The flutter of a butterfly’s wing, according to chaos theory, can cause a typhoon halfway around the world. But for most of us, the real ‘butterfly effect’ is the immediate joy in watching these insects in their own habitat.
Nepal is one of the best places in the world for butterfly watchers. Of the 17,500 or so species of butterflies in the world, 660 are found in Nepal, and 20 of them are on the endangered list. Because of Nepal’s topographical and climate variation, they can be seen round-the-year here in different parts of the country. Nepal is also located at the meeting point of the palearctic and oriental species. Like birders, there are tourists who come to Nepal just to watch butterflies.
Colin Smith is in his 80s and used to be a Nepal-based butterfly guide. He is so passionate about butterflies that Nepalis call him ‘Putali Baje’. The British national has dedicated more than 50 years to he study of butterflies in Nepal, has published research papers and books, and his pictures of butterflies adorn calendars, postcards, and posters.
“People are happy watching and photographing butterflies and not collecting them, as it was fashion some time ago,” Smith says, citing increasing awareness in the public about the need for biodiversity conservation. Even so, butterfly watching hasn’t caught on as much as birdwatching in Nepal.
Dhan Prasad of Ethic Himalaya Treks in Thamel says he gets many customers interested in birdwatching tours but not so many for butterflies. But he admits birdwatchers also look out for butterflies. Last year he handled a group that came all the way from France just to look at butterflies in Kathmandu Valley.
Mahendra Singh Limbu is a tour guide specialising in butterflies and lives in Godavari, which is next to Pulchoki the mountain that alone has 350 species of butterflies. “My passion for butterflies comes from my appreciation for life,” he says, showing an extensive collection of pictures of butterflies.
Lepidopterists Limbu and Smith both believe there is great potential if Nepal marketed expeditions in the peak butterfly watching seasons in March–June and August–October. Smith says it is important not just to show visitors Nepal’s fabulous diversity of butterflies, but also detailed information about each species.
“We can provide not just anecdotal information but about their habitat, life-cycles, and why certain species behave the way they do,” explains Smith. Bhaiya Khanal of the Natural History Museum in Kathmandu says butterflies are not only beautiful but very important markers about the state of the environment.
Many butterfly species rely on just a single species of plants and if the flower disappears, so does the butterfly. Butterfly habitat shifts can also be early-warning signs of climate change. For instance, Khanal found in 2008 that the Apollo B species had shifted up the mountains as temperatures rose.
Butterflies have a delicately balanced seasonal cycle and lay their eggs on the food-plant when the leaves are still young. The butterfly comes out of its cocoon and chrysalis when certain flowers are in bloom and upsetting this balance could not only affect the feeding of the caterpillars, but the pollination of the flowers.
Khanal has been taking a regular butterfly census in Nepal and has found that in the last three years there has been a decline in numbers of certain species like the Hockey Stick Seller, due to habitat destruction or perhaps pesticide use.