Thursday, July 06, 2006

Butterflies: 'Conscious flowers of air'

Butterfly Garden at Auroville
Jana (from USA) and Perumal (from India) speak about their efforts to create a garden for the 'conscious flowers of air', as Sri Aurobindo described butterflies poetically in Savitri. Shift from imported to indigenous plant speciesIt is well known that Auroville was started on degraded land stripped of its original tree and bush cover, interspersed with dry land crop fields. The last three decades have witnessed a massive re-afforestation in a bid to restore soil quality and the general health of the land. This has met with spectacular success, but certain problems have arisen. As much as 72% of the regeneration in many areas consists of imported exotic plant species, like Acacia trees - 'Work', as Mother named them. To what extent this has adversely affected the local fauna still remains to be seen, but nowadays a shift to afforestation with indigenous species is promoted.Fertile Field settlementOne of the areas where this is being done is Fertile Field.
Jana and her husband Perumal have taken charge of 17 acres recently purchased land - 10 acres of cashew tope and 7 of open field - with an aim to plant native trees and shrubs so as to create a butterfly garden for indigenous butterflies.Insects as hobby"I was more or less born with a passion for insects," laughs Jana. "Since I was a child I loved insects, particularly beetles. I collected and bred them. But I chose to get a Bachelor's degree in English Literature, and insects remained a hobby. When I came to live in India, with its enormous amount of insects, my interest reawakened. I am thinking about taking up a correspondence course to get a Masters in Biology.
This time, the emphasis will be on butterflies. I have been breeding them on a small scale when I was living at the beach community of Sri Ma. Now, here in Fertile Field, we plan to plant 10 acres for the butterfly garden with food plants for the larvae and with plants that attract butterflies."Biological indicators"There is quite a good butterfly population in Auroville," Jana continues. "Research done in 1995 by Ms. Aditi Pai showed that there were 55 species of butterflies living in Auroville, against 49 in Puthupet, a forest nearby Auroville which still has the original shrub jungle of this area. Now it is well known that certain insects, especially Butterflies and Moths, are particularly suited as biological indicators. Biological indicators are organisms, which are very sensitive to their environment.
This is manifested by their 'performances' in their habitat. Their very presence or absence, or their number, is a good indication of state of the environment. Using butterflies as biological indicators, Pai found that the quality of the Auroville habitat is not exceptionally good, but that the diversity of Auroville's habitats, ranging from grasslands (Aranya) to plantation areas (young areas in Aurobrindavan and older ones in Forecomers) to natural degraded scrub lands (e.g. Fertile) and ravines (Forecomers) was responsible for the species richness."315 species of butterflies in south India"Large parts of Auroville" says Jana, "are disturbed habitats, that is areas where due to all kind of reasons there has been a loss of biomass. Other areas are unsuitable for the indigenous butterfly population because the flora is partly exotic.
The afforestation efforts attempt to change all that, and I hope the species variety will drastically grow once the indigenous food shrubs and trees mature. After all, there are about 1.500 species of butterflies in India, 315 of which live in south India. The butterflies seen in Auroville are among the most common species of India. But they are tough. My neighbor, a Tamil farmer, sprayed his field this year with DDT, which may have killed some of them, but I have also found many larvae that lived through the spraying season."Growing food plants for local speciesAs to whether she plans to make a kind of butterfly house that would show exotic butterfly species as well, Jana replies in the negative. "That's not the objective, although it would be a great project.
I recently visited one such house in Malaysia, which is filled with different butterflies from all over the world. It is stunningly beautiful, but it is not what I want to do. I want to focus on local species and release them. To import non-indigenous species is useless if you do not grow their food plants and it might be dangerous, as scientists do not know what impact on the environment would be. Already questions are being raised whether breeding indigenous butterflies would not create a pest, as the larvae eat plants. The emphasis will be on growing the food plants and planting them all over Auroville, which implies a lot of nursery work. It is not. It is not a question of just breeding and releasing them!
"Nature will balance out"The general consensus is that this project would be beneficial to the environment. One of the advantages is that butterflies are the second strongest pollinating insects next to bees. We expect that the butterflies will disperse and migrate and that, as we will not introduce any new species, nature will balance it out. We have already seen many new birds coming to Auroville, which are the natural predators of butterflies."Story posted by Vijay Barve at 9:41 PM Wednesday, July 05, 2006

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