09 March 2011

Metallic Caerulean - Dark Days Ahead?

The Metallic Caerulean - Dark Days Ahead?

What's the future of the Metallic Caerulean in Singapore?

With the government's plans to go ahead with the Mandai Nature Cluster to complement existing nature attractions in that area, it was confirmed in Dec 2010 that the Mandai Orchid Garden as many of us know it, will be no more. The Mandai Orchid Garden, which was set up in 1951, will make way for new attractions, which are yet to be announced. So ends a 60-year tourist attraction and a favourite 'playground' of many nature photographers in Singapore.

A female Metallic Caerulean lays her eggs on the mature flower of the Torch Ginger

Mandai Orchid Garden (or MOG) is also the location where the Metallic Caerulean (Jamides alecto ageladas) can be regularly observed. Often, this little Lycaenid can be seen in numbers, fluttering around in the vicinity of their caterpillar host plant - the Torch Ginger (Nicolaia elatior), also known as Bunga Kantan. The caterpillars feed on the flowers of the Torch Ginger. The complete life history of the Metallic Caerulean has been recorded in this blog.

The caterpillar of the Metallic Caerulean feeds on the mature flowers of the Torch Ginger

The flower buds of the Torch Ginger has been described as "the soul" of many Peranakan dishes, the most famous of which is Penang (Assam) Laksa. Without this critical ingredient, the aromatic dish loses its flavour. The Torch Ginger is hence cultivated and the flower buds harvested for this culinary purpose.

There are many gardens in Singapore where the Torch Ginger is cultivated, like the Singapore Botanic Gardens' Ginger Garden. A very large clump of the plant can also be found at the Secret Garden on Pulau Ubin, but the flower buds are harvested (probably by the villagers) long before they bloom, leaving the clump usually devoid of flowers for the caterpillars of the Metallic Caerulean.

With the closing down of MOG, the Metallic Caerulean's favourite haunt may soon be gone. It is not known what the plans for the site where they are regularly seen are, but it is likely that the Water Garden of MOG may be cleared as it is being redeveloped with the new proposals.

ButterflyCircle engaged a couple of organisations with the hope of translocating the species to a habitat where there is a large clump of Torch Ginger and where the habitat is conducive for the Metallic Caerulean to thrive.

The Singapore Zoo responded to the call with much enthusiasm. After a visit to the location with Wildlife Reserves' CEO, Ms Fanny Lai and her staff to survey the MOG site where the Metallic Caerulean were often seen, the Zoo staff swung into action the following week, starting with a phased transplanting of the Torch Ginger to a new location in the Zoo.

Given the proximity of the Zoo to MOG, and the creation of a habitat that is hopefully attractive to the Metallic Caerulean, the first batch of the Torch Ginger plants from MOG was transplanted to a patch opposite the Fragile Forest. Some mature flowers were already amongst the plants that were transplanted, and hopefully these contain the next generation of the butterflies.

The Torch Ginger plants are transplanted to their new home at the Singapore Zoo

As the MOG site still has a bit of time before being cleared for the new development, the transplanting and translocation of the Metallic Caerulean will be carried out in phases. This is to allow the butterflies to adapt to the new location, whilst their original "home" can still continue to allow the butterflies to breed as they have done over the years. Full transplanting of all the Torch Gingers to the Zoo will take place when the plans for MOG are fully made known.

Whilst it is a pity that the MOG will be gone, and that the Metallic Caerulean is threatened, there is still a glimmer of hope that this translocation exercise will be successful and the butterfly species will continue to thrive in their new home at the Zoo.

ButterflyCircle would like to express its thanks to the Singapore Zoo's staff, and in particular their CEO, Ms Fanny Lai, for supporting this effort to conserve Singapore's butterfly biodiversity. Whilst there is no guarantee that the species can be conserved successfully, this is an important collaborative effort made by organisations like the Singapore Zoo to promote the conservation of Singapore's natural heritage.

We hope that the Metallic Caerulean will continue to survive in Singapore for the years to come.

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Khew SK, Henry Koh, Horace Tan, Anthony Wong, Mark Wong, and the Singapore Zoo.

Article on the Torch Ginger Transplant courtesy of the Singapore Zoo, taken from its online magazine "Wildlife Times"