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Claims that suck

It seems to be an open season for conflicting claims on butterflies. Last week, butterfly enthusiast Kulbhushan Kanwar claimed that he had in his seven years of research come across for the first time a Tawny coster in the Chandigarh area. Writes Vikram Jit Singh

chandigarh Updated: Nov 29, 2014 22:00 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
Vikram Jit Singh
Hindustan Times

It seems to be an open season for conflicting claims on butterflies. Last week, butterfly enthusiast Kulbhushan Kanwar claimed that he had in his seven years of research come across for the first time a Tawny coster in the Chandigarh area. Kanwar photographed it near Sukhna Lake's regulator-end on November 26.

In his public statement, Kanwar claimed: "It was an intact piece which shows that its breeding has commenced recently in this area." Kanwar does not enjoy academic credentials in butterfly studies but manages the forest and wildlife department's Facebook page on butterflies and receives department funding.

Kanwar states that he has recorded 100 butterfly species from Chandigarh against an official check-list of 70. Though Kanwar states it was the first time he has seen the Tawny coster in Chandigarh, the impression willy-nilly that went out was that it was the first time this butterfly had been recorded from the City Beautiful.

Tawny coster at Fitness Trail Garden, Chandigarh.Photo Credits: Dr. Virinder K. Walia

However, the butterfly has been photographed in the heart of Chandigarh earlier than Kanwar's record. Earlier records, which have not been acknowledged or cited by Kanwar, are credited to lepidopterist and author Dr Virinder Walia of the Panjab University's zoology department.

"Population of this species is extremely less in Chandigarh. If one goes to every garden daily, he may come across one or two specimens in a year. I photographed the Tawny Coster at the Fitness Trail Garden, Sector 10, Chandigarh, on May 29, 2012," said Dr Walia. His 2006 book, "Butterflies of North-West India - Part I", states the Tawny coster as also having been recorded in Chandigarh in April.

Way to dusty death

The jogging track at the Sukhna Lake invites visions of a red carpet welcome extended by winter. The track is strewn with the most delectable mauve blooms of the 'Kachnar' tree. Just as marigold blooms lie trodden and trampled over in the dusty, dirty wake of wedding festivities, `Kachnar' blooms suffer a similar fate at the feet of perspiring humans.

One of the most poignant sights is of sweepers and 'maalis' heaping 'Kachnar' blooms to be disposed as litter. Nature's beauty is truly reduced to a debris, to be swept away to mingle and rot with humanity's coarser rejects.

Amid this mauve effervescence of doomed blooms, I chanced upon what seemed from a distance a petal more in keeping with spring or basant's tide of golden hues. On closer scrutiny, it revealed itself to be a motionless moth not at all interested in flitting from one flowerbed to another like the nearby butterflies.

Photo Credits: Vikram Jit Singh

Doubtless, it would be a matter of time before a brisk walker or a panting jogger trod upon the exquisite moth and consigned it to a 'marriage marigold' fate! I clicked the moth with my smartphone and gently stirred it. Very reluctantly, like a school kid stirred from the depths of a comforting quilt on a cold winter morning, the moth flew into the nearby bushes.

I had the moth identified by experts as the Botyodes Asialis Guenée, 1854/Crambidae, a widespread tropical African and Asian species. "Yellow and brown is a common combination of colours in the Pyraustinae but each species has a different variation on the general theme. This moth is a little unusual because the brown colouration is more extensive on the hindwing than on the forewing.

On the underside, in addition to the same general colouration, there is a conspicuous snowy white collar on the prothorax. Note that the higher taxonomy of this species is now Crambidae, Spilomelinae, rather than Crambidae, Pyraustinae," said Hong Kong-based moth expert, Dr Roger Kendrick.

The butterfly guillotine

The vexed matter of senior scientists of the government-run Zoological Survey of India stealing intellectual resources and photographs of private researchers has reached a logical conclusion in one case.

As reported in these columns last week, the secretary of the Lepidopterists' Society of Japan, Saito Motoki, complained against the publication of "Handbook on Butterflies of Arunachal Pradesh" (cover price Rs 3,070), authored by Dehradun-based senior zoological assistant, ZSI, Parmod Kumar. Motoki had contended that the handbook contains numerous mis-identifications and false explanations, and that many images had been stolen from the internet.

Initially, ZSI director K Venkataraman tried to make amends by promising to publish a corrigendum but withering fire from butterfly researchers finally led to the handbook being withdrawn from the market.

In his November 26, 2014, communication to Peter Smetacek, who runs the Butterfly Research Centre at Bhimtal (Uttarakhand), Venkataraman has stated: "As per the recommendation of the (inquiry) committee, the book is to be immediately withdrawn from the market. The author (Kumar) has also given in writing an apology...He has also been warned that in future he should not indulge in such activities, and if found otherwise, he will have to face serious administrative and legal consequences."

This action came after Smetacek wrote to Venkataraman declaring: "The ethics of our scientific community are lamentable. This is the second time this year that we Indians have been embarrassed (by ZSI scientists)."

Renowned butterfly researcher and author, Isaac Kehimkar, of the Bombay Natural History Society was scathing in his missive to Smetacek: "It is indeed very serious, as the work is published by none other than India's premier institution, ZSI. If such a fraud is allowed to go scot-free, then one can imagine the quality of research that is undertaken by ZSI."

First Published: Nov 29, 2014 21:39 IST