Minom Pertin, Monsoon Jyoti Gogoi and Nawang Gyatso Bhutia, butterfly enthusiasts and researchers, were on a routine trek of the Mishmi Hills in Arunachal Pradesh when they came across a butterfly species that they had earlier only seen in photographs.
The Huang’s Mystic Lethe wui Huang is a species of the brush-footed butterfly first recorded in 1999 from Metok in Southeast Tibet by Hao Huang. It would take another 12 years, in 2011, that the species’ sighting would be re-recorded, this time from Panwa in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state. This elusive butterfly did not feature in scientific records for five years after that, until 2016, when it was spotted at Nujiang in China’s northwest Yunnan.
Now, five years since the last reported sighting, the butterfly was seen once again this October, in the Mishmi Hills in Mayodia in Lower Dibang Valley district in Arunachal Pradesh, at an elevation of 2,400 metres.
Lepidopterists, the scientific term for entomologists specialising in studying butterflies and moths, have had a bloom in recent years in Arunachal Pradesh. The state, nestled in the Eastern Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot, usually appears in the mainstream news media with repeated claims of Chinese authority over its landmass.
The proximity to mainland China (and Bhutan and Myanmar) also means that the state shares much of the same geographical features with the neighbouring countries as it does with the other parts of India.
This has resulted in the discovery and sighting of many wildlife and plants species that were previously not known to exist in India.
And butterfly species have been at the forefront of these new sightings.
Regarding the recent discovery that he and his friends made in October, Minom Pertin said that the Mishmi Hills region has been relatively unexplored for butterflies and that the new findings are significant. “It shows that the area of the species is expanding,” said Pertin, the deputy director of Society for Education and Environmental Development and a butterfly enthusiast. He is also a junior engineer with the state government’s department of power.
Monsoon Jyoti Gogoi, a scientist at the Bombay Natural History Society has been working in Arunachal Pradesh since 2010 and had presented his Master’s in Science dissertation in wildlife science on butterflies of Dibang Valley.
He said that more research is needed in this field, especially in the state’s high elevation regions and that the government should encourage students from Arunachal Pradesh to study butterflies. He also said that universities should include lepidoptera in their academic syllabus and that research institutes should also include entomology to give students the opportunities to pursue studies on lepidoptera and entomology.
Gogoi said he thinks that “only if butterfly (research and enthusiasts) community grows, Arunachal Pradesh can be properly known in terms of lepidoptera diversity which is the probably richest in the whole oriental region”.
It is a view shared by Nawang Gyatso Bhutia, who heads the Butterflies and Moths of Sikkim Nature Conversation Society. “I feel Arunachal Pradesh is the second Amazon [the forest],” he said.
Bhutia has been working in the field for the past 11 years and, in 2017, made it to the Limca Book of Records after he got 95 different species of butterflies to perch on his fingers. This October was his eighth visit to the state, and he said that he is “always finding rare species” during his visits.
The state’s biodiversity is well-attested. Back in 2017, when Gogoi was based in Roing in the Lower Dibang Valley district, he found the Huang’s Silverfork Lethe Gregori, which had earlier been recorded only in Metok county in Tibet/China.
Since the Huang’s Mystic Lethe wui Huang has not been reported in India until now, it is not safeguarded by the country’s Wildlife (Protection) Act unlike several other species of butterflies.
In 2018 at the fifth edition of the North East Butterfly Meet held in the Seijosa area of Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district, 180 species were recorded. These included the Creteus cyrina, the only one from the Creteus genus found in Southeast Asia.
The following year at Ziro in Lower Subansiri district at the sixth edition of the Ziro Butterfly Meet, over 100 species were recorded, including the Bhutan glory, brown gorgon, white dragontail and Manipur jungle queen. The elusive moth species called the Apatani glory was also spotted. These sightings have become commonplace amongst lepidopterists in recent years.
Butterfly festivals such as those held at Ziro and Namdapha National Park in Changlang district have become the go-to sites for butterfly sightings.
The Ziro Butterfly Meet was held last year, October 2020, at the Tale Wildlife Sanctuary and organised by the NGO Ngunu Ziro (which means “Our Ziro”) in association with the state Tale Wildlife Division and the Hapoli Forest Division. Over the three days, visitors sighted the Tytlers’ treebrown, the Bhutan treebrown and the scarce evening brown, all species which are legally protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act.
The Namdapha area in Changlang district, where Minom Pertin is based, has also hosted similar festivals. At the fourth edition of the Namdapha Butterfly Meet held in September this year, over 200 species were recorded during three days at the Namdapha National Park.
The event at Namdapha is organised by the Miao-based NGO the Society for Education and Environmental Development, headed by Pertin, in collaboration with the tourism department, Changlang district administration, and the authorities of the Namdapha Tiger Reserve and the Namdapha National Park.
Pertin, a native of Bolung village in the state’s Lower Dibang Valley district, said that his interest in butterflies started in 2016 when he met other enthusiasts like Tajum Yomcha, a scientist working in the area, and began photographing them.
He said it was because of their encouragement that he and his friends, including Roshan Upadhaya began the Namdapha Butterfly Meet in 2018. Pertin said that they are working to influence young people to love nature and the vital role butterflies play in maintaining ecological balance.
Elsewhere in the state, Abhinav Kumar, the state divisional forest officer in Lower Subansiri district where the Ziro Butterfly Meet is held, said that there is growing awareness amongst the local populace since the festival began eight years ago. He said that the forest division has also published papers on new species that have been discovered and a list of species found at the nearby Talle Wildlife Sanctuary.
A book documenting the butterflies of Talle Valley is also in the pipeline.
Kumar said that festivals like these help “bring awareness and knowledge to a wide variety of groups from students to local community members”.
The growing interest in butterfly preservation has also been noticed by the Arunachal Pradesh state government. At a state ministerial meeting held at the premises of the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Seijosa this November, a decision was taken to adopt the “Kaiser-i-Hind” (Teinopalpus imperialis), as the state butterfly. While the final approval is currently pending, the announcement was part of a number of key decisions the state government had taken to work towards a more substantial and environment-friendly model of governance.
The Pakke Tiger Reserve 2047 Declaration on Climate Change-Resilient and Responsive Arunachal Pradesh, as it has been formally dubbed, is aimed at lowering emissions and achieving sustainable development to help advance India’s agenda on meeting the Paris Agreement goals on climate change leveraging the state’s forest cover and natural resources.
Earlier in 2021, the world’s leading biodiversity and climate experts assembled together by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services highlighted the importance of confronting climate change and biodiversity loss together in a new report.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.