If you conserve butterflies, you can conserve an entire forest

Meet the Karnataka man who planted a garden for butterflies
news Tuesday, July 26, 2016 - 18:06

Sammilan Shetty fell in love when he was in college pursuing a Bsc degree. His parents and family knew about his interest, and maybe thought that it was a passing affair. Now, several years later Sammilan has managed to convince his family to learn to love what he loves: butterflies.

Sammilan first became acquainted with the little creatures when doing a project for a zoology class in college. He had to identify and document butterflies near his house. The more he got to know the creatures, the more they interested him.

With the help of his family, fellow enthusiasts, and experts, Sammilan runs a butterfly park – a place where you can see 150 butterflies in a single day if you visit in season (June-November). He has gradually turned the land his family owns, even the paddy fields, into a 7.35-acre area which is a paradise for butterflies. And it’s not just that the creatures are pretty-looking. Sammilan says that butterflies are integral to the environment, something that mattered to him even before he became interested in them.

“I want people to conserve nature. If you conserve butterflies, you can conserve an entire forest. Butterflies are an indicator organism. By counting the number of butterflies (in a particular area) you know how healthy a habitat is.” Sammilan says.

With this in mind, he has kept the park free for children of government schools, but children in private schools pay Rs 25 per head, and adults Rs 50. When school children or others visit, he takes them on a tour of the whole place, showing them different species of butterflies and explaining the life cycle, their ecological importance, their preferences, their survival strategies, the manner in which they have adapted, and other interesting facts about the little creatures.

To two families visiting the park from Mangaluru, Shetty explained in detail why butterflies fly at different speeds. “Butterflies that fly fast do so because they have to escape their predators. The ones that fly very slowly and leisurely taste unpleasant. If predators try to eat these butterflies, the taste makes the predator spit it out.”

Every butterfly species has its own host plant; unpalatable butterflies acquire the bad taste from toxins present in the host plant during the caterpillar stage. When caterpillars of these species become butterflies, they generally have prominent patterns on their wings. This helps predators distinguish them from butterflies that are palatable.

But, as Shetty pointed out, there are exceptions. Indicating a female Great Eggfly, he said that the species is palatable but it mimics the pattern of a toxic species called Crow, which helps it escape its predators.

Sammilan has power point presentations reserved for visitors on Sunday mornings. During one such presentation, he played a video that showed the inter-dependence between ants and certain species of butterflies. The ants guard the caterpillar and pupa of the Oakblue butterfly which belong to the lycaenidae family. Ants got honey dew from the caterpillars in return for keeping watch during the initial stages of the butterfly, preventing them from being attacked by other predators or parasitic wasps, Shetty explained.

A lecturer in hotel management, Sammilan also holds an MBA degree in tourism. But he’s currently given up his job to work on a documentary on Indian butterflies.

But perhaps none of this would have occurred if he hadn’t read The Book of Indian Butterflies written by Isaac Kehimkar. In it, Sammilan came across a section in which Kehimkar explains how people could actually grow plants that would attract butterflies. In 2011, he began by planting lemon trees and curry leaf trees. Gradually, he planted more trees that were “host” plants (plants in which the eggs are laid) and “nectar plants” (which the butterflies rely on for nectar).

His parents and family were not very happy with his hobby initially. “But once they started to see the eggs and the caterpillar change, they too began to get inspired. Now, my mother can identify different species, she knows which are the host plants and the nectar plants and a lot more,” Sammilan says.

Initially, he put his savings into the venture, but two years after he first embarked on it, he told his family about wanting to create a full-fledged butterfly park. With support from other butterfly enthusiasts, his family and his brother who works as a software engineer in Bengaluru, he set up the park.

The idea apparently, is not to make money, even though he and his family have spent a total of Rs 6 lakh on saplings, maintenance, irrigation, a projector, a god camera and other facilities to make the park a fun visit.

(This story has been updated from an earlier version published on November 11, 2014)

Sammilan has chosen the Malabar Banded Peacock as the logo for his park. The species is endemic to the Western Ghats. The peacock blue colour of its wing displays two different shades when viewed from different angles.

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