A butterfly survey in the Neyyar and Peppara Wildlife Sanctuaries recorded some interesting facts, writes Nita Sathyendran

Walks on the wild side by citizen scientists and the voluntary efforts of these science enthusiasts to collect and/or process data for scientific research are often acknowledged to be of great help in furthering knowledge about the natural world. A recent survey of butterflies in the Neyyar and Peppara Wildlife Sanctuaries, initiated by the Travancore Natural History Society (TNHS), a city-based non-governmental organisation that is involved in biodiversity conservation and education, and conducted in association with the Forest and Wildlife Department, Government of Kerala, is a prime example of ordinary folk assisting in determining the status, breeding habits, ecology and habitat of local flora/fauna.

“This is perhaps the first scientifically structured butterfly survey in both these sanctuaries. The survey exceeded expectations. There are 334 recorded species of butterflies in the whole of the Western Ghats and with this survey the total number of species observed at the Neyyar and Peppara Wildlife Sanctuaries go up to 239 – a significant increase from the earlier records of 223 species found in the area,” says Kalesh Sadasivan, one of the seven founding members of TNHS, a group of over 40 nature enthusiasts from different walks of life. While Dr. Kalesh is a post-graduate student of plastic surgery at Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram, other members include techies, naturalists, businessmen, human resources personnel, students, teachers, engineers, and even scientists.

“Such efforts by these citizen scientists are definitely necessary, especially considering that very few extensive surveys have been conducted on the butterflies in the area. Perhaps the only place in the State where butterfly surveys are conducted on a regular basis (every March) is at Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary in Kannur district, and that too by a similar group of serious amateurs, the Malabar Natural History Society,” says naturalist Suresh Elamon, who himself re-discovered the Travancore Evening Brown, a butterfly thought to be extinct, on a survey in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Suresh is an advisory board member of TNHS.

Since it was started in January 2010, TNHS has been conducting regular biodiversity assessments and surveys in the Thenmala-Achankovil-Shenduruny forest belt. This latest survey was conducted over three days by 30 people that comprised members of the group, forest wardens, students from the College of Forestry, Thrissur, local forest guides and also invited experts such as Krushnamegh Kunte, one of the foremost lepidopterists (butterfly experts) in the country and author of the seminal work Butterflies of Peninsular India.

The participants were divided into small groups, each led by an expert in the field. The first day of the survey was spent trekking to the different base camps, each participant equipped with cameras/binoculars and a printed checklist for data entry. Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary was covered with base camps at Bonacaud, Attayar, Athirumala and Pandipathu, while Neyyar was surveyed with base camps at Thalamutty, Theerthakara, Anainirathy, Varayattumudi, Kombaikani, Meenmutty and Kappukad. Day two was the actual day of survey. On the third day and final day, the entire group met up at Neyyar to review and discuss the data. “The formal report will be published and submitted to the Forest Department. THNS hopes to make the butterfly survey of Neyyar-Peppara an annual affair,” says Dr. Kalesh.

On record

“We recorded 186 species of butterflies from Neyyar and 153 species in Peppara. Interestingly, Malabar Rose, a species endemic to the Western Ghats, was recorded from almost all the sites as was the Southern Birdwing, the largest Indian butterfly. Grass Jewel, the smallest Indian butterfly, was seen in Athirumala and Thalamutty. Other interesting sightings from Peppara were of the Green Awlet, Small Palmbob, Travancore Evening Brown, Orchid Tit and Tamil Oakblue. From the Neyyar area we chanced upon Southern Duffer, Siva Sunbeam, the Wax dart, Coorg Forest Hopper, Hampson’s Hedge Blue, Malabar Flash and Indigo Flash, among others,” says Dr. Kalesh. The group was also able to observe in close sight animals such as gaurs, elephants, giant squirrels and the endemic Kangaroo lizards and birds such as Forest wagtail, Blanford’s Laughing Thrush and Grey-headed flycatcher, to name a few.

Spotted!

The highlight of the survey was the “re-discovery” of the Striated Fivering, a rare butterfly thought to be endemic to the Nilgiri hills, by Dr. Kunte and Dr. Milind Bhakre. Explains Dr. Kunte: “This is the first known record of the Striated Fivering since it was discovered in the Nilgiris some 90 years ago. My team was walking along a rocky forest slope in Anainirathy when our guide, N. Vijayan, spotted this butterfly. All of us in the group were fairly expert butterfly watchers and yet none of us could at first identify it. We then took its photograph and upon closely looking at its features, to my excitement, I found it to be the Striated Fivering!” Following a stint at Harvard University, Dr. Kunte is at present the Ramanujan Fellow at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. “It’s an important re-discovery because the last time it was seen, it was north of the Palghat Gap, which is a major bio-geographic divide of the Western Ghats, and significantly some 500-600 km away from the Neyyar area. The re-discovery indicates how very little we still know about endemic species and reflects the magnitude of conservation and biodiversity potential in Kerala,” adds Dr. Kunte.