Monday, October 27, 2008

Red, Red Wings

Brilliantly-coloured butterflies have miraculous births

Manager, Piramal Healthcare,

ONE OF the most miraculous sights in nature is the lifecycle of the butterfly — it goes through a complete metamorphosis as it passes through four distinct stages: egg, caterpillar, pupa and adult butterfly. Let me share my own experience with rearing butterflies on my window sill.

The Change
Illustration: ANAND NAOREM

About four years ago, someone gifted me a pupa of the Red Pierrot butterfly. A pupa is that stage in the lifecycle of a butterfly after which the adult emerges. As I watched the pupa, one day at a time, the wait was agonising. Eventually, on day nine, its colour changed from white to black and I knew the birth was near. I checked on it several times that night, with no luck!

By morning, the pupa was transparent and the colours of its wings were visible. At noon, the pupal case burst open and out crawled the beauty, struggling to find its feet. It had two black forewings and two red hind wings on the upper side, while the underside was white with black dots; a black and red margin to the wings was interspersed with white dots. I filmed the event until the newborn fluttered off, confidently, first onto a plant on my window and then out into its world.

I then bought a Kalanchoe plant for my window. This is the plant on which these butterflies lay their eggs: most butterflies have specific plants from which they take their nectar and specific plants on which eggs are laid for the caterpillars to feed on. It took a patient three-month wait before my Kalanchoe flowered.

Then, within no time, I saw tiny eggs on the leaves, soon followed by tiny caterpillars. Caterpillars feed voraciously; they are virtually eating machines. Soon, not much of my plant remained!

The caterpillar sheds its skin three to four times during its development, during which process it temporarily stops eating. This stage is called the instar. Ten to 15 days later, the first pupa formed and I stored it carefully in an openmouthed container, lest the birds should take it away.

After thus removing a few more pupae to safety, I stopped, reasoning with myself that I was interfering with the ways of nature. Nature has its own way of balancing things and the food chain would be imbalanced if all organisms had a 100 percent survival rate. However, I did watch and count them several times a day, to reassure myself that they were all safe. I had 25 of them now!

Soon, one after the other, the pupae began to hatch — sometimes one a day, at other times two or even three. Over a period of 10 days, I saw 25 Red Pierrots come to life and take their first flight into the world from my window.

A few days after all the births were through, I saw a Common Mormon butterfly laying eggs on my curry leaf plant. These caterpillars grew much larger than the Red Pierrots. Naturally, therefore, there was a higher risk of attack. I allowed nature to follow its course and four of the eight pupae were eaten by birds.

These simple joys of nature bring with them immense pleasure; they sooth our frayed nerves, all the while teaching us the ways of life. For those interested in attracting butterflies to their windows or gardens, you can grow plants like Pentas, Ixora, Marigold, Petunia, Sadaphuli, Jatropha, Aster, Lemon grass, Plumbago and Heliotropium — and watch as various varieties of butterflies arrive to suck their nectar.

Or, if you want to watch the lifecycle of a butterfly at first hand, try planting Kalanchoe, Curry Leaf, Passiflora, Bryophyllum or Calotropis, and wait for the butterflies to come and lay their eggs, and watch their metamorphosis. Remember, butterflies usually lay eggs towards the end of the monsoon, and continue right up to February. The creature may not emerge from the pupa for months together, depending on the species and on whether the conditions are favourable for its survival, though this occurs only in extreme climatic areas.

Go ahead and observe the miracle of nature — it will humble you for sure; albeit delightfully. •



Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Insect appeal

Sandeep Unnithan
October 10, 2008

Call it a beauty pageant with a difference. A small gathering of tribal youths queue up outside a nondescript hotel in a small town in Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh holding plastic bags and ventilated clear plastic jars.

What they're selling are huge, velvet-coated palm-sized tarantula spiders, stunningly beautiful, but with a bite that can kill a human.

The youths tell a shaky hand-held camera exactly what they are doing there: trying to sell the spiders to a German tourist camping in the hotel. Each spider will fetch them between Rs 500 and Rs 5,000. A tidy sum for an eight-legged creature that remains relegated to the obscure in India.

Wildlife officials aren't surprised by this footage, shot by a local television reporter last December. For years, foreign nationals have been descending on Indian forests and spiriting away insects.

Two months ago, two Czech nationals were arrested for stealing insects near Darjeeling's Singalila National Park. The duo-Prague-based entomologist Petr Svecha and insect trader Emil Kucera-was recently convicted by a local court.

India is one of the world's 12 megadiverse countries as it harbours a significant chunk of the earth's species. This includes 45,000 plant species, 89,000 animal species, and a staggering four lakh insect species, with several still waiting to be discovered. "Insects are the unknown frontier," shrugs Traffic India Chief Samir Sinha.

Raiding this frontier, like the latter day Indiana Joneses, are dozens of eco-pirates from countries as diverse as Japan, Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic. They come armed with intricate knowledge of local species and know exactly how and where to find them. Many of them feed a thriving global illegal trade in wildlife, third after narcotics and arms.

India is a biodiversity hotspot with 45,000 plant and 89,000 animal species
India is a biodiversity hotspot with 45,000 plant and 89,000 animal species
"The total trade in wildlife products is worth about $10 billion (approximately Rs 47,000 crore) and if insects make up even a fraction of this, you have a substantial sum," says Tito Joseph of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).

The hunting grounds are the Himalayan foothills, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats-three regions with the most biodiversity in India.

A single palm-sized specimen of the poisonous Indian tarantula, found only in the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, can fetch more than $1,000 (Rs 47,000) in the international market. Locals say the German 'tourist' was willing to pay upwards of Rs 1 lakh for a still rarer variety of the blue tarantula.

A single specimen of the exquisite Kaiser-e-Hind butterfly costs over $1,500. Other Indian ornamental spiders retail for $35 and $150, depending on their size. Kucera ran a website which offered the arachnids for sale but it was shut down after his arrest.

"I am not coming to India to collect spiders, I merely want to study them," says the tourist, waving a German book on the ornamental spiders of the Eastern Ghats. But the statements of the tribals reveal a different tale.

Research has been the common pretext used by most such people including Svecha, who is associated with the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, and Kucera. They now have an international lobby of scientists and researchers seeking their release.

French students came to India well prepared. They would light ultraviolet lamps in the jungle and pick up the moths
French students came to India well prepared. They would light ultraviolet lamps in the jungle and pick up the moths
A furious round of Internet petitions from foreign researchers, sent straight to the Prime Minister's Office, built pressure on the Indian Government urging it to stop "victimising" the duo.

The fact is that the National Biodiversity Act which came into force in 2002 explicitly prevents the collection of flora and fauna from India and lays down the procedures for collecting specimens. Yet, most scientist poachers continue to skirt the law, often bringing along the tools of the trade.

A group of French students arrested in July last year were caught with ultraviolet lamps and bedsheets. They would light their lamps in the jungle, wait for the moths to come and simply pick them off the bedsheet before inserting them in plastic sample sheets and packing them in suitcases. These poachers feed the appetite of hobbyists, collectors and butterfly museums across the world.

The trade could contribute to the extinction of certain insect species that are already reeling under the loss of habitat. Indian tarantulas, some of which have tiger and leopard-like coat hair and are called 'tiger spiders', live inside dead trees which are frequently chopped down for firewood. They now face a fate similar to that of their doomed namesake of the cat family.

"Indian 'tiger spiders' are being increasingly sought out by celebrities in the West as 'dangerous pets'. Various species of Indian tarantulas are being smuggled out in large numbers to feed the fad abroad," sighs K. Thulsi Rao of the Biodiversity Research Centre, Srisailam, Andhra Pradesh.

South Africa was once the hub of illegal spider trade but its tarantula was added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1996. ''Since then, the smugglers have shifted their focus to India,'' says Rao.

The WPSI says 25 cases of insect poaching have been registered in India since 1995. But for each poacher caught, there are nine who slip away.

This is because smuggling insects from Indian forests is a seemingly innocuous and risk-free occupation that operates under the smokescreen of ignorance and allurement.

"We are seen as easy targets," says Sinha. One police official asked a wildlife warden why were they fussing with foreigners walking away with minor keeda-makoda (insects)?

The pirates know that customs and airline authorities, who scan baggage at ports of exit, simply wave through bags stuffed with insects and butterflies.

What needs to be done? Wildlife activists say the legislation is in place. The Wildlife Act and the National Biodiversity Act of 2002 covers wildlife protection. Yet, cases of individuals being convicted are extremely rare. Since 1972, the government has managed to get only eight convictions under the Wildlife Act.

Seven of these convictions ranged between four and five years and one for six years, but no violator has been given the maximum prescribed seven-year sentence.

Wildlife activists hail the conviction in June of two Czech nationals found guilty of violating the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 in smuggling out rare insects from West Bengal as historic. Svecha was fined Rs 20,000 while Kucera was sentenced to three years' imprisonment by the court.

The main task, say biodiversity board members, is to sensitise the judiciary and the law enforcement authorities. The board had last month proposed forming a multi-disciplinary team comprising members from the executive, forest, wildlife and fisheries departments for increased and coordinated policing but these proposals are yet to be implemented by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Czech entomologist Petr Svecha and insect trader Emil Kucera were convicted for stealing insects from the Singalila National Park
Czech entomologist Petr Svecha and insect trader Emil Kucera were convicted for stealing insects from the Singalila National Park
The members are also pushing to motivate gram panchayats in three environmental regions and provide knowledge to workers at the grassroots level.

Could legitimising the trade where tribals get an equal source of income, be the answer? "Unless we have a benefit sharing mechanism in place we will lose our bio-resources either through legalised looting or through bio-piracy," says V.B. Ramana Murthy, member secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Biodiversity Board.

The jury is still out on this one. "Right now, insect farming should not even be thought of as it could lead to a lot of unforeseen complications regarding our biodiversity," says S.S. Negi, director of the Forest Research Institute of India. Clearly, in the absence of government measures the poachers have the upper hand.


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Illegal Trade Decimating Wildlife

By Malini Shankar*

The endangered Blue Tiger butterfly is the target of poachers in India.

Credit:Malini Shankar/IPS

BANGALORE, Oct 13 (IPS) - A great variety of endangered wildlife species end up feeding the illegal market for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) thanks to poor enforcement in stopping the trade, say experts and activists.

"The Chinese market is like a 'black hole' sucking in wildlife products from neighbouring countries," said Peter Pueschel, head of global Wildlife Trade Programme at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), in an e-mail interview with IPS.

India, China's neighbour to the south, is most at risk with its vast biodiversity and poorly enforced laws.

According to the wildlife crime database maintained by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), 846 tigers, 3,140 leopards and 585 freshwater otter (skins) were poached between 1994 and Aug. 31, 2008 and another 320 elephants were poached between 2000 and 2008 in India.

"Although many species used in TCM are now protected by national and international laws, illegal trade and poaching have increased to crisis levels as TCM's popularity has expanded over the last two decades," says Samir Sinha of the Indian chapter of the TRAFFIC, the Britain-based wildlife trade monitoring network.

"The problem is widespread, and mostly boils down to lack of political support," says Belinda Wright of the WPSI.

Elephants, tigers, leopards, mongoose, black bears, rhinos, snakes, butterflies, gorillas, otters, musk deer, antelopes, reptiles and products such as caterpillar fungus and porcupine quills form the bulk of the raw material for the TCM industry that, according to Interpol, is worth 20 billion dollars per year.

"We believe there is organised wildlife trade but it is difficult to identify," said Xu Hongfa, director of TRAFFIC – China in e-mail responses to queries from IPS.

According to most wildlife experts the illegal trade is helped along by the fact that Chinese authorities do little to curb the TCM industry because it is regarded as a part of East Asian culture. But Beijing can and does vigorously protect certain species such as the Giant Panda which has iconic status.

"Poaching the Giant Panda will result in severe punishment. According to Chinese law, anyone found poaching one Giant Panda will get at least a ten-year term of imprisonment,'' Xu said. ‘'Chinese government has taken action to improve the TCM market management but it is not very successful,'' he admitted.

"During a five-day period in June 2008, EIA (Environment Investigation Agency) investigators observed five traders who have been documented selling Asian big cat skins in previous years,'' said Debbie Banks of the London-based EIA, adding that Chinese authorities failed to act on information passed on to them.

"We pass sufficient information to enforcement authorities so that they take appropriate action. It is apparent that the authorities have failed in effective enforcement against persistent offenders,'' Banks said. ''It would not be appropriate for us to publish their details,'' she added.

Pueschel referred to a stock of 110 tonnes of ivory that disappeared from Chinese government custody in July 2008. "The main point here is that these incidents have not been taken seriously. It remains totally unclear where this ivory has gone. Nevertheless China has been designated an ivory importing country ("trading partner") supported by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) secretariat."

In May 2006 a consignment of 3,900 kg of ivory tusks was found concealed in a container of timber logs seized by customs officials in Hong Kong, revealing the ingenious methods used by wildlife racketeers. "The 'standard sizes' of cut ivory pieces make it easier to hide them inside any kind of packaging material," says Pablo Tachil a wildlife investigator based in Bangalore.

According to Tachil, Burma has emerged as a major staging point for the wildlife trade because of its location close to India and Burma and the major markets of South-east Asia. ''Burma is also an ideal hideout for poachers and traders, because of weak policing," he said.

What troubles activists is the continued demand for wildlife products around the world.

The popularity of ivory objects, for example, has grown in spite of the clear danger it poses to elephant populations and this, says Pueschel, is partly due to commercial sites on the Internet like eBay facilitating rampant trade. ''We continue to campaign for their banning all wildlife trade.''

An IFAW report in 2007 revealed that at least 90 percent of all investigated ivory listings on eBay were legally suspect. While eBay claims that its site allows 'shoppers to see the positive social and environmental impact' of each purchase, including whether it 'supports animal species preservation', activists say nothing is done by way of monitoring.

The animal most at risk of ending up as raw material for TCM is the tiger because it has long been revered in China as a symbol of power and strength and the belief that its products have potent medicinal properties. Only a century ago there were eight kinds of tigers, with over 100,000 wild tigers in the world. Today only five tiger subspecies exist, with fewer than 5,000 wild tigers in the world.

For India, the good news is that such events as the complete decimation of the tiger population in the Sariska reserve of Rajasthan state between 2002 and 2005 has caught the imagination of the public and helped authorities to ensure that traffickers are caught and brought to book.

Also in India several high-profile individuals have been caught in recent years and booked for poaching resulting in pro-wildlife wide publicity. These include the well-known film actors, Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan and India's former cricket captain, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.

In June 2008, two Czech nationals were convicted for trying to smuggle out 'Delias sanaca', an endangered butterfly species listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act in the Singalila National Park near Darjeeling. And by September one of them was handed down a fine of Rs 60,000 (1,300 US dollars) and three years of simple imprisonment.

Such exemplary cases go a long way in helping authorities to prevent wildlife crime,'' Utpal Kumar Nag, forest officer in Darjeeling, told IPS.

(*Malini Shankar is a well-known wildlife photojournalist and documentary film maker).

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