A photograph that Sujatha Padmanabhan took purely by chance, in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh, turns out to be only the second one of a live Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory in India.
It flitted high above us along the tree canopy. We were three of us trekking the 7 km uphill stretch to Lama Camp, just outside the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. The forests in this region are increasingly being noted for discoveries and re-discoveries of faunal species. We would stay at Lama Camp for at least the next 10 days, to conduct two nature camps for children of the region. The walk up was our first taste of what the days to come would be like: sighting birds occasionally as they hid themselves in the thick foliage, but watching butterflies far more easily as they basked in the bright sunshine.
One of my fellow trekkers spotted it as she looked up to scan tree tops. “Is it a windmill?” she asked the other of my fellow trekkers, Sanjay Sondhi, a noted lepidopterist and hence our guide for the walk. Now if you wondered how on earth a windmill could get up to a treetop, look at any butterfly field guide. Butterfly names seem to indicate that these small creatures don’t have an identity of their own, with names like cabbage, tiger, common rose, common crow, admiral and so on. So it would not be incorrect to see a windmill flitting above your head!
Sanjay looked up and yelled, “Hey that’s the Bhutan Glory!” Here was the butterfly that we had been looking for since the start of our trek through lush community owned forests of the Bugun tribe. Every now and then, Sanjay would remind us to scan the treetops for this butterfly since it had the habit of flying at those heights. As we looked up, we could only see its silhouette etched against the sky. Yes, it was unmistakably the Bhutan Glory, with narrow and long forewings and tailed hindwings. We saw no more details as we watched it glide over the forest canopy before disappearing from sight.The next few days at Lama Camp were surprisingly filled with many sightings of the Bhutan Glory. It was a sheer delight to catch frequent but brief glimpses of a butterfly that was stunningly beautiful, considered rare and that would show itself so fleetingly that you would want more of it. The butterfly has been given special protection under the Wildlife Protection Act in India. Years ago, it was considered a collectors’ item and was greatly sought after. How did people ever catch it I wondered? Every day as it flitted high above us, I would quickly aim my camera in its direction. My colleagues would laugh at me. A subject so small and so high up and constantly moving would be near impossible to photograph. I soon gave up and turned my attention to the many other butterflies in the area.
An equal stunner was the Red Lacewing which we saw at lower elevations. I saw the upper and the undersides of the butterfly wings clearly, both of which were richly coloured and patterned. The Lacewing would surely be enough inspiration for any textile designer. Then there was the Circe, which revealed itself all too clearly, basking on the path ahead of us, and the much smaller Sapphire butterflies which often tested our patience. They would sit on the path with wings folded and you could get quite close to them for a photograph. Then all of a sudden, they would take wing leaving you to chase them in the hope that you would see them settle down with wings open. The pattern on the upper wings would reveal which Sapphire you were after. There are many of them, like the Purple, or Green, or Powdery Green Sapphire, so the chase is crucial to its identification.
It was the last day of our camp and I set off with a group of children on a nature walk. Almost at the end of our trek it was time to turn around and head back to camp when the unbelievable happened. A Bhutan Glory suddenly descended from the skies, and flitted down and settled on the rocky mountainside along our path. There was a stunned silence for a few brief moments, and then I heard many voices saying “Photo! Photo!” The state of disbelief that I was in was broken by the children egging me on to not miss the opportunity to shoot. I aimed the camera at the butterfly and through the lens I saw its pretty markings. The dull grey forewings had lovely wavy white lines on it and the hindwings had prominent red patches on it.
After I took a couple of pictures of this famed little creature, it suddenly took wing. But for some unknown reason, instead of flying skywards, it suddenly took a deep U-turn and flitted towards us. It flew barely above our heads and I knew that if I had stretched my hand up I would have been within touching distance of it.
A few weeks after our return from Arunachal Pradesh, I got a mail from Sanjay who asked me to email my pictures of the Bhutan Glory butterfly to Krishnamegh Kunte, a well-known biologist who has authored many research papers and books on butterflies. Kunte wrote back with the news that the butterfly I had photographed was actually a species of Bhutan Glory that was till recently thought to be endemic to Bhutan, the Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory! We had all along assumed it to be the Himalayan Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis lidderdalii), but in effect it was the Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis ludlowi), and a new species record for India.
It was fairly recently that the Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory was rediscovered in Bhutan after 78 years. The butterfly was thought to be endemic to Eastern Bhutan and was chosen as the National Butterfly of the country. The photograph that I took purely by chance, turned out to be the second one of a live Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory in India, the first having been taken a few days earlier in an area not too far off from where we were.
I sit back and think of the sheer coincidences of the day that resulted in the photograph. A friend opines that there are no coincidences. I am not too sure about this. I only know that those moments are etched in my mind, moments of a special tryst that only memories help relive.
The forests of the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and adjoining areas are rich in wildlife. Some of that diversity is still being discovered.
A bird species new to science, the Bugun liocichla (named after the Bugun tribe) was discovered in Lama Camp in 2006.
The Mictopholis austeniana, a species of lizard, was rediscovered in these forests after 125 years.
A new frog species, the Bompu litter frog, was discovered at a place called Bompu within the sanctuary in 2011.
It is very likely that we still do not know many of the species that habit these dense forests.