Insects have been around for over 250 million years (before dinosaurs). They have many fascinating abilities including lifting objects 6 times their own weight (ants).


Ten years ago there were approximately 1,000,000 species of insects. And according to a recent article in Scientific American, entomologists estimate that there are over eight million different species of insects on earth. When you compare that to 4,650 named and 4,809 estimated mammal species or the 72,000 named and 1,500,000 estimated fungi, it is easy to see that insects “out-populate” any other living taxonomic group on earth.


Insects are the most ubiquitous of all animals and have adapted to environments where few other fauna live. Some insects live 20,000 feet high in the Himalayas, within the Arctic Circle, on the Ocean Surface, in the planet’s deserts and burrowed for underground.

Insects have been around for over 250 million years (before dinosaurs). They have many fascinating abilities including lifting objects 6 times.

India has a rich and varied heritage of biodiversity, encompassing a wide spectrum of habitats from tropical rainforests to alpine vegetation and from temperate forests to coastal wetlands. With a mere 2.4% of the world’s area, India accounts for 7.5% of the global faunal total with a faunal species count of 96,000 species of which insects alone account for 60,000 species (MoEF, 2018).

Insects are both beneficial and harmful. Beneficial insects are those, which are helpful to us in some way. These include well-known flower pollinators such as bees and butterflies.

Humanity’s competitors for food, timber, cotton and other fibre are called pests and they include numerous herbivorous insects, snails and nematodes. The purposeful use of an insect to suppress other insects is one type of biological control and dates back to at least the fourth century A.D. when ants were manipulated to control citrus pests in China.

Many insects are herbivores or plant-eaters, which makes them primary consumers. This abundance of primary consumers provides protein and energy for secondary consumers, known as carnivores.

Among the insect community, the butterfly is one classical group which interests all human beings.

Butterflies are usually not tasty, and are hence not hunted by humans. But certain beautiful butterflies are collected in large numbers for ornamental purposes. In India, however, such grave attempts that challenge the very existence of a butterfly species, are rare.

Loss of prime habitat is the major threat to all wildlife including butterflies. The exact status of several species of Indian butterflies is still not clearly known. To initiate a conservation programme for these insects, one needs first of all, a detailed study of their life histories and the factors governing their survival.

Among Indian butterflies, the Kaiser-I-Hind that is found in the Himalayan forest is the rarest and is listed in the book, Threatened Swallowtail Butterflies of the world. The Bhutan Glory is also listed as rare in the Red Data Book, along with some Apollos that fly in the Himalayas.

Certain beautiful butterflies are collected in large numbers for ornamental purposes. In India, however, such grave attempts that challenge the very existence of a butterfly species, are probably rare. The only places in India where considerable butterfly trading goes on are in the Himalayas and in North Eastern India, from where large and very attractive swallowtails and other butterflies are caught and illegally exported.


If it is not illegal collecting or hunting, what exactly endangers the butterflies? As of now, it appears that the main threats to butterfly diversity or survival of vulnerable species are

  • habitat destruction, degradation and fragmentation
  • grazing
  • fires
  • application of pesticides and weedicides in agricultural and urban ecosystems

If other factors are favourable, air pollution alone does not appear to affect the survival of butterflies.


Measures to conserve butterflies

Legal Measures

Legal protection is granted at various level to animals (including butterflies) plants and their habitats. The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 (WPA, amended 1993) lists the butterfly species that are a priority for conservation. The WPA has six schedules, each listing various species. The legal protection afforded to the species is the highest if it is listed in Schedule I. The protection is second best if the species is listed in Schedule II, and so on. Any offense against the species in Schedule I makes a person liable to imprisonment upto 6 years and a fine. The other Schedules have less severe punishment for the offense. Animals from Schedule V are declared vermin, but no butterflies are listed under it. In all, the WPA has listed 450 butterfly species and subspecies in its schedule lists:

  •  128 under Schedule I
  •  303 under Schedule II
  •  19 under Schedule IV

Other Schedules do not have any butterflies listed under them.

Though there are stringent laws, integrated management approach would effectively help to restore the butterfly population.

There are several butterfly parks, butterfly breeding centers and butterfly breeding and research stations in many parts of the world. Some of them have employed local people, often tribal’s, for the task of rearing butterflies from caterpillars. The host plants of butterflies are given protection in their native habitats and caterpillars are reared on them. This has not been attempted in many subtropical and tropical countries including INDIA.

What can we do as ordinary citizens?

We may not directly be able to help conserve butterflies and their natural habitats. However larval host and adult nectar plants grown in urban gardens attract more than a dozen butterfly species.

Although this will be an alternative home in an altered landscape, it is still some compensation to at least some of the original butterflies in one’s own area. Thus, growing a few plants that support butterflies and leaving a wild place for them around habitations are two simple but very effective steps every person can take towards conserving butterflies. The use of small quantities of pesticides or none at all, in the gardens is another step that will help many butterflies.

Jayanthi Rengan
Blue Cross of India

 Picture courtesy: Sanctuary Asia, February 2002 and August 2002.

Source: Eco News, 2002, Vol.8, Issue.3.

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