Butterfly Man Isaac Kehimkar needs another lifetime to see every butterfly in India

In an interview with TNM, Isaac speaks about climate change, his inordinate passion for butterflies and how young people are trying to save the planet.
Butterfly Man Isaac Kehimkar needs another lifetime to see every butterfly in India
Butterfly Man Isaac Kehimkar needs another lifetime to see every butterfly in India
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The road to Belvai Butterfly Park near Moodabidri, Karnataka is bumpy, but the recent rains have turned the countryside into a gigantic green patchwork quilt. Tall and curvy toddy palms sport a crown of dark green fronds, and pale green creepers festoon the bushes and trees on the roadside.

Isaac Kehimkar, 62, the ‘Butterfly Man of India’ — though that’s not exactly how he sees himself — is no stranger to this part of town. 

In 2013, he had inaugurated Karnataka’s first private butterfly park, an enterprise of Sammilan Shetty, a youngster who left his office job in Mangaluru to focus on conserving butterflies on his seven-acre ancestral property in Belvai village. Isaac was back to release Shetty’s documentary – a stunning 100-minute tribute to butterflies that took him the better part of four years to create. It is already touted as India’s first comprehensive documentary on butterflies, and there’s an impressive turn-out of lepidopterologists (an expert who specialises in the study of butterflies) and amateur naturalists for the release.

Naturalists are a distracted lot, in a nice way. They may be answering your questions, but their minds are far away, dwelling on the mysteries of nature. Something similar happened with Isaac. In a free-wheeling conversation, often interrupted by fluttering butterflies, he speaks about climate change, his inordinate passion for butterflies, people who have created business opportunities that are saving communities and how the current generation is, thankfully, ‘crazy’ about saving the world. 

Excerpts from an interview:

Across the globe, youngsters are taking back the responsibility of conserving what little we have left of the environment. What is your take on this global movement by young people?

Isaac: It is their world. It is rightfully theirs. We have only borrowed it from them. In India, we have a good set of laws but they do not get implemented; so, the citizens have reached breaking point and want to take back control. We are poisoning our waterways, and it has come to such a point that what we throw into our gutters is coming back onto our tables in the form of contaminated fruits, meat and vegetables. No wonder there are protests all over.

How do you get urban dwellers to start contributing to conservation efforts in the small spaces we have? 

Isaac: If you fall in love with nature, you automatically start saving it. Normal gardens are too ‘plastic’, in that they are filled with crotons and roses - the kind of plants butterflies don’t like. We need more host plants so that butterflies have nectar, can lay their eggs… just grow a curry leaf plant on your balcony and you will attract Common Mormons!

Do you see eco-tourism as a double-edged sword? It can help communities in many ways but it could also result in over commercialisation…

Isaac: Most people who are into eco-tourism are well-informed, so their activities do not spoil nature. In fact, they are helpful in spreading the message of conservation.

What was your childhood like?

Isaac: Growing up near Borivili National Park in Bombay (now Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai), I learnt a lot about nature. I used to fish, and hunt crabs with the local children. I was lucky that my parents encouraged these healthy hobbies of mine. They gave me a camera, let me keep birds and other animals at home.

Please take me through your years with Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).    

Isaac: I was very lucky to work with people such as Dr Salim Ali, who was such an icon. I saw how he worked, the discipline he brought to everything. For 38 years, I absorbed his ethos and ethics. When I wrote my first book, The Book of Indian Butterflies, it took me 10 years to compile. Butterflies showed me how beautiful India is. I had to stalk these butterflies to get those pictures. It was all self-funded, but then again, you have to be a bit crazy to do that.

With social media, it must be easier to work on your books?

Isaac: Definitely. There are more than 30 Facebook pages devoted to butterflies. The members try and meet in different places to take photos and trade notes. It is so much easier to guide youngsters in research these days. I was able to get pictures from butterfly enthusiasts in Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries. We only discuss butterflies, and other fauna. There is a lot of info-sharing, and politics is a definite no-no in these groups. There are so many amazing amateurs who are quite the experts on butterflies.

But you are the ‘Butterfly Man of India’...

Isaac: No! I don’t consider myself an expert. You are a student throughout your life. I believe in sharing knowledge and encouraging students. 

Is there a butterfly in India you have still not seen?

Isaac: I am yet to see the Kaiser-i-Hind and there are several in the Western Ghats region I have not seen yet. One lifetime is not enough!

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, on several occasions, come across as a climate change denier. What impact will this have on the future of India’s ecology?

Isaac: The Prime Minister has his own issues to deal with in terms of seeing to the country’s problems and development, but compared to many others, he has shown some interest in conservation. The problem is that both cutting of forests and the growth of mining industries have to be sustainable. For instance, we are in the Western Ghats, which is a system that supports civilisation. Where there is fresh water, there will be people. It is not just birds or butterflies we must protect. It is the entire system. I don’t say ‘development versus sustainability’. There has to be a cost-benefit ratio. We can find alternatives, but for that you need political will.

These days, how do you keep yourself busy? 

Isaac: I run an NGO (Ladybird Environmental Consulting LLP) which does a lot of CSR activities in cities, such as setting up butterfly gardens. We resolutely work at the grassroots, improving small areas one at a time. When we take on a project, we stick to it for nearly three years, send in reports every three months so the sponsoring company knows what we are doing with its money, and we hand it over once we are satisfied the area is completely rejuvenated. When you see communities benefit, you derive a lot of satisfaction.

(Satya Reddy is a journalist by training and loves to collect children's books. Thanatology fascinates her.)

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