A life amid the delicate winged beauties

Over a cuppa

She trundles on twilight fields and  the rim of forests where every leaf is warped with mystery and imaginary distorted faces with fiery eyes lour through shadows murmuring with winds and breeze, searching for the nocturnal delicate nacreous winged creatures that have fired imagination of poets through all ages. She is country’s first woman lepidopterist.

An international authority on the most elusive and least studied creature in Indian
sub-continent--moths, Dr Shubhalaxmi Vaylure, recently returned from  Arunachal Pradesh after documenting 400 different species of moths.

After receiving a photograph from a tourist from Arunachal Pradesh, she decided to go there as she was unable to identify it from the available records. Even after trekking for 10 nights, it just eluded her; but she was able to document 400 species of moths. Shubhalaxmi, 42,  spoke to Prabhat Sharan of Deccan Herald on her love for the moths, butterflies and the most-abused creatures of the planets--insects.

Excerpts:

Not many women take to entomology, especially a subject requiring extensive night travels into forests, mountains, fields, deserts makes it more forbidding. Then what made you take up such a field for your study?

Not many believe when I say that I had a phobia of insects in my childhood. Possibly it was hereditary, because my mother suffered from it. But then my love for
nature was also too overwhelming and so was my obsession with the prefix Dr. During my intermediate I tried for medicine but I couldn’t get through. And since I was already involved in naturalist studies in Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), my focus converged on zoological studies, especially butterflies. They fascinated me and then I realised that after Britishers left India, not a single effort has been made to study moths in our country. And, of course, I also realised that it was not medicine which fascinated me but the prefix “Dr”. So the next step was logical and also close to my heart--study moths.

But moths unlike their relations butterflies are nocturnal creatures.
Of course they are nocturnal creatures. That is why they are mysterious and more interesting to study. When I took up my research for post-graduation, my guide told me “look there is not a single study carried out on moths in India… forget finding references… nobody in the wildlife and other environmental departments of government has bothered to even document them. You are on your own because even I do not have that much knowledge about them.” But my obsession over-powered every practical fear of possible and probable difficulties and I took two moths Hawk Moth and Emperor Moth for research.

Moths are not found much in urban spaces, so where did you study them?

I had zeroed in on Sanjay Gandhi National Park forests for “mothing.” The forest ranger was surprised to find a girl barely 20 walking in the forest full of panthers, leopards and snakes… and putting up a screen and arc-light to attract moths. For next the two years, it was my routine. Of course my driver and office assistant from the BNHS used to accompany me. But then while pursuing I used to wander off alone also sometimes. But most of the time I used to quietly wait watching the behaviour and trying to ferret out the silent language of these glimmering and shimmering creatures in the jungle hearing an occasional roar somewhere in the deep of the forests and of course grasshoppers and crickets.

Whether your doctoral thesis also focused on behavioural study?

The next logical step was to find out the population of moths in Mumbai… and my thesis revolved on the dynamics of moth population here. From 1993 to 2004 my night travels began again and ironically during my viva both during post-graduation as well as for doctoral thesis… there were no moth expert in the country then. It is sad that neither the government nor people at large realise the importance of butterflies and moths… because a habitat where even a butterfly or moth cannot survive then that space is a dangerous zone for living.

Has urbanisation led to the death of moths and butterflies? As an entomologist have you studied this phenomenon?

One of the reasons is lack of open spaces and manicured greenery… and of course the use of pesticides in gardening. Moreover, the distance between two
gardens in urban areas over the years has been increasing. Nowadays gardens are like oasis in concrete jungle. What we say to every urban specialist and also in our programmes…” let a small patch of your garden run wild and you will soon see
butterflies and moths hovering to the delight of your eyes. And if you do not see insects in your neighbourhood then remember you are living in a toxic zone.

Entomology is fast becoming a fad nowadays… is it because manufacturing pesticides is a big business?

Let’s look at it logically. Insects are part and parcel of the world in which we live. Not many people would believe but
insects are more powerful than men. And I am not talking of just ants. Take for
example mosquito… has mankind with all its gadgetry and spraying chemicals been able to eliminate it. But if we allow other insects and all species of flora and fauna to thrive then mosquito population immediately comes down markedly and we are also saved from inhaling and living in a chemical dump. But then you know entomologists even in government department specialise in pesticide.

There must be a way out of this quagmire of prejudiced and biased perceptions.
We conduct courses whereby we make people aware of the beauty as well as the pragmatic need to have an ecological harmonious relationship with the insect world around us. We also conduct progr­ammes like “Breakfast with Butterflies,” “Bash with Bugs” or “Meals with Moths.” You won’t  believe it but new generation parents… I mean those who are in late twenties not thirties or forties… are more environmental conscious and they bring their children to such programmes.

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