It was a regular Zoology assignment in 2004 that triggered the sudden interest of then student Sammilan Shetty towards butterflies. Fourteen-years since, having quit his fulltime-lectureship post, this 32-year-old has been successfully running Karnataka’s first private butterfly park in coastal district of Dakshina Kannada since 2011.
At the foothills of Western Ghats in Belvai village of Moodbidri taluk, a host of ordinary-looking plants and trees welcome the guests to 'Sammilan Shetty's Butterfly Park'. While walking through the 200 metre stretch of trees like coconut, mango, cashew or curry leaf plants, visitors are asked to delicately examine the top and bottom of these leaves, some of which are nature’s bed for butterfly eggs, larvae, caterpillar, dried shells and so on.
"You don’t need exotic plantation to host butterflies. Regular saplings or even wild plants that you can find in your home backyard would do. But unfortunately, most people uproot them terming it as a weed (unwanted plants). Even my family, was initially reluctant of my passion because I planted them," Shetty says.
Prior to the walk around the butterfly park, the visitors are familiarized with a few names and behaviour-pattern of the butterflies through audio-visual material, so that they can relate the same during their actual encounter with the species in the wild. A 30-minute walk-through this park gives a unique opportunity for the visitors to see the transformation from egg to caterpillar-pupa and the adult butterfly emerging out of it.
While the 'host-plant' is where the butterflies lay their eggs, the male milkweed butterflies suck alkaloid from alkaloid rich plants. "Alkaloids are essential for male milkweed butterflies to attract their female counterparts. Lower the alkaloid, the male butterflies might fail to impress their prospective female-mates," he says.
At this ancestral property spreading over 7.35 acres of semi-forest land, interesting species like, Autumn Leaf (Doleschallia bisaltide), Clipper (Parthenos sylvia), Tawny Rajah (Charaxes psaphon), Black Rajah (Charaxes solon), Paris Peacock (Papilio paris), Redspot Duke (Dophla evelina), Blue Oakleaf(Kallima horsfieldii), Colour Sergeant (Athyma inara), which are otherwise uncommon, frequent at this open-private conservatory.
For the purpose of the identification of butterflies, Shetty uses The Book of Indian Butterflies by Isaac Kehimkar, whom he considers as his inspiration. Incidentally, the park was also publically opened in 2013 by Isaac - popularly known as the 'Butterfly man of India'.
"Rare butterflies like Blue Nawab (Polyura Schreiber), Orchid Tit (Chliaria othona), Great Evening Brown (Melanitis zitenius), Aberrant Oakblue (Arhopala abseus), Banded Royal (Rachana jalindra) Tamil Oakblue (Arhopala bazaloides) have also been recorded here," Shetty says. Besides, we have species endemic to Western Ghats like Southern Duffer (Discophora lepida), Tamil lacewing (Cethosia Nietneri), Malabar Banded Swallowtail( Papilio liomedon), Malabar Banded Peacock (Papilio buddha), a common sight during the season.
Back in 2004, while pursuing his graduation studies for Zoology, Sammilan documented 30 butterflies in the region for his project on the 'Study of local butterflies'. At present the open-house conservatory houses nearly 148 butterflies including rare and indigenous species. This is close to 50 per cent (339) of the species that is found in Western-Ghats. Shetty is particular of keeping the park without closed dome or enclosures, which he says traps them. "We have developed the park by propagating natural greenery with 'native host plants' and nectar plants which attracts butterflies to these parks. We have only created a conducive condition for them and respect the butterfly's freedom to stay or to go," he says.
London based World Book of Records has proposed to honour Shetty in recognition for his conservation of butterflies. Halpe Porus is the latest addition as the 148th butterfly at this park, which incidentally was spotted during course of this interview-walk.
Altogether there are 1,200 species of butterflies in the country, and approximately 320 in Karnataka. "Though the pollination by the butterflies is essential for food chain, no much study is gathered in India over it. Although Indian Foundation for Butterflies (IFB) is leading the way, it may take another 10 years for us to asses if we are truly accommodating the butterflies in our eco system," he says.
While the massive urbanisation and real-estate ventures targeting the secondary-forests, Shetty says, it has led to the decline of wildlife including butterflies due to their habitat loss.
While Maharashtra has taken ‘Blue Mormon’ as its state butterfly in 2015 and Karnataka has declared 'Southern Bird Wing' as its state butterfly in 2017, the butterfly enthusiasts are now batting to have recognition for a national butterfly. Butterfly-conservators feel that the move would not only help in creation of awareness of Butterfly in general, but also in conservation of their population.
The park which is completely funded by the family of Shetty, attracts approximately 800 visitors during the season between June and December. In the process of documenting the butterflies, Shetty has also taken to photography of which he plans to turn into a documentary. "A lot of people have changed the way they look at butterfly, after the educational tour. The idea is to take the message of butterfly conservation and its contribution for crop-cultivation (pollination) to as many people as possible in simple language" he says.
Meet Sammilan Shetty, the butterfly-man of Karnataka