Taking Wing

Ela Patel’s Butterfly Garden is an ecological model for Windsor members and the community-at-large.
Ela and Evan Patel prepare to release atala butterflies at the grand opening of the WIndsor butterfly garden. These butterflies were bred at Disney’s Animal Kingdom for release in Windsor’s butterfly garden as part of the conservation effort to reverse its population declines.

“I’ve loved butterflies since I was really young,” says Ela Patel, the 11-year-old largely responsible for Windsor’s Butterfly Garden. Thanks to an inspiring conversation she had with two Disney biologists, Ela’s passion became a mission to help imperiled butterflies, specifically the atala. “You know when they say, ‘When you build more gardens, more butterflies come?’” she asks. Well, since the garden opened last April, nearly a dozen species have made Windsor home.

Ela, along with her brother, Evan, 9; her mother, Dr. Sejal Patel; and her father, Dr. Vipul Patel, has been a part-time resident of Windsor since 2011. Windsor is her “actual” home, her fun home, while her “work” home is in Orlando, where the Patels met Drs. Anne Savage and Zak Gezon at Walt Disney World. Sejal was looking for ways her children could be more involved in local conservation. Savage told the family about a new initiative the Disney Conservation Fund launched this year to “Reverse the Decline” of 10 at-risk animals, including butterflies. 

“Our goal is to work with a variety of organizations and private landowners to develop butterfly gardens and begin to introduce species back where appropriate,” says Savage, Disney’s Animals, Science & Environment conservation director. The atala butterfly, once thought to be extinct in the 1960s and ‘70s, was at the top of the list. 

The atala has made a comeback largely due to a focus on its host plant, coontie. Coontie is Florida’s only native cycad, an odd type of plant that has changed little since the times of the dinosaurs. Coontie is the only native plant on which the atala butterfly can lay its eggs. Years ago, Native Americans would dig the plant up and grind its roots to make flour. During World War I, settlers began harvesting the plant to support the troops, and the plant’s population crashed. 

Categories: Features