Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Follow the butterfly trail


Delhi offers a great selection of butterflies for the avid watchers.

Despite Delhi being described as the second most polluted city of the world, it supports 80 species of butterflies, far more than the total tally of 56 supported by the whole of U.K. though I am yet to spot all the butterflies — especially the "Blues" — likely to be present here.

BUTTERFLIES APLENTY: Take time off and watch these beauties. PHOTO: RAJIV SINGH

The first and most important discovery is that butterflies are not to be found in well-maintained gardens, but in the undeveloped wild patches like Okhla reservoir area, The Ridge forest, ruins of the Tughlakabad fort and the like. The second revelation was that the Plain Tiger is the king of butterflies in Delhi. It is not only seen in great numbers but also quite common and seen throughout the year. In groups of whites and yellows, the Common Emigrant is the most common butterfly followed by Large Cabbage White and the Grass Yellow. In Nodia, Kasod (Cassia siame) is extensively planted as avenue trees attracting a large number of Common Emigrants, which lay their eggs on the tender leaves of the tree. Large Cabbage White Butterfly is a new (less than two decades) entrant in Delhi. It is a montane species, which descends to the plains during peak winter. Its return migration back to the Himalayas during spring is a joy to watch.

Interesting varieties

Plain Tiger, Striped Tiger, Blue Tiger and Common Crow represent the group of Tigers and Crows. Swallowtails are among one of the biggest butterflies seen in Delhi. The Nymphs belong to the most beautiful group of butterflies. In India we have five species of Pansy butterflies and interestingly all five can be seen in Delhi. Males of Danaid and Great Eggfly look similar with deep brown wings decorated with three iridescent blue circled white egg-shaped spots on each forewing (and this is the reason why in some countries it is also called the Three Moon Butterfly). Females of Great Eggfly mimic the Common Crow butterfly.

Similiarly, the female Danaid Eggfly is a perfect mimic of the Plain tiger, a milkweed butterfly whose body is filled with the poisonous chemicals derived from the milkweed (aak) shrub — its larval food plant. Female Danaid Eggfly can be seen feeding alongside Plain Tigers, quite assured of the protection provided by its model. Over a period of time birds have learnt to avoid the unpalatable Plain Tigers.

Browns are represented by only three butterflies. The Common Evening Brown is a rather big butterfly seen fluttering at dusk close to the ground. The other two are the Common Bushbrown and the Lesser Three-ring. These are found under soggy bushes and climbers in relatively dark areas.

Blues include some of the smallest butterflies. Except for the Red Flash, all the others are easily spotted. Grass Jewel is the smallest Indian butterfly which is becoming quite rare in Delhi and its surrounding areas.

Skippers are brown coloured butterflies, which look like moths. The Common Banded Awl is a very tough species that thrives even in the smoke laden lanes of Nehru Place, where its caterpillars feed on the leaves of the Pangam (kanji) trees.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Born free

Butterflies can benefit the environment and economy in multiple ways, writes Santanu Basu

Endangered and rare species of butterflies in Assam may find a fresh chance of survival if Jatin Kalita’s proposal for the creation of a Nature’s Interpretation Centre or Butterfly Sanctuary in the state’s Garbhanga forest becomes a reality. Apart from sheltering nature’s most unique creations, the project would also be the first of its kind in the country.

There is an urgent need for protecting and preserving butterflies, said Mr Kalita, head of the Department of Biological Sciences, Guwahati University, who recently conducted an extensive survey in Garbhanga reserved forest and found a huge number of these wonderful creatures fluttering all over. According to a tentative estimate by Mr Kalita, more than 800 species of butterflies have been identified so far and more rare varieties are likely to be seen. However, distribution is not equal everywhere – the butterfly population is concentrated in some places while in others places it is thin.

The survey conducted by Mr Kalita revealed several interesting things. The Biological Sciences expert detected the Golden Wing Butterfly, a particularly large variety measuring upto 200 mm. The presence of such uncommon species also tells a lot about the forest – that it houses diverse floral and faunal populations. Until the Golden Wing Butterfly was discovered in Garbhanga, a particular butterfly found in the dense forests of Tamil Nadu with a wing size of 190 mm was considered to be the largest variety in India.

Garbhanga forest seems to be the abode of as many as 22 species which were long categorised as endangered. Warnings were sounded by none other than the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, but not much was done in this respect.

The abundance of medicinal plants coupled with the unique climatic conditions in the northeastern states is the most suitable environment for these delicate creatures. According to biologists, such medicinal herbs are important for the sustenance of the various species of butterflies. And conversely, these butterflies are of utmost significance in the survival of the medicinal plants as well as orchids.
It may be pointed out that these herbs and butterflies are of great value to us, not only in terms of natural beauty and a thriving ecosystem, but also in terms of foreign revenue through export. Already Japan has evinced an interest in Indian butterflies and Thailand has shown eagerness to purchase medicinal plants from the northeastern states. The state government must stress on the commercial cultivation of medicinal plants, says Mr Kalita. And hence the idea of the creation of a butterfly sanctuary.

Oil giant Indian Oil Corporation carved out a huge butterfly park adjacent to the Numaligarh oil refinery near Dibrugarh with the purpose of countering pollution emanating from the plant. It is said that a green stretch with an abundance of butterflies can well absorb oil-related pollution to a certain extent – an effort that ought to be undertaken by all refineries in the country.
The price of butterflies, depending on size and beauty, is very high in the international market. And this is the reason why butterfly smuggling has grown over the years. Two years back, Delhi Police nabbed two Japanese smugglers at the airport and retrieved many rare species.

In Sikkim, smugglers often pose as botanists and carry out their evil designs. Last year, two foreign nationals were arrested for smuggling out rare species of butterflies from Sikkim hills. Such raids amply demonstrated the huge market potential that these winged creatures have.

In a similar such raid recently, police retrieved a sack-full of dung beetle from Darjeeling hills. Dung beetle can fetch huge money. According to police, a sack-full of these creatures can easily bring Rs 15,000 to 20,000, with one insect costing Rs 2.

Over the past few years, Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong and all such hill areas have become a soft target for smugglers who are now steadily switching from selling animal parts to smuggling out rare flora and fauna because of increased police crackdown.
The butterflies are normally used for interior designing and decoration. Thais consider display of butterflies at the doorstep a good omen. Dead butterflies are normally used as decorative pieces – interestingly, the difference between a dead one and a living one can hardly be noticed. Hence, smuggling of this beautiful creature becomes most lucrative as death does not hamper its market value.

Butterflies are made to be fluttering free. They are of immense value to the ecosystem and as beautiful creations. According to researchers, there are more than 1430 species of this animal in the world of which more than 60 per cent are found in India’s northeastern states. If efforts are made in the right direction, butterflies can benefit the environment and economy in multiple ways.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Bannerghatta Park all aflutter about facelift

from Shankar Bennur DH News Service Mysore:

IT city Bangalore’s prime weekend outing - Bannerghatta Biological Park (BBP) - is all set to open a Butterfly Park.

Sources said Chief Minister H D Kumaaraswamy has invited Union Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal to open the park, set up spending Rs 3.81 crore. It has a butterfly conservatory, audio visual facility and an exhibition hall. Rare varieties of butterflies can be seen at the park.

The park will serve as a central hub for coordinating research, training, education and rural livelihood using the resources (butterflies) of peninsular India.

Full Story

Value Of Services Performed By Insects Tops $57 Billion In US

Think twice before you blithely swat, stomp, curse or ignore insects, says Cornell University entomologist John Losey, who co-authored a study that shows the dollar value of some of those insect services is more than $57 billion in the United States annually. The research appears in the journal BioScience.

"Most insects tirelessly perform functions that improve our environment and lives in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand," Losey says. "Don't let the insects' small stature fool you - these minute marvels provide valuable services."

The study found that native insects are food for wildlife that supports a $50 billion recreation industry, provide more than $4.5 billion in pest control, pollinate $3 billion in crops and clean up grazing lands, which saves ranchers some $380 million a year.

And these are "very conservative" estimates that probably represent only a fraction of the true value, reports Losey, associate professor of entomology at Cornell.

This analysis of the economic value of these insect services is the first analysis of its type, said Losey, who co-authored the study with Mace Vaughan, Cornell M.S. '99, conservation director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Ore., which works to protect native insect habitats through education and research.

Insects are an integral part of a complex web of interactions that helps put food on our tables and remove our wastes. Humans - and probably most life on earth - would perish without insects, Vaughan said.

Losey and Vaughan's study focused on the economic value of four particular services -wildlife nutrition, pest control, pollination and dung burial - selected because robust data were available for an analysis.

"A lot of value is added to the economy by insects, but most people just don't realize it," said Losey. "When considering the allocation of conservation resources, or the management of natural habitat, we must think about this value to make sure that insects can continue to do their beneficial work.

"We know how to repair roads and other components of our physical infrastructure, but our biological infrastructure is vulnerable to degradation too," said Losey, an applied insect ecologist. "If we do not take care of it, it will break down and could seriously impact the economy."

"In fact in many places - crop pollination, for example - the cracks in the infrastructure are already showing," says Vaughn.

Using published data, Losey and Vaughan compared the values of each service at current levels of function to theoretical levels if these serves were absent. For wildlife nutrition, the researchers used census data on how much is spent annually on observing or hunting wildlife, and what proportion of the animals in those categories depend on insects for nutrition. For pest control, they looked at the amount of damage now incurred by pests, and, knowing that 65 percent of pests are controlled by other insects, calculated the losses if predators or parasites weren't going after their prey.

For pollination, they looked at the value of the crops known to be insect pollinated and subtracted the value of those pollinated by domesticated honeybees. For dung burial, they estimated the losses if dung beetles did not clean nearby plants and cattle environments, which would deter cattle from eating the plants and attract more flies and parasites that would have to be controlled. They also calculated how much fertilizer would be needed to compensate for the nitrogen not being returned to the soil so promptly by the beetles.

The analysis did not include such important insect services as decomposing carcasses, garbage and trees (thereby decreasing the likelihood of forest fires); producing honey, shellac, dyes and other products; being used in medicine or as a source of food for animals other than those used in hunting, fishing and birding; and providing a direct source of food for humans.

Based on their analysis, Losey and Vaughan call for greater investment in research on the ecological functions of insects so that the services they provide can be conserved or even enhanced.