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Summer of the butterflies

Barely a few minutes after stepping into the leafy surroundings of the Tropical Butterfly Conservatory Tiruchirappalli (TBCT) in the Upper Anaicut Reserve Forest (six kilometres from Melur, near Srirangam), the Crimson Rose floats by, its distinctive black, white and red markings standing out in the green like a designer gown.
Try netting the Crimson Rose, and you will find yourself slapped with a fine of ₹25,000 and a prison term of seven years. The severity of the punishment is not hard to justify: the Crimson Rose is listed as an endangered species.
Opened to the public by former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa on November 13, 2015, after a three-year development phase, the conservatory is considered to be Asia’s largest such facility set in a natural habitat. Besides the Crimson Rose, India’s largest butterfly, the Southern Birdwing, (wingspan: 140-190mm), has also paid the park a visit.
And the humans who come to the conservatory are advised to step carefully, because over 50 resident species and 98 migrant varieties of the insect may be spotted here at any given time. You can also see some of the Hesperiidae(skippers), in TBCT. These are a worldwide family of about 3,500 species that appear to be ‘sisters’ to the rest of the ‘true butterflies’.
Nectar lovers
After the honey bee, the butterfly plays an important role in pollination — the transfer of pollen to a stigma, ovule, flower, or plant that allows fertilisation. The fate of the world’s food chain, therefore, is intertwined with the well-being of these two insects.
Interestingly, the Old English word for the insect, buterfleoge traces its roots to a myth that butterflies, or witches that took on the shape of the insects, stole milk and butter.
It’s 11.30 am when we visit on a recent weekday, and suddenly, we are surrounded by butterflies that carry weighty names, often intriguingly, of other animals: Mottled Emigrant, Blue Tiger, Angled Castor, Common Jezebel, Tailed Jay, Striped Albatross, Common Gull…
Butterflies keep early timings and prefer humid weather. From the dewy sunrise hours until 11 am, it is possible to spot these insects gathering nectar in large numbers. They tend to rest in shaded areas as the heat of the day rises, and then re-emerge for a brief while before sunset. Water fountains at key points of the park create the cooling humidity throughout the day for the butterflies, while providing visitors a spot to click souvenir photographs.
There are other little touches that make the conservatory such a hotspot for butterflies. The 297 plant varieties here are divided into those conducive for nectar collection, hosting and roosting. Tamil Nadu Forest Department officials say there has been a growth in butterfly traffic ever since the number of flowering plants was increased two years ago. Delicate passion flower blossoms find space in the 10-hectare property, as does the hardy Calabash bottle gourd plant. In the Aroma Garden, a variety of blooms create a chamber of fragrance with plants ranging from Nyctanthes arbor-tristis (parijatham or night-blooming jasmine), and Gardenia to Artabotrys hexapetalus (manoranjitham or ylang ylang), heliotrope, tea rose and eucalyptus.
In another section, plants symbolic of zodiac star signs have been brought together in theNakshatra Vanam and Raasi Vanam.
Seeds from the plants are being preserved for propagation within the park, while the dead leaves and bark are composted and used as mulch for its various green spots. Other facilities include an amphitheatre that is used to screen films on the butterfly’s life cycle and its ecological importance, a boat club and play area for children and many thatched resting spots for visitors to lounge around.
At the in-house incubation laboratory, we get to see the insect in the four stages of metamorphosis… egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (transition), and the adult butterfly. Up to 10 non-scheduled species of butterfly have been grown and released into the park by the lab, and when we visit, there are four varieties that are waiting for their birthdays, so to speak. The maturation dates of each insect species are recorded in registers and marked on the ventilated plastic boxes that are used to house the eggs.
Room for improvement
Conservatory records (based on ticket sales) show that six lakh people visited TBCT in the last two years. Since May 2017, the park has been offering one-day certificate courses in basic lepidopterology every fortnight.
But the park’s potential in both eco-tourism and education is yet to be realised. The single-track roads leading in and out of the park from Srirangam are in urgent need of repair. Visitors have to rely on online maps to locate the park after they leave Srirangam, because there are only two physical signboards on the road from start to finish. The absence of regular public transport services is a major shortcoming. Within the park, battery cars and wheelchair assistance will be of immense use to senior citizens and people with disabilities who visit the campus. Shaded walkways will make it easier for visitors in the summer months.
While there are several privately produced videos on the park available on the Internet, the TBCT doesn’t have an official website that visitors can direct queries to. A regulated municipal system for collecting the solid waste generated by the park’s visitors will also keep the area clean in the long run.
TBCT tips to spot butterflies
* Move slowly — if you startle a butterfly and then stay still, it will often return to the same patch.
* Wearing muted colours helps, especially if you want to get close to the insects. But avoid touching them.
* Mid-morning to mid-afternoon are good times to look for butterflies, because like most insects, they need to be warmed by sunlight.
(The Tropical Butterfly Conservatory Tiruchirappalli is six kilometres West of Melur, near Srirangam, towards Mukkombu. It is open from 9 am to 6 pm (Tuesday holiday). For details, 0431-2414265.)

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