Flying high at the new Dubai Butterfly Garden

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Flapping casually a few inches past my left shoulder, a startlingly huge butterfly lands upon a slice of pineapple, then nonchalantly opens and closes its wings to show off its dazzling iridescent blue markings.

Seconds later, it spreads its wings and flutters high above our heads, before settling gently on a surprised man’s baseball cap. Then it’s off again at high speed, floating merrily towards a group of ­women, before it has an abrupt change of heart and selects a pink flower for its landing pad.

This, I’m told, is a blue Morpho, one of the largest butterflies in the world, and one of thousands currently enthralling visitors at Dubai Butterfly Garden.

“At the moment, we have 26 different species of tropical butterfly, originating from Latin America, Asia and Africa,” says Ayman Ahmad, the project manager at Akar Landscaping Services & Agriculture, the company behind Dubai Butterfly Garden. “We aim to have about 15,000 butterflies living here at any one time,” he says.

Butterfly boffins will be excited to know there are fine examples of Papilio lowi (also known as the great yellow Mormon or Asian swallowtail), Hypolimnas bolina (the great eggfly) and even Parthenos sylvia (the clipper) fluttering around; for the rest of us, the park is a rare occasion to get up close and personal with some of ­nature’s daintiest creatures.

What’s more, unlike Dubai Miracle Garden next door, which is scheduled to close from June 1 to November 1 because of the hot weather, the butterfly park is able to remain open for visitors all year-round. This is because Dubai Butterfly Garden is the largest indoor butterfly garden in the world, and thanks to the latest high-tech cooling solutions, all 2,600 square metres of its enclosed area are kept at a comfortable 24°C, 365 days of the year.

“Getting the temperature right was absolutely crucial,” says ­Abdel Naser Rahhal, the managing director of Akar and the general manager of Dubai Butterfly Garden and the adjacent Dubai Miracle Garden.

Some tropical-butterfly parks around the world operate at a sultry 29°C, which Rahhal and his team determined was too warm for human comfort. “A pleasant 24°C keeps our butterflies, plants and people happy,” he says.

All the butterflies in the park fly freely under the cover of vast, interconnecting domes. But while the butterflies are the main attraction here, the entire garden is also packed with lush foliage. The overall effect is a dazzling riot of colour.

More than 120 types of indoor shrubs, plants and flowers, all grown at Akar’s nursery in Al Ain, vie for space with the butterflies. Vine tendrils drape down from the ceiling and intertwine with brightly coloured chrysanthemums, petunias, geraniums and more. Thanks to the network of walkways, which meander through vegetation and water features, it’s easy to imagine you’re in the depths of a tropical rainforest.

To enjoy seeing a butterfly close-up, look for the plates dotted around the park that contain morsels of watermelon, orange and pineapple; observe closely, and you may even see one of the creatures unfurl its delicate, straw-like proboscis to enjoy a snack.

Elsewhere, you’ll notice dishes holding small, net-covered sponges soaking in what appears to be orange juice. Butterflies need a foothold to take a drink; the netting over each sponge acts as a perch from which they can sip a specially formulated liquid.

And if you like the idea of getting even closer to the butterflies – close enough to perhaps gently coax one onto your hand – then make your way to one of the four gazebos dotted around the garden. Carefully brush aside the ­gazebo’s dangling, silken threads, which act as a kind of perimeter fencing, and enter.

Inside, you’ll find a comfortable seating area, more flowers, plants and morsels of fruit – and a dazzling concentration of butterflies. Within the confines of the gazebo, the butterflies are so close to hand that it’s not long before one settles weightlessly upon your arm, shoulder or head.

Staff members inside each gazebo show visitors the gentlest way to encourage a butterfly to leave its perch and settle with you for a photo opportunity: simply place a finger in front of the butterfly’s front legs, then wait to see if it will clamber aboard.

Picking up butterflies by their flimsy, gossamer wings is highly discouraged, as is trying to capture any specimens using violent handclapping techniques; destruction is inevitable, parents of small children take note.

If you’re really lucky, you may get the chance to witness the actual “birth” of a butterfly. Every specimen here has been transported from its country of origin to Dubai, not as a flying insect but as a pupa in the metamorphosis stage, during which a flightless caterpillar transforms into winged wonder.

Peer into one of the garden's glass-panelled cupboards to see racks of these Alien-esque cocoon structures at different stages of maturity. Time your visit right and you might observe a newly emerging specimen.

The newborns’ wings are damp and fragile, and take time to open and dry out, but after a day or so, the young butterflies are released from the park’s hatcheries to fly freely within the domes. Each will usually live between one and three weeks, depending on its species.

In an ingenious example of recycling, the best specimens of deceased butterflies are meticulously arranged into eye-catching patterns and pictures, which are then displayed on the walls of the garden’s small museum. Don’t miss the impressive portraits of the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, each made entirely from butterflies.

Despite opening its doors only about a month ago, this world-class butterfly sanctuary is already attracting UAE residents and visitors from overseas.

“I’ve been to a few butterfly parks before, but never one as impressive as this,” says Keith Fullman, on holiday from the United Kingdom. “What they’ve achieved here is wonderful; the sheer number of butterflies is extraordinary.”

“The pretty pink butterflies are my favourites – one even sat on my rucksack,” exclaims 8-year-old Shazia from Abu Dhabi.

“I will definitely bring my daughters here again. It’s such a beautiful and peaceful environment, and educational, too,” says Elaine Schultz, a Dubai resident.

Spending time in the close company of sizeable, flapping creatures may not be to everyone’s liking, but if you fancy holding an example of nature’s fascinating yet fleeting beauty in the palm of your hand, then Dubai Butterfly Garden is not to be missed.

• Dubai Butterfly Garden, which is located adjacent to Dubailand, is open daily, from 9am to 5.30pm. Admission is Dh50.

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