Monday, January 12, 2009

India's mixed green bag

The wrath of Kosi, Kolkata's pollution, death of Baba Amte... Sunil Kumar M reviews the year gone by, and hopes 2009 will be cleaner and greener.


The fate of smaller organisms were no better. The Eastern Himalayas and Western Ghats have become prime hunting grounds for smugglers of rare Indian butterflies and beetles. The insects are in great demand internationally for private collections, butterfly parks, traditional medicine, and also to be encased into jewellery. This came to light when Czech duo Emil Kucera and Petr Svacha were caught possessing rare and endangered insects by forest officials in north Bengal's protected Singhalila National Park in June.


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Butterflies - The Flying Jewels of the Western Ghats

by Dr Anand T & Geeta N Pereira

Dec 17, 2008

On the meadow green,
A flight of butterflies was snoozing,
With bated breath & studied gaze…..I stood watching.
When Lo... All at once they flew up
A curtain of iridescent glow
Stunning my senses with utter delight.

-Julia Pereira

Butterflies and moths are some of the most fascinating and eye-catching flying insects. A vast majority are brightly coloured and are found all over the world, except in the Antarctica region. They are indeed one of the planet’s most beautiful creatures. People from all walks of life, irrespective of race, colour or religion enjoy these beautiful winged flying jewels for their delicate beauty. In India, most butterfly species are found associated with tropical rainforests.

The Western Ghats is home to hundreds of species of rare, endemic and exotic species of colourful butterflies, some of them extremely rare. Some species are so rare that they are found nowhere else in the world. The region boasts of approximately 350 species of butterflies. They come in a variety of sizes with two pairs of large wings. The color pattern varies from species to species and has a definite role to play in the protection of the species. If one were to closely observe the wings, they are covered with overlapping rows of tiny scales.

The word butterfly has curious origins. Butterflies get their name from the yellow brimstone butterfly of Europe that is first seen in the early spring or "butter" season? The Anglo- Saxons used the word Butterfloege because their most common butterfly was the yellow brimstone butterfly. The spread of the English colonies and their subsequent influence on the natives carried forward in the butterfly tradition. In many languages butterfly means “licker of milk”. The Russians call them Babochka, meaning little soul. Ancient civilizations have depicted butterflies as little angels or souls, such that when people die, their souls go to heaven as butterflies. The importance of butterflies in many early civilizations is recorded in prehistoric caves and their depiction in pottery and fresco paintings. The best known example is the representation of the goddess Xochiquetzal in the form of a two-tailed, swallow-tailed butterfly. In all irrespective of age, people from all walks of life associate butterflies as friendly and soothing to the eyes, mind body and soul.

Biologists estimate that worldwide there are about 150,000 different species of butterflies and moths, in which approximately 30,000 belong to the butterfly species. The size of a few species of butterflies ranges from less than an inch in size to a wing span of about 10 inches. The smallest species are no bigger than a fingernail and the largest swallowtails are larger than the smallest birds. The world’s tiniest known species, the blue pygmy (Brephidium exilis), is found in Southern California and has a wing span of just over half an inch. Both the world’s smallest butterflies occur in peninsular India. The largest species, the New Guineas Queen Alexandria’s bird wing (Ornithoptera Alexandrae) can measure up to twelve inches from wingtip to wingtip. The Goliath Bird wing butterfly is the second-largest butterfly in the world.

The largest moth, The Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) has a wingspan of 1 foot (30 cm). The smallest moth, the Nepticulid moth is 0.1 inch long. Destruction of its habitat is threatening this beautiful creature with extinction.

Butterflies provide aesthetic appeal and are connected with all plants and crops at all stages of their life cycle. Few are aware of the crucial role the butterfly plays in pollination of a large portion of economically important crops and flowering plants, which is second only to the honeybee. They pollinate about 75 per cent of staple crops in the world and 80 per cent of all flowering plants. The economic value of pollination is about $ 200 billion.

Scientific studies have proved beyond doubt that pollinators account for 12% of the value of world ide agricultural production.

Beneficial Aspects of Butterflies:

Butterflies are categorized as keystone species, which enable many smaller species of insects to thrive and reproduce in an ecosystem. In simple terms, it denotes that conservation of butterflies, also conserves, other species of insects. In fact, the basic health of our ecosystem is directly dependent on the number of butterfly species.

  • Butterflies act as indicators in monitoring environmental health
  • Play an important role in food chains and food webs.
  • Excellent pollinators
  • Bio control of weeds
  • Butterflies are very ensitive to pollution and have been used as bio-indicators to detect the pollution levels


  • The fact of the matter is that most butterfly species have an average lifespan ranging from 20 to 40 days. A few species may live up to nine months
  • Butterflies are found worldwide except on the continent of Antarctica
  • Butterflies can only see the colours red, green and yellow
  • Most butterfly species are dark coloured because they need to absorb heat from the surrounding environment
  • Caterpillars spend most of their time eating leaves using strong mandibles (jaws). A caterpillar's first meal, however, is its own eggshell. A few caterpillars are meat-eaters; the larva of the carnivorous Harvester butterfly eats woolly aphids
  • Butterflies do not have any chewing mouth parts. They are gifted with a tubular straw like appendage known as proboscis which enables them to sip nectar. Butterflies "smell" with their antennae and taste with their feet
  • Butterflies are one of the few creatures on earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude
  • Male butterflies attract females by releasing pheromone chemicals (scent) from their abdomen
  • Butterflies and moths are picky in choosing leaves for egg laying
  • Butterflies and moths are picky in choosing leaves for their diet
  • When folded, a butterfly's wings are usually much less colourful, providing instant camouflage from would-be predators
  • The earliest butterfly fossils are from the early Cretaceous period, about 130 million years ago. Their development is closely linked to the evolution of flowering plants (angiosperms)
  • Butterflies are the only insects that have scales .Butterfly scales contain pigment, which in combination with light refraction gives butterflies their colors
  • Moth species outnumber butterfly species by 16-to-1

Butterfly Migration:

Butterfly migration is indeed a amazing and unique phenomenon. Resident species travel short distances to avoid adverse conditions. Many species of butterflies migrate thousands of miles, especially the Monarch species. The annual migration of the monarch butterflies between Mexico and the U S A and Canada covering a trip of 4000 miles is indeed a great wonder of the natural world. To date biologists are yet to solve the mystery pertaining to migration. Birds orient themselves with the help of stars, landmarks and the influence of the earth's magnetic field. However, butterflies with their rudimentary evolution traverse thousands of miles, is something difficult to comprehend.

Butterfly Smuggling:

A global network of poachers and smugglers are wiping out threatened species of butterflies. Smugglers entice the locals and school children by paying them rupees fifty for every butterfly they catch. They are then killed, dried and used in greeting cards, wall plate hangings and for other ornamental and decorative purposes. In the international market some species of butterflies like the bird wing butterfly found on the Tiger hill of Jammu and Kashmir is sold at $2500. The yellow colour in the wings of some species is permanent and is used in gold ornaments. The most endangered species are the giant swallowtail Papilio homerus, whose velvety black and gold wings are highly prized as decorative agents. In spite of butterflies being protected by international and national laws, butterfly smuggling is rampant in India, especially from the Western Ghats. Lack of expertise in the identification of butterflies (Endeared, rare, threatened species) helps smugglers get away. Such lacuna in the system needs to be corrected with immediate effect. Believe it or not, trade in endangered species (including wildlife) is worth an estimated 15 billion dollars a year.

Payal and Nihal with the help of posters and miniatures are creating a awareness programmee in and around the coffee zones; educating the local farmers to resist the temptation of butterfly smuggling. Parents can play an important role in inspiring their children to be guardians of nature.

Why the Butterflies Love Sunglight and are Coloured?

Butterflies are cold blooded insects. In simple terms they do not generate enough heat from their own metabolic activities to provide them with the heat and energy needed to fly. They rely on the heat absorbed from the sun. It is for this very reason that they often bask in the sun with wings outstretched. Butterflies can only fly if their body temperature is above 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

Relationship between Butterflies and Ants:

It is a fact that ants love to eat caterpillars. However the caterpillars of the Blue butterflies have evolved a symbiotic relationship that is mutually beneficial. Most blue butterfly catterpillrs have glands on the 11th and 12th segments which secrete a sugary solution, like honey dew. The ants harvest the honey dew from the caterpillar and in return protect them from other predators. This co-evolution has resulted in butterflies laying eggs, in places where ants are in abundance.


The Western Ghats, one of the hotspots of biodiversity is unique and should be better protected and managed. There is mounting concern regarding the devastating losses to butterfly colonies because of unprecedented habitat destruction. This is the single greatest threat to butterflies. The rate of deforestation is accelerating and is already higher than the average compared to other parts of India. From egg to adult, butterflies undergo a metamorphosis that is complex and often beset with problems like weather, predators, lack of food and human encroachment on habitat.

Let us begin with the smallest steps by planting flowering plants in our backyards and help native butterflies survive. In schools we need to encourage gardening and so also in public places with green all round. Schools and colleges should conduct training programmes and guided fiels trips, so that students learn firsthand the wild behavior of these beautiful winged jewels. School children from the primary level should be taught about butterflies and the vital role they play in different aspects of human life. Awareness at all levels will definitely help these winged jewels survive and coexist in a world dominated by humans.

Butterflies - The Winged Jewels of the Western Ghats - Photo Album
by Dr Anand T & Geeta N Pereira


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