Isaac Kehimkar, known as India’s ‘Butterfly Man’, is a tireless environmental conservation advocate who draws on natural beauty to make his case. “Butterflies never fail to fascinate us with their colours, graceful flight and fragility,” he says. He believes that they help to attract attention towards nature appreciation.
Capturing them young
Kehimkar’s love for nature was instilled at a very young age. When he was a child growing up in Mumbai, his parents encouraged him to keep pets and read animal picture books. They gave him a camera when he was in the eighth standard. “This hobby of photographing nature got me hooked,” he says.
Kehimkar graduated from the University of Mumbai in political science and psychology. “However, my affinity towards nature remained strong as ever,” he says. He then got the opportunity to volunteer for the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and, later, to work there as a library assistant.
For Kehimkar, the library was a paradise. He was especially pleased to meet Salim Ali — known as the ‘Birdman of India’ — at the library. When Kehimkar approached Ali, ostensibly to compliment his handwriting, what Ali told him became the guideline of his life.
It got better
“He said that he had worked hard to acquire that style in his handwriting and advised me to always let the world see the best side of my work,” says Kehimkar. “And that some opportunities come just once, and people should give their best to them.”
Kehimkar got his life-changing opportunity when Bittu Sahgal, the editor of the then-new Sanctuary Asia magazine, offered him a chance to write an article on butterflies.
“Then began my chase after these winged jewels,” says Kehimkar. He began travelling to remote parts of India in search of them. “And then I really saw how beautiful and diverse India is. I realised that just one lifetime is not enough to see and know it.” After the article was published, WWF-India asked him to co-author a beginner’s book on the butterflies of India, which became a best-seller.
“And then, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) asked me to write a bigger book on butterflies,” he says. The book broke all BNHS sales records, ensuring Kehimkar’s place as India’s ‘Butterfly Man’. In 2006, Kehimkar travelled to the US as a Fulbright Fellow to study how American NGOs work to protect the environment and make people more environmentally aware. He describes it as an eye-opening experience in which, he got to learn about team management, fund-raising and media relations. “I shall always remain greatly indebted for the valuable training I got during the fellowship,” he says.
Keeping a watch
The lessons he learned were shared with other NGOs, before founding his own, iNaturewatch Foundation, in 2014, with another Fulbright Fellow, Dr V Shubhalaxmi. The Mumbai-based organisation focuses on urban biodiversity and citizen science, and conducts workshops, nature walks, camps and other courses. It also sets up butterfly gardens and habitats, which serve as popular tourist attractions.
Kehimkar notes that India is home to about 1,500 species of butterflies. “Butterfly gardens are meant to bring people closer to nature,” he says. “Once they fall in love with nature, then they will protect it. And that is the need of the hour.” Kehimkar observes that the younger generation has displayed a renewed interest in studying and preserving nature. For its part, iNaturewatch has set up corporate-sponsored open-air butterfly gardens at schools and colleges, which serve as living laboratories for students. Butterflies can indicate whether an environment is healthy, detect climate change patterns and pollinate crops. “That makes them the best ambassadors of the natural world, and symbols of freedom, love, tranquillity and beauty,” says Kehimkar.
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