Sunday, December 16, 2007

Winged wonders

BRIGHTLY coloured butterflies fluttering in a garden is a rare attraction. Bird lovers seldom get to see the winged wonders together, as it is difficult to create and maintain the various types of habitats for them.

However, the state forest department has made this possible by setting up a butterfly garden at Thenmala, 74km from the state capital of Trivandrum. The garden set up by the Entomology Department of Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) under the Thenmala ecotourism initiative will be thrown open to the visitors by the end of this month.

The garden has been set up on 2 hectares of forest land behind the musical fountain in the cultural zone by preserving the patch of the forest intact. In addition to seeing the butterflies, the visitors will be able to see Hornbills and other birds in the garden.

Thenmala is the first planned ecotourism destination in the country. The entrance to the garden is through a gate modeled on the lines of a giant Ficus tree. It will lead to the Facilitation Centre and Information Centre constructed in Kerala style.

The information centre will have a souvenir shop, office and a display room. There is a 500-metre-long nature trail on either side of which appropriate butterfly host plants have been planted.

An artificial stream with pebbles and water plants has been laid to lend a natural touch. The host plants attract and sustain butterflies. The Crotalaria plants have already attracted hundreds of Dark Blue Tiger butterflies.

Spotting the butterflies in the open environment will be a major attraction at the park. Around 40 species have been spotted in the garden at Thenmala. The park will initially have 30 to 40 varieties. Later more species would be added.

The park has been set up with the objective of conserving the winged wonders, which have been facing extinction due to indiscriminate use of pesticides, habitat destruction and reduced availability of food plants.

Though India is home to 1,502 species of butterflies, many of them are endemic and endangered. Kerala has 322 species. The KFRI already has set up two model parks — on the KFRI campus at Peechi and on the Teak Museum campus, Nilambur.

The park at Thenmala is the second butterfly park in the country. The first one with 100 species at Bangalore in Karnataka has been attracting visitors from all over the country and outside.


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Kaiser-i-Hind (Teinopalpus imperialis) in Thailand

Home to spectacular springs and rare species of wildlife, Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park makes a great cool season getaway.

The forested mountain terrain, which actually connects to Burma, is full of life. Here one can find not only hill tribes, but also wildlife such as barking deer and black bears.

"One of the rarest creatures you can find here is the Kaiser," said Jongrak Saelou, a local off-road driver and also our guide. The Kaiser, or Kaiser-i-Hind (Teinopalpus imperialis), is a rare species of swallowtail butterfly native to India. The common name literally means 'Emperor of India' and it is much sought-after by butterfly collectors for its beauty and rarity.

"The value of the butterfly is as high as the price of a motorcycle," said a ranger, noting that the high price had led to several hill tribe people taking great risks to capture them.

"Five or six years ago, a Mussur man was blown-up on the mountain while searching for the butterfly. It was because he accidently stepped on a hidden bomb planted by the troops of Khun Sa [the late Shan opium warlord]," he said, noting that the mountain was once a battlefield for those troops and Thai soldiers. Nowadays, there are no large trees left on the mountain top, only tall weeds and large bunkers.

"It is also our duty to protect the butterfly," he noted, adding that the tragedy of the Mussur man wasn't enough to prevent other hill tribe people from trying to catch this protected species.

The palm-sized butterfly calls the top of Doi Pha Hom Phok home, and we encountered a few examples of the beautiful creatures while trekking across the peak.

The Kaiser is quite fast and never stays still. It is a strong flyer that can cruise at tree-top height and even through rain. It can grow from 3.5 to five inches and samples are available to study at the information centre.

Apart from the butterfly, visitors can also enjoy bird watching. It is estimated that there are around 270 bird species to be found in the park, including the Purple Cochoa (Cochoa purpurea), which can be found only in Thailand's northern forests.

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