The butterfly effect

Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd) looks at books on butterflies that have been well received

Commander and Lemon Pansy
BRIGHT & BEAUTIFUL: (Left) Commander and Lemon Pansy

The viewpoint that the poaching of the tiger "has been hogging headlines" to the detriment of other and lesser-known species of our fauna and flora is at the face of it, unexceptionable. This is a deliberate nature conservation strategy based on a well-reasoned hypothesis of saving the "umbrella species" (tiger, lion, elephant, bustard etc) wherein saving such a species in the wild automatically saves all the other faunal and floral forms in a given area.

This strategy has stood the test of time since the creation of tiger-reserves, wherever they are administered with honesty and dedication.

At the same time it is true that much like the tiger and now the Gir lion (each carcass of the latter fetching about Rs 40 lakh) the butterflies too have been and continue to be illegally netted for illicit trade.

Some of the very attractive species like the Kaiser-e-Hind, the white dragontail or the common peacock, fetch nearly $500 per specimen. They are then frozen in glass as decorative paper-weights or wall plates or intricately inlaid in wooden panels of room-screens.

The Plain Tiger is not so plain
The Plain Tiger is not so plain 

Similarly, a single bloom of our exotic orchid from the North-east, the lady’s slipper, sells upward of $200. All such species and much more of our flora and fauna enjoy complete legal protection and prohibition from commerce under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.

It is not true that "no major research has been carried on butterfly species in India after Independence". The first definitive book Butterflies of the Indian Region by M.A. Wynter-Blythe was published a decade after Independence in 1957. It covers almost all the 1500 species in considerable detail in 522 pages with excellent coloured (27) and black-and-white (45) plates.

Wynter-Blythe had arrived in India from the UK, on a teaching assignment with the Bishop Cotton School, Simla around 1937. And he stayed on in India as Principal of Raj Kumar College, Rajkot, till his death in the 1980s. In his time, he was also an authority on the Gir lion.

His book was followed by the very well-received Butterflies of Sikkim by Meera Haribal in the 1980s. Another book, Butterflies of Peninsula India — by Krishna Meghadoot appeared in the 1990s. Then there was the popular field guide Common Butterflies of India by Thomas Gay (an old ICS hand who lived and died in Pune) and Issac David Kehimkar of the Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai, published in 1992 with about 90 colour photographs by the latter.

The butterflies of India have not suffered by neglect, post- Independence. As a matter of fact, the ultimate book (I believe) on India’s butterflies by Issac David Kehimkar with state-of-the-art photographs by the author is expected to reach the book stores by the year end 2007, hopefully.