Protecting butterflies, one household at a time ... a Goan Experiment
The learned group stood in a semicircle staring at the sloping roof of the house. The first one to speak, the palm of his hand rubbing his chin thoughtfully, declared, "It's going to leak from day one of the rains!" The other pundit of gloom agreed, "You underestimate the weight of wet soil. And you have planted fig trees, bamboo and cane. The weight is going to crack the slab and the roots are going to go through. Don't be surprised to see the roots peering through your ceiling." The last one was more sympathetic, "I think the soil will wash down with the rains. That should actually solve your problem of removing it. No way is it going to remain on such a steep gradient".
That was four years ago, a year after the house was constructed. It still doesn't leak. The soil is still there. No roots through my ceiling. Not yet. They are yet to find a crack to peep through. The wet soil ensures that the concrete slab does not expand or contract. And keeps the house cool throughout the year, even during the hottest summer months.
This article is about butterflies and conservation. So what's that to do with this? Lots actually! But I will touch upon it later.
In Goa, a professional naturalist or "wildlifer" is a glamorous job. Unlike Krushnamegh Kunte's early tryst at bride hunting, Goan fathers would happily give their daughters in marriage to the freaks chasing butterflies and birds. You go to a social do, you are introduced as a wildlife photographer, and people go "Aah!" Page 3 of Goa Times carries their pictures and articles all the time. Not me though! I am the guy standing alone at the corner with a glass of soda. Because I sell insurance. Very unpopular and a tribe that everybody avoids like plague... or H1N1. I don't even own a good camera.
Before that, another story. Trust me, all the threads lead to butterflies. Our life in the city was picture-perfect like the ones on the age-old Doordarshan daily soaps: claustrophobic flats, restricted tap water, raucous neighbours, sultry summers and a ceiling like a barbeque grill. My wife gave me an ultimatum: stay in the city or move to a village. Short commute to office or stay married to a lovely wife.
To begin with, we had to construct a house in the village. The plot we bought was small. But it had to comply with all the wifely conditions: Unending supply of water. Lots of garden space. Huge windows on all sides. View of green mountains all day long. Difficult! Especially if the house takes up almost the entire plot. So we put up the garden on the roof. The whole house was built on huge rainwater tanks. Large windows were the easiest part. The last condition: view of green mountains. Impossible, since the real estate guy wanted to give away the hill slope facing our house to a massive housing project for a few hundred migrants - needless to mention illegal constructions. It was as if the city was chasing us in the village, too! Neck deep in mortgage after the house construction, buying that hill slope was like getting the credit cesspool up right under the nostrils. We bought it. Since then we have ensured that credit card companies remain in good profits.
What do we do with a relatively barren hill slope full of cashew trees, apart from enjoying nuts and fruits of cashew through the summer? Too small for agriculture, and without natural water source. Simple! Pump the rainwater from our house tanks up to the hilltop a few hundred metres away, and let it flow down again like a stream. Plant many trees alongside - all local. Each chosen carefully to attract butterflies and provide them with host plants for their caterpillars. Start a butterfly park. Yeah! I still sell insurance. Lots of it. After all I have a butterfly park to run and maintain (besides my family - God bless them, all very frugal in their needs). Someday I will buy a good camera. And be called a "wildlifer". Until then, I will be a damn good insurance salesman. General insurance, not life.
This is, of course, how I see it. My wife Jyoti, who was the driving force behind the butterfly park and the roof garden, and who does substantial work to maintain them, has her own version:
Yashodan believes he is a good salesman. But from a person who just can't remember faces and whose negotiating skills are as good as Sourav Ganguly's fielding, you do not expect much sales. People like him and that's why he does well - period! He is good with butterflies and snakes and the numerous tiny critters and everything wild. It keeps him happy. And everyone likes a happy person - even if he sells insurance.
Every holiday, armed with nuggets of information from some knowledgeable visitors, loads of books on butterflies and friendly dhangars (shepherds), we go around collecting weeds that are known to attract butterflies. We plant those in our conservatory. Every morning, I pay a visit to the local fruit seller for his discarded stock of fruits - rotten and damaged. I can't imagine what he thinks of a lady who comes in a car to buy rotten fruits! A million small sacrifices - things that I always wanted to buy but didn't so that we could keep the conservatory running and pay workers' salaries. So people often ask me the question:
Why the garden on the roof? Why store so much rainwater when you have a good supply of piped water - at the risk of a weak foundation? Why compost pits all around the house - a sure way of inviting rats and, in turn, snakes? Why spend so much on a butterfly park when you hardly get any visitors?
I am not much into butterflies. Yashodan shows me a Cerulean and a Plains Cupid; they look the same to me. I am also certain that skippers are actually moths. But I love the Tawny Costers and Tamil Lacewings because I have raised them like kids, sacrificing my passion flower plants. My six-year old daughter can identify a Monkey Puzzle better than PokÃ©mon characters; and I love that. My son, 12 years old, is a snake expert. He climbs trees, swims in ponds and is every bit of a Mowgli, yet excels in his studies. Mature kids, both of them. Not Yashodan though. He still runs down the hill on which our butterfly conservatory is situated, excited like a five-year-old, each time he photographs a "new" butterfly on his downright amateur camera. That would be 87 runs, the number of butterfly species that we have recorded in our conservatory in the past year. That's his only real exercise.
I do not ever worry about water. Do not need to switch on the air-conditioner. No trips to the garbage bin like we needed each night in the city. Don't feel like a hypocrite when I talk green because I live green. I wake up every morning and I have my own park to walk my two German shepherds. My own flowers to offer to the gods. Our own stream for the kids to play in.
We did not know if butterflies would ever come when we started work on the butterfly park. We would get at most 20 to 25 species, Yashodan thought. But now we have 87 and still counting - we do not know from where and how. We made no plans or designs; we improvised. One week we put up the stream, another week it was the bamboo bridge. Turtle pond the next. We see something nice, we buy it for the roof garden and the conservatory. Not on month-ends though. Lots of money spent on it by then. Then I tell Yashodan, "Don't get depressed, the butterflies are in; someday we will have lots of visitors, too". Actually, ridiculous to say this to him because it's not him, it's me who occasionally gets depressed with the situation! He is always happy. That is good for sales, isn't it?
Someday Yashodan need not sell any more insurance. He can instead chase butterflies all day long. Someday I shall return to my medical practice, which I left to raise the kids and establish the butterfly conservatory. And buy him a good camera. But this is more than us. We have created a habitat for butterflies, somewhere they can linger at a time when urban and rural development is degrading and destroying their habitat all around. Ours is a single hill slope; still, it is something. We still support breeding populations of several butterflies. We still provide a safe place for butterflies passing from one forest fragment to the next. We have created a tiny habitat island for them.
In the long run, we see contributions from the visitors as the only way to sustain our conservatory. We beg for volunteers all the time: a bit of labor or monetary contribution; documentation of the butterflies that reside or pass through our conservatory; donation of plants; help with rearing caterpillars ... almost anything would help. So if you are passing through Goa, please consider paying us a visit. Visitors are always welcome with open arms. And who knows, you might also be welcomed by a Malabar Banded Peacock!
Our address is:
Dr. Jyoti and Yashodan Heblekar: The Butterfly Conservatory of Goa, "Mystic Woods" , Rajanagar, Pisgal , Priol , Ponda , Goa 403404, India.
Here are some pictures taken in the Conservatory: