Colourful and delicate, butterflies are not only beautiful creatures but also play an essential role in the food chain as well as being indicators of the ecosystem.

Of late, butterfly parks are emerging as a new trend with recent ones coming up in cities like Bhopal and Indore in Madhya Pradesh. States like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Bangalore, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh already have many such parks.

“Around three dozen species including butterflies like blue tiger, plain tiger, striped tiger, common banded awl can be seen in our park,” said AK Jain, deputy director of Van Vihar National Park, Bhopal. “We wanted to make people aware of butterfly conservation. We also encourage our visitors to plant nectar and host plants to attract butterflies in their backyard. We prepared a leaflet containing all the information.”

Sarang Mathre, a Bhopal-based butterfly park consultant, told Mongabay-India, “Nectar plant and host plants are important for butterfly habitat.”

“Sunflower, marigold, lantana, petunia, hibiscus are some common nectar plants in India,” said Mathre. “Butterflies depend on these plants for food. Curry leaves, cotton trees, cassia, citrus, are some example of host plants. These are the plants where eggs are laid, larvae, caterpillars and pupa are formed.” Mathre has helped authorities and some private organisations to build butterfly parks in Madhya Pradesh.

An increase in pesticide use, deforestation, and climate change are some of the reasons for habitat loss of butterflies. Photo credit: Rhett A Butler/Mongabay

While the number of such parks is growing, are they capable of conserving butterflies at a large scale? Krushnamegh Kunte, PhD and Associate Professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences said, “You should distinguish between butterfly parks and butterfly conservatories.”

“Butterfly parks are great for outreach and education, not for conservation,” Kunte said. “Conservatories are valuable for conservation in urban as well as more wild habitats, and for conservation breeding of endangered and threatened species.”

“The breeding programme has to be well thought out, and there should be sufficient releases of lab-raised butterflies in habitats that are also being improved,” he told Mongabay-India. “Conservation of habitat, larval host and nectar plants and breeding in the butterfly conservatories has to be done simultaneously.”

Kunte said that parks like the one Bhopal would be great for creating awareness about butterflies, their caterpillars, their interesting interactions with plants, and connecting especially young people with insect biodiversity.

Butterflies losing habitat

Despite small efforts like butterfly parks, the large scale problem of forest degradation is causing habitat loss for butterflies, important in the food chain and ecosystem.

A report compiled by Mongabay said that India lost 1,625,97 hectare of tree cover during the year 2001 to 2018. It is 19.1% of the total tree cover.

The National Forest Commission report 2006 indicated that around 41% of the country’s entire forest is already degraded, 70% of the forests have no natural regeneration and 55% of the forests are prone to fire.

“Forest fires, degradation of forest and climate change altogether affect many species of butterflies,” said Sanjay Sondhi, a Dehradun-based naturalist and founder trustee of Titli Trust. “However, due to a lack of research, it is impossible to say which species are on the verge of extinction. Still, we are indeed losing butterflies in India.” The trust is working on research and conservation of butterflies in the Himalayas.

Common Jezebel butterfly in Van Vihar National Park, Bhopal. Photo by Mohammad Khalique

In a 2017 study from the western Himalayas, three researchers – Deepika Mehra, Jagbir Singh Kirti, and Avtar Kaur Sidhu – from Punjabi University, Patiala, used published data and field observations (from 2013 to 2016) to appraise the status of biodiversity and conservation of butterflies in the western Himalayas.

The paper published in the Journal of Entomology and Zoology stated, “A total of 493 butterfly species referable to 219 genera were reported from Western Himalaya, out of which, 89 species (60 species are narrowly endemic) ie, 18% were found to be endemic.”

The Himalayan range extending from Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh up to Uttarakhand is known as Western Himalayas. The study found that 493 butterfly species are recognised from the Western Himalayas, constituting approximately 30% of the total Indian butterfly fauna.

Butterflies face multiple threats

A report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations says that close to 35% of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, and about 17% of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats, face extinction globally.

“There has been a worrisome decline in the population of pollinators, especially bees and butterflies, mainly due to intensive agricultural practices, changes in land use, pesticides (including neonicotinoid insecticides), alien invasive species, diseases, pests and climate change” the report added.

Orange-spotted tiger wing butterfly (Mechanitis Polymnia). Photo by Rhett A Butler/Mongabay

Another report by the Food and Agriculture Organization stated that more than 75% of the world’s food crops depend, to some extent, on pollination. “Pollinators, like bees, butterflies, birds, moths, beetles, and even bats, help plants reproduce,” the report added.

Illegal trade in butterflies is another threat to the creatures. The Zoological Survey of India published a Red Data Book on butterflies of India in the year 2005. The authors of the book IJ Gupta and DK Mondal estimated that the world’s illegal butterfly trade is worth $ 100 million (Rs 730 crore).

“Butterfly trading based in India and Indo-China is now quite extensive and occurs at all levels, from personal collectors to substantial business,” it added. “About no less than 50,000 specimens of butterflies are smuggled out of India every month. Also, the butterfly-collecting for illegal trade is prevalent in Western Himalaya (Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh and North-western parts of Uttar Pradesh), the Eastern Himalaya (Sikkim and in the north of West Bengal) and the Western Ghats.”

Need for conservation

Emphasising on the need for butterfly conservation, Kunte said, “There is a need for a butterfly conservation program in India, but not through parks or conservatories alone.”

“If we are losing and degrading habitats, then conservation programmes will not succeed,” Kunte said. “So, butterfly conservation cannot be seen in isolation, similar to any other significant conservation programme.”

“Conservation of wild habitats is of paramount importance,” Kunte added. “Without that, there is no future for Indian biodiversity. Corridors among increasingly fragmenting habitat patches are also important since butterflies cannot easily cross densely built-up areas and those with heavy and fast-moving vehicular traffic.”

“Improvement of already degraded habitats is necessary, wherever feasible,” he said. “It may be done by encouraging the growth of native biodiversity-friendly vegetation, as forest departments in Karnataka and West Bengal have done in several butterfly habitats in and around otherwise heavily populated urban and rural areas.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.