Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Conservation of Butterflies in Assam, India: Setting example for worldwide efforts.

Problem Overview:

The state of Assam in northeastern India, harboring some of the world’s riches biodiversity, is home to more than 500 species of butterflies. Large-scale habitat deforestation and fragmentation has led to the decline of several butterfly populations in the state, and many species believed to be common during the early part of the 20th Century have now declined rapidly through much of their range. This decline in species, so typical of the third-world today, is an indication of the ongoing global environmental crisis, and if not checked will perhaps reach a point where downward trends can no longer be reversed.

In the state of Assam, as over much of the Indian sub-continent, there is very little conservation activity directed towards butterflies.

Orange Awlet an uncommon butterfly found in the forests of Assam Photo by MV Nair

Over much of India, butterflies are treated as non-target species in the conservation and management of wildlife. The current “Protected Area Network” of the country set up by the Government, is directed towards the conservation of ‘flagship species’ such as the Tiger and Indian Rhino. The important inter-specific relationships and landscape-level ecological processes taking place through smaller life-forms are largely ignored.

Butterflies serve as important plant pollinators in the local environment, and help pollinate more than 50 economically important plant crops. The thousand-year old silk industry of the state is also dependent on Lepidoptera, but increased pesticide use in the region has caused population declines of silk moths. Butterflies act as important indicators of environmental health and the ‘ecosystem services’ provided by Lepidoptera is immense. However a contemporary discourse regarding butterfly conservation and its importance is lacking amongst the public.

As there are no names for butterflies in regional languages, let alone access to detailed information, people’s awareness regarding butterflies and their conservation is almost next to nothing. It is for this reason butterflies have failed to be a part of the environmental debate in the region.

Academic research on butterflies is also lacking and there is no readily available published information or baseline data on butterflies of the region. Although inventories exist for several other biological groups, the parks and sanctuaries of the state do not even have butterfly lists. Moreover, very few serious ecological studies on the Lepidoptera of the region have been undertaken and thus very little technical information is available for managers and policy makers to take steps for effective butterfly conservation.


Keeping this in mind, the main regions of work were identified. This primarily includes fieldwork in Assam in order to gather baseline data on butterflies and to identify threats that butterflies face. Research and documentation of butterfly species, their taxonomy and habitat are some of the first steps that are being initiated in order to get an overview of the current status of butterflies in the region.

Forests such as Nameri National Park are extremely rich in butterfly diversity but lack information on butterflies.

Effective conservation of butterflies though must be achieved through awareness and participation of people, because biological resources need protection against inappropriate uses and overexploitation.

Thus, there is a need for awareness regarding problems facing butterfly conservation amongst the public. There is also a need for capacity building at grassroots level in order to form a conservation working group and a network to study butterflies. Consequently, suitable target groups have been identified and these include (a) individuals from semi-urban and rural areas who are greater stakeholders in conservation, (b) youth, (c) Forest (Rangers) Guards and other managers of wildlife reserves.

Current Activities

The main activities the project is currently involved in include:

Research and Documentation of Butterflies

Field work has been initiated to look at butterfly diversity in the region. Surveys of four major protected areas have been undertaken, and to date over 200 species of butterflies have been identified. A comprehensive survey of butterflies of Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site has been conducted, and baseline data for Orang and Nameri National Park and Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary is being developed.

Impact of Tea Estates on Butterfly Populations:

A major study of the impact of tea estates on butterfly populations has been carried out by Maan Barua.

Tea estates have fragmented the habitat of several butterflies, notably of forest dwelling species.

Tea estates replace indigenous vegetation with monoculture plantations. It has been found that butterfly species diversity and density is considerably lower in tea estates than in semi-evergreen forest. This is due to both destruction of habitat and extensive use of pesticides in tea estates.

Once complete, results of this study will be published in journals and recommendations and suggestions for improving the tea estate habitat will be discussed with stalwarts of the tea industry.

Butterfly-Plant Interactions: Besides this, studies of butterfly-plant interactions have also been carried out, notably on that of the impact of weeds on butterfly distribution.

The study of Butterfly-Plant interactions is of great importance for conservation

People’s Knowledge of Butterfly Natural History and Conservation: Part of the programme is also to undertake attitude surveys in order to gain knowledge regarding people’s awareness of butterfly conservation. A survey of people’s attitudes and understanding of butterfly life-history, ecology and conservation was undertaken. It was found that knowledge is extremely limited and that there is need for broad-scale awareness in order to facilitate butterfly conservation in the state. A survey of people’s attitudes towards pesticide use is being initiated.

A photo database of the butterflies of the region is being developed in order to help people with butterfly identification. This will later be collated into an accessible Website for interested people.

Project on the Nomenclature of Butterflies

Local names are not available for even the more common and conspicuous species such as Peacock Pansy.

One of the startling results of the attitude survey has been the complete absence of names of specific butterflies in the Assamese language. The lack of understanding of butterfly natural history and conservation stems from this void. Thus a team has started work on translating Latin names of butterflies (by Ellin Beltz, USA) in order to assist the creation of Assamese names. A team comprising of a litterateur, Latin scholar and biologist has been formed in order to initiate the naming process. The primary aim of this activity is to make accessible the entire world of butterflies to local communities and to disseminate information on butterflies amongst the public.

To supplement this, a butterfly identification key is being prepared. 80 common and important butterflies of the region will be depicted, showing butterflies photographed in the field. This will help all beginners and amateurs with an interest in butterflies, as well as those to be engaged in further fieldwork on butterflies in the region.

Dissemination of Information on Butterflies

In order to create awareness amongst the public at large, a poster on butterflies is being printed.

Creation of a poster on butterflies will help disseminate information and further enhance butterfly study in the region.

The main thrust of this poster is to portray butterfly diversity, threats to butterflies resulting from habitat destruction, pesticide use, as well as the importance of butterflies to man and their role in providing ecosystem-services. This will be done in simple, jargon-free language in order to reach out to a wider public.

There is also a need to popularize the study of butterflies in the region. Thus existing publications such as newspapers and popular science magazines are being approached in order to carry a column or articles on butterflies in regional languages. A radio interview regarding conservation was recently aired in the All-India Radio, reaching an audience over a million people.

Identify Target Groups and Training Individuals

Interested individuals and organizations have been contacted, and a process to form a Butterfly Conservation Working Group has started. This includes liaison with existing nature networks and organizations that are interested in working on butterflies and to hold training camps on butterfly identification and conservation in various parts of the state.

Participation of rural youth in butterfly fieldwork.

Efforts have been made at training interested individuals to understand butterfly conservation and take up studies on butterflies. A few individuals have been trained to identify butterflies and to participate in butterfly monitoring schemes. This is the first of its kind in the state. Active work with rural youth, greater stakeholders in conservation, has begun, and a schedule for holding short training camps in various parts of the state is being chalked out.

An effort is being made to hold a meeting of Butterfly-India, the country’s only butterfly network, in the region so that interested youth and other individuals can meet butterfly enthusiasts and Lepidopertologists from various parts of the country.

Desired Objectives and Results

The final outcomes of this effort will essentially be to suggest potential solutions for current butterfly declines incorporating both Forest Department and people’s participation. Based on the process and outcomes the replicability of the initiatives may be assessed and conducted in different parts of the world. Some of the goals, both immediate and long-term would be:

§ To create a group that conducts research, field studies and monitors butterfly populations in the region;

§ To suggest potential solutions for current butterfly declines and draw in various agencies and the public into a debate for conserving butterflies;

§ To publish a newsletter on butterflies and start a website on butterflies of the region; and,

§ To build a network that furthers long-term butterfly conservation at regional and international levels.

Box 1: Horizon International and Butterfly Conservation in Assam

This project is being accomplished with the partnership of Horizon International, a non-profit organization working with people involved in various fields of the environment and health to advance solutions. Horizon helps young people working in the field of conservation to realize their potential and to network and share solutions to conserve the rich natural heritage of their environment. Hence, the involvement aims at fostering butterfly conservation in the region and seeking solutions that aim at doing so.

Horizon will help launch this effort onto an international platform and explore the scope of replicating similar processes in other parts of the world, notably in developing countries where butterflies face severe threats and where there is paucity of information on butterflies.

Maan Barua, the leader of the project, is currently doing an internship with Horizon International. Horizon is working on liaisons with Lepidopterologists so that desirable input can be given to the project.

Contact author:
Maan Barua
Wild Grass
Kaziranga, Assam 785109,

Maan Barua is also the photographer of all of the photographs except as otherwise indicated.

About the author:
Bittu Sahgal,Editor, Sanctuary Magazine, wrote:

He is one of India's most promising ornithologists and is currently doing extensive work fieldwork on the birds of Assam. His on-going field studies include impact of habitat change on butterfly populations and such works deal with the issue of loss of biodiversity as a result of large-scale habitat change.

He has worked extensively with village youth at grass-roots level in Assam, eastern India and this work is primarily aimed at building a social base for conservation oriented work. Working with indigenous cultures and ecological issues has resulted in the region's first works looking at the effect of environment and cultural change.

Maan has over 20 publications in journals both in India and abroad, and is currently working on a book on the common birds of Assam. He was also awarded the Carl Zeiss Role of Honour 2005 for excellence and commitment to wilderness areas.


The Leaf That Flies Away

By Bruce G. Marcot, Ecology Picture of the Week:

Here is an example of near-perfect cryptic coloration. This is a Common Evening Brown butterfly camouflaged to blend amazing well into the dead leaves on the forest floor.

I spotted this insect only as it flew out from underfoot as I carefully made my way through the remote dense jungle undergrowth in Nokrek National Park in northeast India. I was watching more for cobras, kraits, and other venomous friends, than I was for butterflies. It flushed underfoot, and I followed it for its short bouncy flight several times before I could creep close enough for photos. It flew more like a skipper (a tiny butterfly), keeping close to the ground, and when alighting on the dead leaves would fold its wings and remain motionless, virtually vanishing perfectly among the forest floor debris.

Common Evening Browns are, well, fairly common throughout India, and are active mostly in crepuscular periods (dawn and dusk) although I saw several active during mid-day on the dark jungle forest floor. Common Evening Browns prefer overripe fruits and even tree sap, although their "green horned" or "two-horned" caterpillar stage prefers rice and other grasses and can become an agricultural pest.

--Bruce G. Marcot


Butterfly Garden at Auroville

Jana (from USA) and Perumal (from India) speak about their efforts to create a garden for the 'conscious flowers of air', as Sri Aurobindo described butterflies poetically in Savitri.

Shift from imported to indigenous plant species

It is well known that Auroville was started on degraded land stripped of its original tree and bush cover, interspersed with dry land crop fields. The last three decades have witnessed a massive re-afforestation in a bid to restore soil quality and the general health of the land. This has met with spectacular success, but certain problems have arisen. As much as 72% of the regeneration in many areas consists of imported exotic plant species, like Acacia trees - 'Work', as Mother named them. To what extent this has adversely affected the local fauna still remains to be seen, but nowadays a shift to afforestation with indigenous species is promoted.
Fertile Field settlement

One of the areas where this is being done is Fertile Field. Jana and her husband Perumal have taken charge of 17 acres recently purchased land - 10 acres of cashew tope and 7 of open field - with an aim to plant native trees and shrubs so as to create a butterfly garden for indigenous butterflies.

Insects as hobby

"I was more or less born with a passion for insects," laughs Jana. "Since I was a child I loved insects, particularly beetles. I collected and bred them. But I chose to get a Bachelor's degree in English Literature, and insects remained a hobby. When I came to live in India, with its enormous amount of insects, my interest reawakened. I am thinking about taking up a correspondence course to get a Masters in Biology. This time, the emphasis will be on butterflies. I have been breeding them on a small scale when I was living at the beach community of Sri Ma. Now, here in Fertile Field, we plan to plant 10 acres for the butterfly garden with food plants for the larvae and with plants that attract butterflies."

Biological indicators

"There is quite a good butterfly population in Auroville," Jana continues. "Research done in 1995 by Ms. Aditi Pai showed that there were 55 species of butterflies living in Auroville, against 49 in Puthupet, a forest nearby Auroville which still has the original shrub jungle of this area. Now it is well known that certain insects, especially Butterflies and Moths, are particularly suited as biological indicators. Biological indicators are organisms, which are very sensitive to their environment. This is manifested by their 'performances' in their habitat. Their very presence or absence, or their number, is a good indication of state of the environment. Using butterflies as biological indicators, Pai found that the quality of the Auroville habitat is not exceptionally good, but that the diversity of Auroville's habitats, ranging from grasslands (Aranya) to plantation areas (young areas in Aurobrindavan and older ones in Forecomers) to natural degraded scrub lands (e.g. Fertile) and ravines (Forecomers) was responsible for the species richness."

315 species of butterflies in south India

"Large parts of Auroville" says Jana, "are disturbed habitats, that is areas where due to all kind of reasons there has been a loss of biomass. Other areas are unsuitable for the indigenous butterfly population because the flora is partly exotic. The afforestation efforts attempt to change all that, and I hope the species variety will drastically grow once the indigenous food shrubs and trees mature. After all, there are about 1.500 species of butterflies in India, 315 of which live in south India. The butterflies seen in Auroville are among the most common species of India. But they are tough. My neighbor, a Tamil farmer, sprayed his field this year with DDT, which may have killed some of them, but I have also found many larvae that lived through the spraying season."

Growing food plants for local species

As to whether she plans to make a kind of butterfly house that would show exotic butterfly species as well, Jana replies in the negative. "That's not the objective, although it would be a great project. I recently visited one such house in Malaysia, which is filled with different butterflies from all over the world. It is stunningly beautiful, but it is not what I want to do. I want to focus on local species and release them. To import non-indigenous species is useless if you do not grow their food plants and it might be dangerous, as scientists do not know what impact on the environment would be. Already questions are being raised whether breeding indigenous butterflies would not create a pest, as the larvae eat plants. The emphasis will be on growing the food plants and planting them all over Auroville, which implies a lot of nursery work. It is not. It is not a question of just breeding and releasing them!"

Nature will balance out

"The general consensus is that this project would be beneficial to the environment. One of the advantages is that butterflies are the second strongest pollinating insects next to bees. We expect that the butterflies will disperse and migrate and that, as we will not introduce any new species, nature will balance it out. We have already seen many new birds coming to Auroville, which are the natural predators of butterflies."