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Book on butterflies

The wingman


SPOTTING TIME: Peter lives in Bhimtal which is home to 240 species

Peter Smetacek chases butterflies everywhere, even spotting some rare specimens in Delhi's concrete jungles.

When he was two-and-a-half-years old, Peter Smetacek had rushed into the lawn of his parents' bungalow in Nainital with an oversized net chasing a beautiful Orange Oakleaf, a large brilliant butterfly shaped like a leaf and coloured blue and orange. He didn't quite manage to capture it - the net was actually bigger than him - but surprised his parents by demanding to know its scientific name. It was Kallima inachus, a name he could barely pronounce at that age.

Smetacek's destiny was actually laid out at birth. He was born and raised in a family where every member had one common passion - butterflies. Now, after half a lifetime spent understanding butterflies, 47 year-old Smetacek has put together his family's tryst with the world of the beautiful winged insects in a book 'Butterflies On The Roof of The World, A Memoir' (Aleph). It isn't written as a zoology book;it simply tells the story of a family besotted by butterflies.

The book talks about the fascinating story of the Smetacek family's journey from the fir, alder and oak forests of Upper Silesia in central Europe to the similarly dense woods of Uttarakhand. Smetacek's father had left home in Sudetenland - a strip of land between Bohemia and Silesia in erstwhile Czechoslovakia - at the age of 19, to work on North Sea trawlers out of Hamburg. In 1939, he was on a brief visit home when rumours spread of Hitler's impending visit. He escaped the Nazis by hiding for a while in Hamburg but then set sail for the East. He fled the ship at Calcutta sensing that war was about to be declared. He met his future wife at a party in Calcutta, got married and shifted to the Himalayas in 1945 after responding to an advertisement for the sale of a lodge at Naukuchiatal.

Bhimtal, where his family has lived for more than half a century, is 'a butterfly lover's paradise' - it is home to around 240 species of the insect. That's sizeable compared to the 332 found in the entire Indian peninsula south of Orissa and Gujarat and about 150 found in most European countries (approximately 1, 300 butterflies are found in India, mostly concentrated in the North-eastern states).

Even when visiting Delhi, wife Rajni's home, Smetacek manages to spot rare butterflies in gardens around the Capital. The Red Pierrot, for instance, is a butterfly he discovered in Delhi besides three others about 4-5 years ago. When he talks about his passion, Smetacek is impervious to the concrete heart of the city and the discordant sounds of urban life that surround him.

"There is so much butterfly wealth in the country, especially in the North-East. Now there is a rising trend among amateur enthusiasts to discover and share their new findings. Digital photography, of course, has made things easier, " says Smetacek. In fact, 3, 000 butterfly enthusiasts - mostly Indian - have connected through Facebook to share and sometimes, dispute each other's findings.

It is interesting that no Indian butterfly is threatened with extinction and fresh discoveries are constantly being added to the indigenous list;several have been re-discovered after almost a century, all by amateurs. But a lot remains to be done, says the collector. "A large number of butterfly species are not represented in Indian collections. In order to study them, one has to visit museums abroad, such as the Natural History Museum in London. Recently described Indian species, too, are not represented in Indian collections. " In fact, the first butterfly taxon (a group of a population of an organism) to be described by an Indian in the post-Independence era was Neptis miah varshneyi by Smetacek, as recently as in 2004.

However, discovering and naming butterflies is only the first step in a long process. As Smetacek writes in his book, 'The majority of butterflies, though, still hold their secrets and we have absolutely no idea why they are coloured, patterned and shaped the way they are. That they are surviving confirms that these colours and shapes are effective in the task of conveying a message (of the butterfly's distastefulness) or disguising a butterfly. '

During the last 30 years, Smetacek's interest has shifted to the study of moths as bio-indicators to measure the health of forests. "Nowhere in the world do we have a system to measure this vital aspect of a forest's life. It cannot be done through birds and mammals but through local insects, " he says. He points out that it is a rich field as moths outnumber butterflies all over the world in an estimated ratio of 10:1.

Even as Smetacek shifts gears, his children - daughter Kanika (12) and son Pius (11) - seem ready to absorb their father's passion. When visitors come to take a look at his butterfly collection at Bhimtal, Kanika effortlessly holds the fort on his behalf.



Bhutan Glory |

Bhutanitis lidderdalii | It is an unusual and beautiful butterfly found in Sikkim, Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh and other parts of the North-East.

Common Peacock |

Papilio bianor | Voted the most beautiful Indian butterfly by Limca Book of Records. Found in the Himalayas from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, as also in Thailand, China and Japan.

Orange Oakleaf |

Kallima inachus | It's a celebrated example of camouflage. Found in the Himalayas from Kashmir to the North-East, Rajmahal Hills, Gujarat and also in Thailand.

South Indian Birdwing |

Troides minos | It is the largest Indian butterfly, females measure up to 19 cm. It is found in the Western Ghats, from Goa to Kerala.

White Dragontail |

Lamproptera curius | It is an unusually-shaped butterfly, mimics dragonflies. It is found in the North-East of India and in South East Asia.

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