March 24, 2013

Book Review : Butterflies on the Roof of the World By Peter Smetacek

The Butterfly Diaries

(An edited version of this story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-Apr-2013)

At Singapore's Changi Airport I glanced upon a board that mentioned the presence of a Butterfly Garden. Unable to hide the childlike curiosity, i quickly ran towards to it only to enter into a beautiful mini rainforest ensconced in this concrete and glass structure; I wasn't sure when i last saw a butterfly in Bangalore. But that is not a problem with Peter Smetacek, who runs the Butterfly Research Centre at Bhimtal in Uttarakhand, works on the taxonomy and zoo geography of Indian Lepidoptera, published closed to 60 papers on the subject, is an authority on Indian butterflies and moths and is also the author of the beautiful book titled 'Butterflies on the Roof of the world: A Memoir'. Credits to this book that i came to know that word 'lepidoptera' is actually the term that acts like a collective noun for moths and butterflies.

A super-imposition of a memoir and travelogues, the author paints a rich tapestry with beautiful landscapes and butterflies fluttering around and takes us into small ecosystems high up in the mountains that are perfect havens for different species of butterflies and moths. And though interspersed with the Latin scientific names of the species of the butterflies, Peter takes us into forests, ravines, meadows and streams during his quest to document Lepidoptera at different altitude ranges. The different altitudinal ranges include bands from plains till 1500m, the second from 1600m to 3000m, the third from 3000m to 4000m and the last belt comprising of butterflies in the trans-Himalayan area from 4000 to 5800m above sea level. Having worked on Lepidoptera for more than 30 years, Peter shares his fascination for these fragile and short-lived creatures from his central vantage point.

An extremely entertaining and informative narrative, the book indeed sometimes enthuse us with a sense of adventure and prompts us to pack our bags and get on a quest to explore these butterflies in their natural habitats. The author also shares his interesting observations about the behavior of these butterflies. The butterfly's wing shape, color and pattern all help it in surmounting the challenges in the nature, and the author mentions how techniques such as motion camouflage and silhouette recognition that are actively used by the Lepidoptera also end up being used by our modern air forces. He also shares an interesting insight that though butterflies are generally held responsible for pollination, it is the moths that are responsible for pollinating most flowers above the tree line on the southern face of the Himalaya.

Loads of interesting trivia about the butterflies throughout the book is what adds an extra dollop of ice-cream in this drool worthy sundae. For example, did you know that butterflies use their wings not only to fly but also to reflect solar radiation onto their bodies and that the clouds obstructing the sun can sometimes make them inactive? And that the word 'butterfly' actually originated from the pale yellow colored butterflies (known as Brimstones) in England that looked like butter? These and many more.

During his quest in the inaccessible regions of Kumaon and Garhwal, our butterfly tracker has had his own share of interesting experiences, be it the sedating honey, dried caterpillars that are used as aphrodisiacs or a new record in India of little-known butterfly that was recorded earlier in remote Pamirs and in a village in Tibet. In the last chapter, Peter underscores the importance of moths and butterflies as bio-indicators of ecological functions and groundwater without being overly melodramatic about nature conservation. He highlights the importance of these little creatures in our larger ecosystem and also to our own sustenance and mentions how forest fires and depleting green cover are affecting the butterflies to vanish from certain regions.

Full marks to the author in this masterpiece that many readers will cherish in their bookshelves for a long time. The tapestry wouldn’t be complete without the added life and depth that the author has carefully spread across his canvas.

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