Down with the monarchy! Inside India’s campaign for a national butterfly

Sometime in August, a motley group of butterfly experts and enthusiasts set out to pick the national butterfly of India. The challenge was to zero in on one of the 1,300 species found in the country.

There was long deliberation over which flutterers would make the long list. The winner, after all, would have to stand up to our other natural national symbols — be as charismatic as the tiger, as inherently attractive as the peacock, as culturally significant as the banyan tree.

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The process would have to represent the diversity of this great nation, and so it was decided that the eventual shortlist would be opened up to public voting. Whichever winged variant won would be named in a proposal to the union environment ministry, beseeching it to pick a national butterfly.

All those who voted would leave the process a bit more aware and engaged; it would be a win-win for everyone (except the rest of the two-winged shortlist).

The Indian nawab, northern junglequeen, and yellow gorgon were three of the seven butterflies that made the shortlist, which was then opened up to a nationwide poll.
(
Sharan V Krushnamegh Kunte, Atanu Bora
)

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“We had floated this idea many years ago, but it didn’t take off then,” says former secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society Divakar Thombre, intending no puns at all. “In the pandemic, we had more time on our hands, and figured it was time to do something concrete about this.”

Thombre, 48, a lepidopterist, got together with entomologist Vijay Barve, 52, to set up the National Butterfly Campaign Consortium (NBCC), comprising 50 entomologists, naturalists, citizen scientists, journalists and hobbyists, with representatives from states across the country. And they got to work.

Their first order of business was to lay down the criteria for butterfly-picking. “We decided that along with charisma, beauty, ecological significance and abundance, it could not be too commonplace, could not have multiple forms, should not be harmful to crops, and couldn’t be one that was already a state butterfly,” says Ashok Sengupta, 55, butterfly hobbyist and a computer science teacher at a Kendriya Vidyalaya in Bengaluru.

That ruled out several obvious candidates. Tamil Nadu has the Tamil yeoman, Maharashtra the blue Mormon, Uttarakand the common peacock butterfly, Karnataka, the southern bird wing and Kerala, much to everyone’s dismay, the neon blue-green Malabar banded peacock.

“The Malabar banded peacock is one of the most beautiful swallowtail butterflies out there. It has great cultural significance to the people of Kerala, who revere it as a deity of the forest,” says Dr Kalesh Sadasivan, 38, a plastic surgeon in Trivandrum, a research associate at the Travancore Nature History Society, and a core member of the NBCC. Too bad; it couldn’t get on the list now.

Fortunately, there were plenty others to choose from. “More than even countries that already have a national butterfly,” Thombre says. “Countries like Bhutan, Malaysia, Taiwan, they have designated national butterflies and been able to build tourism programmes around these creatures, and they don’t even have the number of varieties that we do.”

Each of the 50 core members got to nominate up to three species to the longlist. “Based on those odds, we could have ended up with 150 species,” says Sharan V, 26, an IT engineer-turned naturalist from Rajapalyam in Tamil Nadu. He nominated the yellow gorgon, common jezebel and Indian nawab. “The interesting thing about this exercise was that there was so much overlap that we ended up with a list of 51.”

The five-bar swordtail was one of the seven on the shortlist, which was compiled as a result of long deliberations between a group of 50 entomologists, enthusiasts and citizen scientists that call themselves the National Butterfly Campaign Consortium.

The five-bar swordtail was one of the seven on the shortlist, which was compiled as a result of long deliberations between a group of 50 entomologists, enthusiasts and citizen scientists that call themselves the National Butterfly Campaign Consortium.
(
Sharan V
)

Then they put it to rounds of votes until they had — on September 10 — the shortlist of seven. Sharan’s three, the five-bar swordtail, Krishna peacock, northern jungle queen and the yellow gorgon.

Sharan put his IT experience to use and created an online poll; Krushnamegh Kunte, an entomologist from the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru, provided the key information that would be posted online; members from all over submitted the most flattering pictures of each of the seven beauties that they could find.

They opened the poll on September 11 and closed it on October 8 (the last day of Wildlife Week); it drew nearly 60,000 responses. “Many thousands more than we were expecting,” says Thombre, smiling.

The highest number of votes came from Maharashtra, followed by Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Karnataka. Promisingly, more than 60% of the voters were between the ages of 15 and 30.

The top three, after the nationwide poll, were found to be the peacock, the oakleaf and the Jezebel. The union environment ministry, if it accepts the consortium’s proposal, will ideally pick from these three and institute the tag of national butterfly.

“We are preparing our report. Butterflies are important biological indicators, but we know so little about them,” explains Thombre. “An exercise like this, we are hoping, will get people to notice these creatures for more than just their beauty.”

Meanwhile we wait, with butterflies in our stomachs. Why won’t he tell us which one got the most votes? We’ve discriminated enough. They’re all beauties.

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