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Last flutter

Eighty years ago, Bhilaru Pumping Station in Mussoorie, a short walk from The Mall Road tourist hubbub, was a hotspot for butterflies, writes Satyen Mohapatra.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2009 23:29 IST
Satyen Mohapatra

Eighty years ago, Bhilaru Pumping Station in Mussoorie, a short walk from The Mall Road tourist hubbub, was a hotspot for butterflies. In 1929, O C Ollenbach, an amateur zoologist, recorded seeing a hundred different species, as did E.M. Shull, an American lepidopterist, 30 years later.

“I visited the same spot in 1994 and found only 70-80 species,” says Avtar Kaur Sidhu of Zoological Survey of India’s High Altitude Regional Centre (HARC) in Solan. “When I revisited it in 2006, shops had come up and hardly any butterflies were to be seen.”

Sidhu headed an HARC survey of the Greater Himalayas — the alpine regions above 10,000 feet adjoining Rohtang Pass, Ladakh, Zanskar and the Karakoram Pass — and the Shivalik ranges, looking for the 288 butterfly species native to these areas. The results, out this year, show that nearly 50 per cent of these have disappeared, says H S Mehta, officer-in-charge, HARC.

They aren’t ‘extinct’ yet. Surveys over a 10-year period must report them unseen for these species to be declared extinct. But the signs are ominous.

“We saw one species of the Apollo butterfly, known as the Common Red Apollo, near Khardung La Pass at an altitude of 4,000 metres,” says Sidhu. “Its population was adequate but we found many of them dead under tyres owing to vehicular traffic.” Lofty Bath, a medium-sized white butterfly with black streaks, reported all over Kumaon some years ago, is now limited to pockets near Khardung La.

The reasons for this are easy to see: deforestation and resulting destruction of the butterflies’ natural habitat; pollution owing to an increase in traffic as a result of tourism; and construction activity everywhere, especially the building of high-altitude dams and diversion of water channels, which has disturbed vegetation in the area.

“Kalatop in Khajjiar (Chamba) is one place where you can see 50-60 species of butterflies; but tourist traffic is very heavy in this area. And one cannot preserve the butterfly’s habitat as well as develop tourism at the same time,” says Mehta.

But why are butterflies important and why should their disappearance worry us? Well, there’s their beauty, for one. Also butterflies are sensitive to environmental change and are good indicators of the health of the eco-system, besides helping pollination.

The Indian government is aware of the threat — as many as 423 butterfly species are protected by the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act (1972), which means hunting them could earn you up to six years in prison. But until now, only a handful of people have been caught for smuggling butterflies.