Garden State – one of the best region to spot butterflies in India
As part of Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot, Meghalaya’s South Garo Hills district is one of the best regions to spot butterflies in India, with more than 300 species to its name and still counting.
When you’re welcomed by calls of ‘To-kay…tokay…. to-kay’, you know you’re in the northeast of India. Meghalaya, the abode of clouds, is one such tiny state in these parts that is endowed with beautiful landscapes, pristine rivers and the highest rainfall in the country. The Garo Hills are part of the Garo-Khasi range in the state, inhabited mainly by tribal dwellers, the majority of whom are known as Garos.
There are three districts in the state, namely East Garo Hills, West Garo Hills and South Garo Hills – the last of which was our destination for this trip. This district covers an area of 1,849 sq km, of which approximately 91% is forested. However, one-third of this is highly degraded forest area, and the rest is moderately impacted by jhum or shifting cultivation.
The South Garo Hills are reputed to be one of the best locations in the northeast for butterfly lovers. Six of us, all butterfly enthusiasts, planned a trip here in April 2014 with the sole intention of butterfly watching. We were fortunate to have in our group Sanjay Sondhi (author of the definitive Butterflies of Garo Hills) and Karthikeyan S (a naturalist and butterfly expert from Bangalore). Three specific destinations had been selected – Baghmara Reserve Forest (44 sq km), Balpakram National Park (220 sq km) and Siju Wildlife Sanctuary (6 sq km). The itinerary was shaped with the help of Yaranjit Deka and Titli Trust, an NGO which works with locals to develop eco-tourism in the region. One of the factors driving the selection of destinations was the availability of boarding and lodging facilities, however rudimentary.
In order to utilise every hour of daylight productively, our trails usually started at 7.30 am after a quick breakfast, and continued through the day until we wound up for a late lunch at 2 or 3 pm. Almost all trails involved walking through stream-beds, which meant constant wet feet. These minor hardships were well worth it, as we ended up sighting about 150 butterfly species in the course of the week, of which 27 were first-time sightings for me.
Beauties and beasts
Our first destination was a village called Karwani, near the Baghmara RF. We were put up at a home-stay and the family we stayed with consisted of a couple, their son and two daughters. The accommodations were a basic bamboo structure with a couple of double-bed rooms. Despite our complete inability to communicate with anyone in the house, the delicious home-cooked meals and tea promptly placed in the dining hall at designated times, largely rendered communication redundant.
We did our first trail at the Karwani chirring (stream in the local language), part of the Simsang river, followed by another trail to a place called Halwa Ambeng. Both these trails were very productive in terms of butterfly sightings as we managed to see about 85 species in two days. These included the Double-tufted Royal, Indian Grass Bob, Dark Archduke, Pallas’ Sailer, Peal’s Palmfly, Great Blue Mime, Common Yellow-breasted Flat and Tailed Sulphur. However the most interesting sighting from this area was the Kohinoor butterfly, which gave us a couple of quick glimpses in a span of 15-20 minutes and then disappeared into the thickets. We managed to get a quick photograph of the species while it sat for a brief moment.
In addition to the butterflies, we saw two insectivorous plant species in this area – Pitcher plant (Nepenthes khasiana) and Indian Sundew plant (Drosera spp). The Pitcher plant is endemic to Meghalaya and is believed to be the only species of its kind found in India. The Khasis call it tiew-rakot, which means demon-flower or devouring-plant. The Jaintias refer to it as ksetphare, which roughly translates to lidded fly net, while the Garos know it as memang-koksi, which literally means the basket of the devil. The Indian Sundew plant sprouts tentacles, the tips of which contain sparkling dots of sticky liquid. This earns it the common name sundew. The sticky liquid helps trap insects.
Our next destination was Balpakram WLS where we stayed at the forest Inspection Bungalow. This place is located on a hill and surrounded by forests on all sides. Here we sighted the onomatopoeic Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko), which makes a loud call that sounds like, well, to-kay. This reptile is one of the largest geckos in the world – it can grow up to twenty inches – and is one of the most elusive too, hiding in the gaps between the wall and the roof of a house, and is consequently more heard than seen. A victim of ill-founded beliefs, this species is unfortunately poached and traded illicitly.
We stayed at the Balpakram WLS for two nights and did our butterfly trails at Rongdi chirring at Moheskola, and Kanai chirring. These two trails proved very fruitful in terms of the sheer number of butterflies we saw, especially the large swarms that mud-puddled at the edges of these streams. However the number of incremental additions to our species list had expectedly reduced by the third and fourth days. The principal species spotted here were the Jezebel Palmfly, Yellow disc Tailless Oakblue, Jewelled Nawab and Spotted Zebra.
Our third and final location, Siju WLS, occupied our last three nights. While the actual Siju eco-campsite is under construction, our accommodation was organised at a make-shift arrangement euphemistically called a tourist lodge. Though the creature comforts were basic, the food was terrific, thanks to our cook Hilingma.
Siju is known for the Dobakkol or bat cave, with impressive stalagmites and stalactites. It is one of the longest caves in the Indian sub-continent with a length of 4,772 metres and contains some of the finest river passages to be found anywhere in the world. There are magnificent limestone rock formations inside. Within just about 200-300 metres of walking in the cave, we managed to see about 8-10 frogs, about 50-60 bats flying about, a few arachnids and several insects.
With our base camp at Siju WLS, we explored three streams near the Rewak WLS – Taidung river, Rongdong chirring and Tyirongrong chirring. While Taidung and Rongdong were not as exciting, the last trail at Tyirongrong chirring more than made up. We had added this last trail to our itinerary on a whim based on a suggestion received from a student working in this area.
Tyirongrong turned out to be a complete surprise. Our checklist suddenly lengthened, and I had two first-time sightings – the Crenulated Mottle/Great Darkie and the Orange-striped Awlet. Spurts of good fortune like this take the exhaustion out of any trip, and it was in an upbeat mood that we finally wrapped up a week of exhilarating butterfly chasing and headed for Guwahati. The Garo Hills threw up a brief hail storm while we were on the road from Siju WLS to Guwahati by way of a farewell gesture – an exciting end to a memorable trip.
Article originally published in Dec 2014 of Saevus Magazine, subscribe to the latest issue here
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