Butterflies form an important part of our beautifully balanced ecosystem. The abundance of butterflies (along with bees) in certain habitats is an excellent indicator of a thriving ecosystem. The various roles that they play include –

Pollinators

Butterflies depend on flowers for nectar. This, along with the butterfly-caterpillar relationship with specific host plant species makes butterflies a crucial part of the process of pollination.

Part of the food chain – both as predator and prey

Larvae of butterflies feed on leaves and thereby keep a check on plant species. Some of these caterpillars are carnivores and feed on other insects. Butterflies–both in their adult and pupal stages–serve as prey to a variety of birds, lizards, spiders, wasps, ants and others.

Dingy Lineblue

Indicators of climate change and health of a habitat

Butterflies are sensitive to climate change and also to any changes in their habitat. Therefore, their abundance, or lack thereof, is helpful to scientists and conservators to evaluate the health of a particular habitat.

Attraction for tourists and a source of livelihood

The advent and growth of wildlife tourism has now extended to butterflies as well. Butterflies, with their various sizes, colours and wing patterns attract wildlife enthusiasts, researchers, scientists and photographers. Several butterfly parks have sprung up in various parts of the country. These parks not only provide a source of livelihood to people, but also play a role in the conservation of these fragile creatures.

A male Six Lineblue

Given their importance, it is critical that steps are taken towards the conservation of butterflies. For more than three years now, the Karnataka Forest Department (KFD) has been taking firm steps towards the conservation of butterflies. As a part of this initiative, several activities have been conducted – butterfly festivals, creation of butterfly parks, planting of larval host plants, and naming the Southern Birdwing as the state butterfly of Karnataka, to name a few.

In order to be able to assess the impact of these conservation activities, a process needs to be in place to scientifically observe, record and report butterfly populations from these habitats. The most effective way to do this is through butterfly population surveys. To get an estimate of the butterfly population as well as to understand the health of the habitat, the KFD decided to conduct a butterfly survey in the Kali Tiger Reserve.

The Kali Tiger Reserve (named after the river that flows through it, Kali), lies in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. The reserve is spread across 1300 sq.km. and boasts a diverse variety of flora and fauna. Tigers, leopards, elephants and other mammals big and small call this their home, one they share with ~190 species of birds, and many reptiles and insects that are endemic to the region.

Quaker

The objective of this butterfly survey was to get an initial assessment of the number of species that inhabit this forest, and an approximate idea about their abundance.

Officials from KFD and Jungle Lodges & Resorts (JLR) led this survey. Several members of Bengaluru Butterfly Club (BBC) collaborated with the KFD and JLR to plan and execute this survey, conducted in mid-December, 2019.

Twenty butterfly experts from BBC were split into five camps in the tiger reserve – Anshi, Castle Rock, Kulgi, Ganeshgudi and Kali. These butterfly experts were ably supported by students of College of Forestry, Sirsi and were accompanied by KFD officials and watchers at all times.

The butterfly survey team

The survey was conducted for two days, during which the five teams walked the designated area, covering diverse habitats like stream beds, thick jungles, open grasslands, tree canopies etc. They recorded and counted every single butterfly they came across.

The survey required the team members to cover long distances on foot, across challenging terrain. Each team would start walking at 8 am and would complete the first session by noon. After a quick lunch break, they would venture out again and survey the area till 4 pm. During their time in the field, the team would take notes, record and photograph every single individual seen. Upon their return to the base camp, the team would then take stock of the various sightings and record them on the survey sheet given to them.

The survey teams were were accompanied by officials of the Karnataka Forest Department and watchers at all times.

At the end of two days, the teams got together and collated all the information into a single database. The result of this massive effort was that in a short span of two days, the team reported sightings of 159 butterfly species across 6 butterfly families and counted more than 4500 individual butterflies.

In addition to some very beautiful butterflies, the team also spotted a lot of birds, frogs, snakes.

A Hump-nosed Pit Viper, endemic to the Western Ghats

Some key observations from this two-day survey –

  • Even though it was it was well past the peak season, members of the survey team were astonished to observe that both the number of butterfly species and the count of individual butterflies observed were quite high.
  • There could be several factors for this high number – diversity of habitat, presence of larval host plants, and a largely undisturbed habitat.
  • The survey team observed that the KFD has done a commendable job in creating several butterfly nurseries on the fringes of the Kali Tiger Reserve. The presence of butterfly larval host plants in these nurseries has helped to strengthen the butterfly population in this area.
  • This survey has strengthened the belief that Kali Tiger Reserve is indeed an excellent habitat for butterflies.
  • The survey team recommends that the KFD conduct more such surveys in several other parts of Karnataka, especially in the Western Ghats, to allow for the collation of more quantitative data on the butterflies of Karnataka.