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Count your butterflies

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 15, 2017
Let’s start at the very beginning: In the run-up to the Big Butterfly Count on September 17, 2017, several events have been organised by the Bombay Natural History Society team at Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo: Sohail Madan

Let’s start at the very beginning: In the run-up to the Big Butterfly Count on September 17, 2017, several events have been organised by the Bombay Natural History Society team at Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo: Sohail Madan

Blue pansy, the “peacock of the butterfly world”. Photo: Sohail Madan

Blue pansy, the “peacock of the butterfly world”. Photo: Sohail Madan

Common jay. The male of the species are seen mud-puddling. Photo: Sohail Madan

Common jay. The male of the species are seen mud-puddling. Photo: Sohail Madan

Large salmon Arab. It has been frequently spotted at the Delhi Ridge. Photo: Sohail Madan

Large salmon Arab. It has been frequently spotted at the Delhi Ridge. Photo: Sohail Madan

The common silverline is found anywhere from beaches to mountains. Photo: Sohail Madan

The common silverline is found anywhere from beaches to mountains. Photo: Sohail Madan

Delhi NCR gears up for a special Sunday morning activity — the Big Butterfly Count

“Common species of garden and city areas. Seen on flowers in gardens throughout the year. Hot day brings these butterflies to damp patches. Flight rapid with erratic up-and-down swoops. On the hills up to 4,000m. Eggs laid singly…” For a fast flier, the common emigrant (Catopsilia Pomona) before my eyes — a pale green butterfly with delicate lines on the wings — is unusually still. But there’s only so much it can do inside a jar, one with a perforated, screw-top lid. In the fourth and last stage of its life — egg, caterpillar and pupa being the first three — this female butterfly is minutes away from being released into the Butterfly Park at the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary (ABWS), near Tughlaqabad in Delhi. And doing the honours is Sohail Madan, the man who built the said park.

So what is special about this one butterfly being released on this sultry September afternoon? It is nothing out of the ordinary for Madan, a project manager in Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) who also runs the Conservation Education Centre (CEC) at ABWS, or his team of seven (including four support staff). But for the 80-odd enthusiasts who are expected to gather here on the morning of September 17, it could be one of the first butterflies they will spot and photograph. The Big Butterfly Count, a first-of-its-kind initiative in Delhi NCR, will be held at 12 locations across the Capital (see box).

The name explains the purpose behind the exercise — that of ascertaining the number of butterfly species in the city, which still has one of the largest green covers among the metros in India. Madan, however, is not willing to limit the Big Butterfly Count to just that. “It’s also about changing mindsets. In India, we are so tuned to the “big game” mentality that we miss the many other forms of wildlife around us. The Big Butterfly Count is a step toward sensitising people to the species in our immediate surroundings,” he says, adding that September — a wet, humid month with plenty of sunshine — is ideal for studying butterflies. “We plan to make this an annual affair. Starting now, every September will be the Delhi Butterfly Month.” This month is also being devoted to select a State butterfly for Delhi.

There are five strong candidates for that honour, four of which I see during a walk through Asola’s butterfly park. The swift common silverline is found everywhere from beaches to mountains. The plain tiger, easily found flitting around milkweed plants, is a flash of bright orange-yellow punctuated by black and white. Active during the hottest hours of the day, the blue pansy — in Madan’s words, “the peacock” of the butterfly world — has a white underside. The large salmon Arab, many of which have been spotted at the Ridge, an extension of the Aravali range within the city limits, is fond of the meswak plant. The common jay flourishes around the ashoka tree and loves mud-puddling. Looking for butterflies, informs Ishtiyak Ahamad of CEC, means looking anywhere from one feet above the ground to the tree canopy.

Delhi resident Sheila Chhabra’s fascination with the butterfly started with something she saw a little more than a feet above a flower bed. And the credit for bringing that “something” to her notice goes to naturalist and writer-photographer Sanjay Sondhi. “This was in the early 2000s. I was on a guided walk at the Okhla Bird Sanctuary when Sondhi drew my attention to a plain tiger caterpillar resting on a milkweed plant,” she says. Chhabra cultivated her interest with more walks, readings and workshops. This Sunday, she will lead the Butterfly Count at the 15th-century Lodi Gardens in central Delhi.

Shantanu Dey, a businessman based in Gurugram, thanks his work schedule for teaching him to appreciate Delhi NCR’s flora and fauna. “My interest in the natural world goes back to my school days. But when work kept me from travelling frequently, I turned to the places around me.” A membership with the BNHS gave Dey the chance to interact with the CEC members. And a meeting with Peter Smetacek, also the founder of the Butterfly Research Centre in Bhimtal, was further encouragement. Dey is in charge of the Butterfly Count team at Bhondsi, near Gurugram.

On September 23, the sixth day after the count, the organisers and some of the participants will gather at the WWF-India auditorium, Lodi Estate, for what is being projected as the Butterfly Conference and Valedictory Function. “That’s when we will share the findings with a larger audience,” says Madan. “We will collate the data from the 12 locations, study the field notes, consult with the team heads and make a detailed presentation.”

This study is also important to determine the effects of pollution and loss of habitat for the butterfly, he says. Pointing to the rows of cloth bags stacked on a table, Madan adds that the BNHS kit for the count consists, among other things, of a field guide on the butterflies at Asola, posters and notebooks. “All you need bring is this kit, a hat, a camera and a magnifying glass,” he says.

Madan’s ambitions for Delhi’s butterflies don’t stop with the count. His eyes are set on an app that will help enthusiasts identify and record species — something on the lines of the “bird app that Cornell University has designed. Everyone at CEC uses the app.”





Big Butterfly Count locations in Delhi NCR

- North Ridge

- Okhla

- Lodi Gardens

- Yamuna Khadar and Yamuna Biodiversity Park

- Aravali Biodiversity Park, Vasant Vihar

- JNU and Sanjay Van

- Aravali Biodiversity Park, Gurugram

- Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

- Amity College Manesar

- Bhondsi

- Qutub Complex

- Mangar Bani









Published on September 15, 2017
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