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.



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