Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 3, Dated Jan 26 , 2008
change: notes on survival
Lepidopterist and conservationist
OF THE 17,000 species
of butterflies on the planet, India is home to around 1,500. They are
found practically all over the country; regions of higher concentration
include the Northeast, the Himalayas, the Nilgiri Hills and the Western
Ghats. Delhi alone has around 80 species of butterflies, as opposed to
56 in the whole of the United Kingdom.
But of late, the numbers
of these Lepidopteron — or insects with four wings — have
dwindled drastically. Around a hundred species of the butterfly are on
the verge of extinction in India. The decline has been so rapid, especially
in the Third World, that if allowed to go unchecked, it will be irreversible.
Butterflies are almost
always treated as non-target species in wildlife conservation and management
programmes. The “Protected Area Network” set up by the government
is directed towards “iconic” fauna like the tiger, the Asiatic
lion, the elephant and the rhinoceros. While no one has an agenda against
butterflies, these small, beautiful — and agriculturally important
— creatures are often ignored.
Butterflies are an
indicator of environmental health. Few are aware of the crucial role the
butterfly plays in pollination of a large portion of economically important
crops and flowering plants, which is second only to the honeybee. The
millennia-old silk industry is also dependent on the butterfly. Should
the butterfly diversity decline, it will directly affect the country’s
India must learn from
the US experience, where many butterflies are endangered — as are
their host plants — because of depletion in forest cover. The US
is now importing live butterflies to rehabilitate them. Apart from nectar
of flowers, butterflies feed on decaying fruits and dead animals. Pretty
flowering plants in landscaped gardens are not necessarily butterflies’
host plants. To ensure diversity of butterfly species, natural forests
Poachers are increasingly
posing a big menace to butterflies in India. Large-scale poaching and
international smuggling is the biggest threat to many species of Himalayan
butterflies; the Apollo and the Swallowtail are the most threatened species.
The poachers’ aim is to make money and they have no qualms about how they
do it. Recently, three foreign nationals came to Sikkim on student visas
and began collecting butterflies and moths along with other insects. Vigilant
environmental activists spotted them and they were nabbed by the police.
They were released after being fined just Rs 25,000 each.
are killed, dried and used in greeting cards and for other ornamental
and decorative purposes. Smugglers engage locals, especially children,
in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Rohtang Pass and the Western Ghats,
paying them Rs 30-50 for every butterfly they catch. The price some of
them can fetch in the international market can be as high as USD 2,500-3,500.
China and South East Asia, especially Thailand, are the main destinations
of smuggled butterflies. Often they carry the butterflies in envelopes
and matchboxes. They discard the ones whose wings are damaged; at times
this number can go up to a thousand.
Lack of expertise
in the identification of butterflies helps poachers get away easily. There
have been many incidents where international smugglers were released from
police custody because no one knew whether the butterfly came under threatened
species or not. Such lacuna in the system needs to be urgently redressed.
But the single most
important threat to butterflies is the destruction of forest cover. The
need of the hour is to periodically review the state and health of species-specific
host plants, increased vigilance against butterfly poaching where they
are found in abundance, and education of school children from the primary
level about butterflies and the vital role they play in different aspects
of human life.
THE GOVERNMENT should
encourage those who are already engaged in butterfly conservation programmes
and are working as field guides in their area. Farmers should be educated
about the butterfly’s importance as a pollinator in agriculture; a national
data bank should be set up and academic institutions should discourage
students from submitting annual projects on butterfly collection. Excess
pesticide use and overgrazing should be discouraged as they kill butterfly
eggs and larvae. For the butterfly, crop rotation farming is better any
day over monoculture. A study conducted in the tea estates of Assam shows
that butterfly density was low in tea gardens because of monoculture as
compared to forests.
In the south and the northeast
where a good number of people are involved in butterfly study and conservation
as compared to other parts of the country, the Ministry of Environment
and Forests has provided financial assistance for captive butterfly breeding
programmes. Such government initiatives are encouraging but they require
consistency and greater spread across the country.