Trapped in Nepenthes


The chronicle of Robert Cantley is as colorful as the Nepenthes (Pitcher Plant) or Bandura as it is locally known he is passionate about. A committed conservationist, Cantley has been honoured by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew by naming the world’s most spectacular carnivorous plant he discovered, after him – Nepenthes robcantleyi. Here we share the exhilarating story of Robert Cantley and the labors of Borneo Exotics, the company he founded in Sri Lanka, which he calls ``my beautiful island home’’ today.

By Randima Attygalle

"Both my parents served in the armed forces and were stationed in then Ceylon at the time of World War II. In fact they had met for the first time in Kandy; so I was brought up always hearing about Ceylon as it was then known. Within months of arriving here back in 1997 with my partner Diana Williams, we made so many Lankan friends many of whom even 15 years later remain our close friends. We have come to think of Sri Lanka as our home," recalled expatriate Robert Cantley, to whom growing Nepenthes (Nepenthes distillatoria) or Bandura as it is locally known, comes naturally.

Quality of life

A man of many talents, Cantley has more than green fingers! An electronics engineer by profession, he had also proven himself as a telecommunications engineer, physicist and what’s more, a Chief Inspector of Police in the Royal Hong Kong Police! Although born to British parents, Cantley who is 55-years old now, has lived and worked in Asia for 40 years, studying and growing Nepenthes as a hobby during much of that time. As he points out, it’s only in the past 16 years has he been able to turn his dream into reality and work on these plants full time. That’s after he moved here.

What made him choose Sri Lanka to realize this dream? "Back in 1997 we considered several countries actually, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand etc. However, several reasons drove us to pick Sri Lanka as the ideal location, including the availability of tropical highland and lowland growing conditions within driving distance of each other. There are over 120 species of Nepenthes and some grow in steamy swamps and some on cold wind-swept mountain tops, so they can’t all be grown in one place without expensive specialized equipment. Hence we didn’t specifically choose Sri Lanka because Nepenthes grow here but more for the variation in climate."

The availability of an educated and affordable work force, good incentives for investors such as duty free concessions and support from the BOI, allowing 100% foreign ownership and ability to purchase land which gives a feeling of security are other contributory reasons. But above all it’s the quality of life here which beckoned Cantley. "What set Sri Lanka apart from other countries we considered was excellent quality of life. It was important for Diana and I to enjoy living in our chosen locality and Sri Lanka has not failed us."

A protected species

Nepenthes is endemic to Sri Lanka. They are carnivorous vines with the end of each leaf adapted into a sophisticated insect/small animal trap. While some catch only small insects, others dine on frogs and rats. As Cantley explains, these traps are not flowers as some assume but actually part of the leaf. Nepenthes produce flowers whey they are between five and 10 years old. There are male and female plants which Cantley and his team have been cross-pollinating to produce the hybrids needed under carefully monitored conditions in their lab in Lindula near Talawakelle. The tissue cultured from the seeds of Nepenthes with the blessing of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, as Cantley points out is only for conservation purposes in case it’s ever needed. "We don’t usually sell it, nor do we use it in our hybrid breeding programs. We feel that endemic plants and animals of all sorts should be a resource of Sri Lankan people alone and not exploited by others."

The whole goal of Borneo Exotics (Pvt) Ltd, which was incorporated in 1997 by Cantley (name of the company derived from Borneo where he began studying Nepenthes 35 years ago) was to take a non-existent industry as it was 17 years ago and make a business out of it. "It’s been tougher than we could possible have expected, mainly for technical reasons and nothing to do with Sri Lanka, but we have had some fun creating new hybrids and selecting the best of them as cultivars to be propagated, first in our laboratory and then nurseries."

Nepenthes are protected internationally under the CITES Convention, making it illegal to remove a plant from the wild and export it without special permission. However, as Cantley explains, seeds are exempted from CITES, enabling them to import seeds to Sri Lanka from various countries with appropriate permits. "We have grown our mother stock from them and when they were old enough to breed, we started to produce hybrids. We are the only nursery (housed in Lindula) in the world to do this on any kind of serious commercial scale. About 98% of the hybrids we make get discarded as unsuitable for mass production for one reason or another, so it’s been very costly; but the 2% that meet all the necessary criteria to have mass market appeal makes it all worthwhile in the end."

Market strength

Borneo Exotic’s market is two fold as its Managing Director Cantley asserts. The first one which is niche which has been with them all along is to supply plants to specialist nurseries around the world. "This is very finicky and difficult market to service as customers want one of that and three of that etc. The paperwork for an order comprising many species of plants is just horrendous!"

The other is an upcoming new mass market which is huge and potential, using hybrids they have selectively bred specially for the purpose over 15 years. The niche collectors market is ‘tiny’ and ‘not growing’ according to Cantley, making it extremely difficult to survive off that. "But the key to our ultimate aim of getting these plants into shops all over the world for anyone to enjoy was to develop new strains of hybrid that are fast growing, attractive and easy to keep. We are where the orchid industry was over a century ago, except that by using modern techniques such as plant tissue culture, we can speed up the process of producing hybrids by many times."

It is still a long, expensive and a tedious process though, which is why Borneo Exotics patent their best Nepenthes hybrids and as Cantley explains further, develop a plant growing system that is cheap to manufacture enabling anyone anywhere to grow the plants with minimal maintenance, also facilitates easy accessibility to the plants globally. "We have now done this after years of experimentation and it is called the "Bio-Dome" for which a patent is pending. It allows people even in temperate countries to easily grow small Nepenthes plants by only watering about once a month, giving a little light and fertilizing about once every 2-3 months."


Committed conservationist

Cantley who Chairs the IUCN Carnivorous Plant Species Survival Commission (which is the scientific advisors to CITES) under the patronage of Sir David Attenborough has been passionate about conservation ever since he was a teenager. Over the years he has discovered many new Nepenthes species in the wild, some on the brink of extinction - the best example being the world’s most spectacular carnivorous plant which he discovered whilst trekking in the Philippines in 1997. "This unfortunately became extinct in the wild due to deforestation shortly afterwards. But we got a little seed, raised parent plants and have now produced over 4,000 offspring, so it’s safe from extinction." Cantley was honoured by taxonomists at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, by naming this plant Nepenthes Robcantleyi.

With Cantley as the MD and his partner Diana Williams as the Director, Borneo Exotics staff strength is about 60, many of them who have been with the company for over 10 years and have learned the business from the bottom-up, it being exceedingly complex and like no other as Cantley notes. "It’s been a small business so far with income from only the niche collectors market giving us below subsistence turnover, consistently less than $400,000 per year, which is well below break-even. But that is set to change now, with the advent of our new products onto the world stage.

Turnover targets for next financial year will be over $1 million and expected to exceed $3 million the following year. Still this is a small business at this stage but with very rapid growth ahead of us, he explains. ``Fortunately, we have very patient shareholders but they’ve always known the situation and now they can see the rewards ahead."

As regards competition, there isn’t any to speak of as Cantley perceives and doesn’t expect any to arise any time soon. Having created nearly 700 new hybrids over the past 15 years, only about 20 of them will have true mass-market appeal as he sees it. "This is a business with a ‘very long gestation period,’ as Prof. G.L. Peiris commented once in an EDB forum. One advantage of this long gestation period to become profitable is that it gives us an unassailable lead over any competitor, no matter how much money they pour into it."

A rewarding journey

For Cantley and Diana, it had been a fulfilling journey exhibiting their exotic plants and bagging several coveted accolades including five gold medals at London’s Chelsea Flower Show. A former physical education, dance specialist and drama teacher who managed her own children’s safari company in Kenya where she lived for 15 years, Diana’s unusual talent and passion for growing plants of all types originates from her Cornish childhood, much of which was spent assisting in her father’s greenhouse and garden.

"Diana is responsible for running both lowland and highland nurseries and it is her dedicated and highly trained staff that is largely responsible for the outstanding quality of the produce. Her excellent design skills are also the reason for the fact that the company has won so many international awards. Growing beautiful plants is one thing but exhibiting them to best effect is quite another," says Cantley.

A contented couple, Cantley and Diana enjoy ‘doing their bit to fly the flag for Sri Lanka’, their collective love for the island resonating in his words "we hope that in some small way we have helped raise the public image of this beautiful island, which we have come to think of as our home."

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