I stood gawking, open-mouthed, at the white cloth sheet in front of me. It was a cloudy night in May 2009 in the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district. My friend Ramana Athreya and I had set up a moth screen just for the heck of it. A moth screen is just a white cloth sheet strung up with a suitable light bulb (preferably mercury vapour or an actinic light) that attracts moths. The sight that had my jaw hitting the ground was the number of moths that were attracted to the screen.
On a surface that was no more than 4x3ft, we counted no less than a few thousand moths. And they were in shapes, sizes and colours that boggled the mind.
I have been a nature lover for well over two decades. I have passionately observed and photographed butterflies for at least half that period. Despite the fact that butterflies and moths belong to the same group (Lepidoptera, which means “scaled wings”), I had always considered moths to be “dull, colourless creatures” which did not hold up against dainty, beautiful butterflies.
It took just one night for that myth to be shattered. That night’s experience convinced me to spend the next two years studying the moths and butterflies of the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary.
Eaglenest itself is well-known, at least to the birdwatching community in India and abroad. It covers an area of 218 sq. km. With altitudes varying from 750m to 3,300m, it has some amazing medium- and high-altitude forests. It owes its fame to the discovery of a new bird species, the Bugun Liocichla, described by astronomer Athreya in 2006.
The significance of discovering a new bird species can best be emphasized by the fact that only two new bird species have been discovered in India in the last 60 years. In fact, the discovery of the second new bird species, the Great Nicobar Crake from the Great Nicobar Island, was announced only a few months ago.
Athreya named the Bugun Liocichla after the Bugun tribe in the hope of incentivising the community to protect the local forests. Since then, community-based bird tourism has flourished, and the Bugun tribe leads the effort to conserve the area’s forests.
However, the Bugun Liocichla is not the only discovery at Eaglenest.
A new frog species, the Bompu Litter Frog, was discovered in 2011. The Darjeeling False Wolf Snake was rediscovered after many decades. Another snake, the Jerdon’s Red Spotted Pit-viper, was recorded from India for the first time at Eaglenest. The Abor Hills Agama (Mictopholis austeniana), a lizard, was rediscovered here 130 years after it was first observed.
These discoveries have helped establish Eaglenest as one of the top sites in India for biodiversity. The two-year butterfly and moth survey I conducted there has only reconfirmed what we knew—that Eaglenest is home to some of the best biodiversity in the country. Over 1,000 moth and 380 butterfly species have been recorded so far from Eaglenest and its surrounding areas, making it a terrific location for observing Lepidoptera. Many of these species are new records for India and more than 60 of the butterfly species are protected under various schedules of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.
Eaglenest is probably one of the best sites to spot the Bhutan Glory, an elusive butterfly that can best be seen in September and October. Other difficult-to-see butterflies that can be found here are the White Owl, Panther and the Bicolor Commodore. Many of the moths seen had never been recorded in India, and while over 500 species have currently been identified in Eaglenest and surrounding areas, work continues to identify the rest. The easy-to-spot varieties include butterflies like the Grey Commodore, Indian Tortoiseshell, Common Windmill, Powdery Green Sapphire and the Red Lacewing, which are common sights in the pre- and post-monsoon seasons—the peak flight periods for most butterflies.
But while community-based bird tourism is on at Eaglenest, there are problems.
The birding season is mainly from November-April; the rest of the year does not attract many birders. Interestingly, the best season to watch butterflies and moths is April-June and August-October.
But launching community-based butterfly and moth tourism is not easy. For starters, are there enough people willing to pay to observe these creatures?
Second, while there’s enough literature to identify the butterflies, books on moths are hard to come by. The last comprehensive books on Indian moths were written by an Englishman, G.F. Hampson, between 1894 and 1898; since then, few books on Indian moths have seen the light of day. Work is now on to prepare identification material for the stunning moths of Eaglenest, in the hope that this will help nature lovers.
A pilot of community-based butterfly and moth tourism at Eaglenest is just starting. A small group of people have signed up to visit it for the first butterfly and moth tour from 14-23 October. During the tour, the local community will also be trained; local capability-building is crucial to make this venture a success.
This ties in with the recent debate on the impact of tourism in the core areas of tiger reserves. To me, it is clear that a model in which a significant part of the ecotourism revenue (more than 80%) goes to the local community, in which the ecological footprint is small, and in which tourism is built upon a range of floral and faunal species—and not just one iconic species like the tiger—scores over the tiger-based tourism model that exists today. In addition, it is extremely important that, eventually, the local community runs its own tourism venture and gets the lion’s share of the financial benefits.
This empowerment cannot be belittled. In the Garo Hills in Meghalaya, a community-based tourism effort revolving largely around butterflies has already proved to be successful, serving as a beacon for similar ventures in the North-East.
Now, as the first moth and butterfly tour in Eaglenest rolls out, it is hoped that the seeds have truly been sown for nature-based community tourism focusing on lesser-known fauna. A few decades from now, who knows, tourism based on the winged fairies of Eaglenest might just “mothball” tiger tourism!
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Butterflies are omnipresent, from the west to the North-East.
Visit the Butterfly Safari Park at Thenmala Ecotourism Destination near the Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary in Kollam district, Kerala. The hill range in the area, part of the Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve, is home to many of the 37 species of butterflies endemic to the Western Ghats.
The Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali, on the outskirts of Mumbai, is home to more than 150 butterfly species.
The hill stations—Shimla, Mussoorie, Nainital, Almora and Dalhousie—are excellent places to watch butterflies. Step away to the outskirts, amid forests and mountain streams, and the butterflies will start to reveal themselves.
The richest butterfly and moth diversity is found in this part of the country. Visit the Garo Hills in Meghalaya; the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Pakke Tiger Reserve and Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh; and Ultapani (part of the Manas Biosphere Reserve) in Assam to see many of the 900-plus species of butterflies in the North-East.
Join the Butterfly India Yahoo group to share your photographs, get them identified and interact with other butterfly enthusiasts from India. For details, visit http://pets.groups.yahoo.com/group/ButterflyIndia/
Sanjay Sondhi is the founder trustee of Titli Trust (www.titlitrust.com), a nature conservation non-profit organization based in Dehradun.