At a farm in Penang, Alan Teh Leam Seng goes in search of the National Butterfly, the elusive Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing


THE time on my watch indicates that dawn has long gone but the thick, dark clouds hanging limp in the sky refuse to budge for the sun to make its appearance.

“This trip is going to be a disaster. There is no way my photographs are going to turn out well under this low light condition,” I mutter while waiting at the kerb for Rapid Penang bus number 101 to arrive at Weld Quay station. Then, just when I think things could not get any worse, tiny drops of water start to gently tap on my head. I extend my right hand to confirm the drizzle and before long, my exposed skin becomes a temporary home for numerous perfectly formed, perfectly cold pinhead -sized droplets. Without a moment to lose, I join others in a race for shelter under the roof of the station building.

A few minutes later, my bus arrives and the kind driver pulls up under the shelter.

“Entopia at Teluk Bahang,” I announce when it’s my turn and drop four one Ringgit notes into the collection box when the cheery woman states the fare.

The drizzle has turned into a downpour by the time the bus is meandering through the rain-soaked streets of George Town.

A little more than half an hour later, the milder weather condition at Tanjong Tokong offers a glimmer of hope. The heavy downpour is now reduced to a shower and there are patches of bright-coloured clouds in the distance, near where Teluk Bahang is located.

“Perhaps it is not raining at Entopia after all,” I tell myself while taking comfort in the unpredictability of life.

My hunch is right. The weather miraculously clears as soon as the bus passes by the last beach resort along the Batu Feringghi stretch. Imagine my utter delight to seethe Teluk Bahang roundabout bathed in glorious sunshine as the bus banks steadily to the left. Best of all, there is not a single indication of dampness anywhere!


GIANT DOME

Ten minutes later I find myself at the entrance of Entopia. I am all smiles after learning from the ticketing clerk that the place gets crowded closer to lunch time.

Looks like my habit of turning up early has paid off handsome dividends. Apart from a small group of Vietnamese tourists, I literally have the entire place to myself and can view the interesting exhibits at leisure!

Based on the site map by the main entrance, Entopia is basically divided into two large subsections. The living garden vivarium called Natureland focuses on visitor experience while Cocoon, the indoor exhibition section is designed as a place of learning and understanding the curious lives of invertebrates.

Conscious of the vagaries of the weather, I quickly make for Natureland first and take advantage of the excellent weather in Teluk Bahang while it lasts. Natureland turns out to be a gigantic domed open air ecological space that is shared not only by butterflies but also a variety of other animals, ranging from the tiniest invertebrates to several sizeable reptiles.

The first thing that hits me the moment I pass through the plastic chain veil, which acts as a security door, is the unbelievably large number of colourful butterflies fluttering around. When observed as a whole, the flying insects look very much like a rapidly moving haze of brilliant colours!


NATURELAND

Entopia is touted as one of the largest butterfly gardens in thecountry. In Natureland itself, visitors can see up to 15,000 free-flying butterflies at any one time.

The population consists of 60 different species, mostly those endemic to Malaysia, living within the confines of a lush garden filled more than 200 plant species as well as numerous cascading waterfalls, tranquil ponds and even awe-inspiring caves. The strategically located information boards are very useful in helping visitors gain an insight into the amazing world of butterflies. After reading one,I finally understand the reason why Natureland is filled with so many plants and lush shrubs.

Apart from providing food and sites to lay eggs, trees also serve as places of refuge during storms, heavy rain and falling temperatures. The leaves act as umbrellas that reduce wetting of the butterflies that cluster below them. Entomologists also believe that trees help to stabilise the microclimate by acting as blankets that retain heat during the night and prevent butterflies from freezing.

I start to move from flower to flower trying to take photographs of the butterflies as they land to drink the sweet nectar.

The main attractions in Natureland to look out for are Mystery Cave, Tiger Falls, the Home Tree, Dragon Pathand Aroma Trail.

I like the last one most as it is filled with many colourful blooms that attract the most number of butterflies. It is here that I manage to capture the most beautiful images. Sadly though, I fail to get even a single photograph of the rare and protected Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing butterfly.

Head of visitor services, Edzil Pacaldo, happens to be on his rounds at Natureland.

According to Pacaldo, the Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing usually remains at the treetops and will only occasionally make its appearance below to sip mineral-rich water.

“The males require sodium and potassium to activate their adult behaviour,” he adds before giving me a brief overview of this beautiful creature that is our National Butterfly.

The Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing was first described in 1855 by British naturalist, Alfred Wallace during his expedition in the jungles of Borneo. He named the species in honour of James Brooke, the first Rajah of Sarawak. Belonging to the scientific family group Papilionidae, this species gets its name from its outstandingly large size wings and bird-like flight pattern.

Then, just before Pacaldo is about to walk off, a large black and yellow butterfly flutters in front of us and lands on a clump of pink flowers! “That’s a yellow birdwing butterfly. It’s not as rare but is still rather difficult to spot. You are in luck today! ”Pacaldo whispers, moving aside for me to take as many photographs as my heart desires.


DAVID’S GARDEN

After more than an hour of walking, I end up at a delightful section called David’s Garden. Named after Entopia’s owner and founder David Goh, this place marks the original 2,787 sqm area where it all started in 1986.

During the early 1980s, Goh was a young teacher with a passion for butterflies. The holidays would see him embarking on expeditions with like-minded friends to far off places in search of elusive and rare butterflies. Overtime, the self-taught entomologist realised that he could turn his hobby and passion into a successful business, as well as setup an internationally recognised research and breeding centre. Eventually, Goh set in motion plans to establish the world’s first butterfly and insect sanctuary, known then as the Penang Butterfly Farm.

During its 29th year of operation in 2015, the Penang Butterfly Farm closed for a major redevelopment and rebranding exercise.

After the successful development of Phase I which covers 9,290 sq m, the facility reopened as Entopia, Penang’s premier nature learning destination on July 8, 2016.

There are plans to initiate Phase II and when that happens, visitors can look forward to an additional 3,715sq m of Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions facilities and conference halls at Entopia. Within a matter of months of its reopening, Entopia successfully bagged the prestigious Best Transformed Tourist Attraction award.

A year later, the Malaysia Book of Records recognised its building facade, which is pocketed by 88,000 plants covering over 1, 860sq m of wall space, as the biggest green wall in the country.

CoCoon With so many accolades to its name, Entopia piques my interest. I quickly move underground to Cocoon, which is home to two floors of educational exhibits and indoor activities. This state-of-the art facility offers many fun hands-on learning activities that allow visitors to enjoy a walk-through experience and self-explore the intriguing world of invertebrates via various interactive edu-stations.

Aided by the various technology-guided interpretations, I slowly weave my way through exciting attractions like Pandora Forest, Lumino City, Downtown Entopia, Breeding Ground, Underground Mysteries and Understory Tales. I slowly begin to comprehend the many important roles played by butterflies in our world.

Recognised as the most beautiful insects in the world, artists, designers, poets and songwriters often use butterflies as subjects and inspirations in their work. Apart from being important pollinators to most agricultural crops, these insects are portrayed as symbols of souls, freedom, love and peace in many cultures in this world. In industry, the study of scale arrangements on the wings inspired the invention of solar panels.

Among the many interesting exhibits in Cocoon, the one I like best is the Breeding Ground. The reason is simple. I witnessed the entire process where a butterfly awoke from its deep slumber and emerged from its cocoon, for the first time in my life. The sight of the colourful wings slowly expanding as the butterfly prepares for a new phase in its life will remain etched in the deep recesses of my memory for a very long time.

On my way out to the bus stop, I am heartened that the weather has managed to hold up admirably. Noticing that there is still time on my hands, I decide to temporarily put off plans to return to Weld Quay for my ferry ride back home and instead spend some time exploring Teluk Bahang. My day is definitely turning out to be better than expected.

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