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Wing men

Will tourists go to see butterflies and moths? In the forested North-east, researchers and community organisers are betting they will

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

In the forests of the in Arunachal Pradesh, across the Brahmaputra and up the hills from Kaziranga National Park, a small team of experts has just completed a survey of butterfly and moth species. They hope it will change the fortunes of human communities in the area.

How can butterflies and moths (scientific term: lepidopterans) make people better off? By bringing in tourists. Tourists come to see tigers, but not in the off season, nor in the rains. Butterflies don’t keep to the same timetable as large animals — and, it turns out, Pakke is home to hundreds of species of lepidopterans.

The survey team was lead by Sanjay Sondhi, who spent 20 years in the corporate world before starting an in Dehra Dun called the Titli Trust. “We are trying to create a completely new product category,” he says. Other than large mammals like tigers and rhinos, he says, “the only well-established category of nature tourism in India is birds, and typically November to March is the peak season.” Butterflies in Pakke, however, can be seen best on either side of the monsoon.

Pakke’s tribespeople do not know much about their lepidop-terans, perhaps because insects are not food. “I don’t think any of the local communities has sufficient knowledge of birds, butterflies and moths,” says Sondhi. He points out that there is only one generic local word for “butterfly”. So the Titli Trust’s work includes not only survey and mapping, but also environmental education, to train up locals as guides.

“If someone is going to come all the way from Bangalore or Chennai and spend Rs 30,000,” Sondhi says, “he needs to know what he’s going to see.” So his survey team not only counted species but also determine where and when they could be found. To do this they had to identify “microhabitats”.

The key to finding accessible microhabitats, says Geetha Iyer, a researcher from Tamil Nadu who participated in the survey, is to look for places where sunlight hits damp earth. “Where there are bird droppings near water,” she says, “butterflies come to sip minerals.” This is called “mud-puddling”.

Can lepidop-terans reliably be found in the same microhabitats every year? “Common species you will see,” Iyer says. “For uncommon ones you have to choose a season. The [rare] Bhutan glory, is there after August.” Some are visible in the daytime, others in the evening, some live in the tree canopy, so binoculars are needed. Another consideration is access to the forest, which in Pakke is limited to a few trails. Weather is very changeable, so that is a factor as well.

At Pakke, Sondhi’s survey is yet to bear tourist fruit. Marketing is not easy, though there is a small community of Indian butterfly enthusiasts willing to travel, and using social media helps. But Sondhi is confident because a past project along similar lines has proved successful.

This project is in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, near Balpakram National Park. The Titli Trust was invited here in 2009 by a local NGO, the Samrakshan Trust, to develop ecotourism. Samrakshan co-founder Kamal Medhi explains why the turned to tourism when its focus was protecting the forests. When the state took over the forests after Independence, he says, community-based forest management was disrupted. As a result, tribespeople lost the incentive to protect and conserve.

At first Medhi tried income-raising and self-help groups, including raising poultry to replace hunting. But they found that “simultaneously, [the locals] are logging, they are hunting. In terms of income-generation it is a success; in terms of conservation it is a failure.” So they decided to involve the community in conservation directly. The answer was ecotourism.

“We invited [the Titli Trust] to explore the bird diversity,” says Medhi, “but when Sanjay came, we found that butterfly diversity was more.” Over a year and a half, Sondhi’s team found 300-plus species. “We identified hotspots where the butterflies are found,” says Medhi. “Then we started marketing.” In the year since they opened, two camps in “only two villages so far” have seen 111 tourists, who stayed for five to seven days each. “Good enthusiasts”, says Medhi, manage to count 150-170 species (catching, even for photography, is forbidden). “The bottom line is they want to see butterflies, so they are happy.”

The tourists have brought in an income of Rs 7 lakh so far. All that income stays in the community; Samrakshan gets none of it.

Because butterflies alone may not sustain ecotourism, Medhi’s group is also looking at birds and amphibians. He worries about infrastructure. “That is the gap, and that is why people are not coming,” he says, despite the natural beauty and wealth of wildlife. That and the lack of effective marketing. But he, and people like Sondhi, are doing their best to change that.

First Published: Sun, June 10 2012. 00:02 IST