the plant."

Tim Wong© Tim Wong
Tim Wong© Tim Wong
Tim Wong© Tim Wong

Wong then set out to build a hospitable habitat for the California pipevine swallowtail butterflies in his backyard. To populate it, he was able to get the cooperation of a handful of homeowners who could source him with 20 initial caterpillars. Wong explains:

[I built] a large screen enclosure to protect the butterflies and to allow them to mate under outdoor environmental conditions — natural sun, airflow, temp fluctuations. The specialized enclosure protects the butterflies from some predators, increases mating opportunities, and serves as a study environment to better understand the criteria female butterflies are looking for in their ideal host plant.

Tim Wong© Tim Wong
Tim Wong© Tim Wong

It seems that Wong's diligent efforts have paid off in the last four years. Last year, he was able to breed "thousands" of caterpillars which were transferred over to the Botanical Garden. What is remarkable is that while California pipevine swallowtail repopulation efforts have worked in nearby counties like Sonoma and Santa Cruz, Wong's project is the first to truly succeed in San Francisco since the 1980s. Wong attributes the success to careful research and constant care of the habitat he's built in his backyard, showing that habitat restoration does make a huge difference in the survival of a species. And while he says that DIY conservation efforts aren't for everyone, he points out that we can all do our small part in the greater scheme of caring for our planet:

Improving habitat for native fauna is something anyone can do. Conservation and stewardship can start in your very own backyard.

See more over at Timothy Wong's Instagram and the California Pipevine Swallowtail Project.
[Via: Vox]

UPDATE: In context of some of the comments below, Tim Wong elaborates that this butterfly is "locally rare", which is not the same as federally listed as endangered. He says: "The general consensus among butterfly conservationists is that the butterfly is considered locally rare within the city and county of San Francisco. It is common in less disturbed areas of the north bay, east bay, and Central Valley but our story focuses on San Francisco where we are conducting our work. [..]

The butterfly and its native host plant faces localized threats in vulnerable parts of its range -- formally extirpated from Santa Cruz county and threatened by habitat fragmentation, development near its host plant, and invasive plant species -- impacts that face many species of specialist butterflies. The butterfly naturally feeds on only one native Aristolochia vine but has been documented to accept a few non-native ornamentals. Broadly, planting the native species is more accepted for providing suitable habitat. That opens up a whole new can of worms since there's debate of wether people should encourage native species to utilize exotic ones."

Tags: Conservation | Insects | San Francisco


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