From feral dogs to toxic snakes, an uncanny researcher braved it all to document butterflies of Kashmir with scientific precision. In his passionate pursuit, he even ducked bullets to bring home the winged creature’s fascinating features.
It was an unruffled summer day when a visitor sporting a straw hat landed in rugged and explosive landscapes of Uri town. In that highly-militarized northern area of Kashmir—known for bombing and bloodletting—he had arrived on an exploratory trip with an insect net and a pocketful of glass tubes.
After searching for the swallowtail butterfly for the whole day, he remembers dragging his drained body from the peaks at twilight, when the air suddenly echoed with the cross-LoC shelling.
The ‘frontline’ killing machines forced him to run for his life through a rough track.
“Amid raining shells, I spent a night inside a shepherd’s shanty,” researcher Aijaz Qureshi remembers.
But the sleepless night on the wuthering heights paved way to a promising dawn.
Next day, the shepherd took him to a muddy spot in the forest glade where clusters of butterflies with pale black veins and blue margins suddenly emerged and landed on him.
“They had long tails on their hindwings which look like the long, pointed tails of swallows (a type of bird),” the PhD-holder on butterflies says.
“It all felt so surreal and the night of suffering faded into the blue by this breathtaking sight.”
That near-fatal Uri trip was part of his 200-plus butterfly exploratory expeditions in different parts of the valley — be it on remote villages, or dreamlike hilltops around Pahalgam, Dodhpathri, and Handwara.
At those Godforsaken heights, he had spotted some rare species, including Himalayan Blackvein, Great windmill, Mottled Emigrant, among others.
Back in his boyhood, during those harrowing days of nineties, teenager Aijaz had started his buttery journey amid curbs, clampdowns and crackdowns.
Then as woods of his hometown Handwara rattled with frequent militant-military fireworks, he would slip to his neighbouring embroiderer’s workplace. This is where his fairytale of ‘Kashmir’s butterfly man’ began.
The old artisan sat among spools of brightly coloured threads with his most treasured tool “Aer”, a fine needle drawing intricate butterfly designs on the rafal wool fabric, humming folksongs on butterflies.
“The life of a butterfly may be brief,” he remembers the craftsman telling him once, “yet in its lifespan, it provides unlimited joy.”
Years later, Aijaz says, that ‘crafty’ remark prompted a unique journey of a research having no markers and mention in the valley.
But before exploring the hills, heights and hinterlands for butterflies, the Handwara boy grew as a boy-next-door in his village. He graduated in Science from GGM Science College, Jammu, before finishing his Masters from Kashmir University’s Zoology Department.
Later, he would complete his PhD on the topic “Diversity and Bio-ecological Studies of Butterflies of Kashmir Himalayas” from the same department. And as a result, the nickname “Butterfly” stuck.
Surprisingly, he says, this is the first and only PhD thesis on butterflies of Kashmir Himalayas till date.
His unique research work led him to join Islamic University of Science & Technology, Awantipora as Research Officer in the Mantaqi Centre for Science & Society.
And since then, he has been associated with various organizations both within and outside India like IUCN, Switzerland, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), University of Montana.
Unlike moth (Poumnper), butterfly (Panpoumnper) is active during the day and usually brightly coloured and strikingly patterned.
“The most distinctive physical features of the butterfly are its club-tipped antennae and its habit of holding the wings vertically over the back when at rest,” the researcher explains.
More importantly, the butterfly species are considered an integral part of the ecosystem as they help in pollination.
“Pollination is a critical ecosystem function and approximately, 75% of globally important crops rely on animal pollinators including butterflies, providing up to 35% of crop production.”
In Kashmir, where the agrarian sector is an important component of the economy, this aspect is particularly poignant, Aijaz informs.
The extensive findings over the years revealed that 270 species occur in Kashmir Himalayas which accounts for about 18% of India’s butterfly diversity.
During his routine trips to Dachigam, Aijaz often witnesses how the winged creatures undergo ‘complete Kafkaesque metamorphosis’ and enter the four distinct stages in their life cycle: Egg, Larva (Caterpillar), Pupa (chrysalis), and Adult (imago).
“The female butterflies are very picky about where they lay their eggs,” he says. “This is because caterpillars are very picky about what they will eat. Each species of butterfly will only eat a single plant (or group of closely related plants) as caterpillars.”
Further, the chrysalis is not a “resting” stage as many people think. Quite to the contrary, a lot is happening to the pupa.
“The body of the caterpillar is transforming into an adult butterfly,” the researcher informs. “Wings are fully formed in the chrysalis. Antennae are formed and the chewing mouthparts of the caterpillar are transformed into the sucking mouthparts of the butterfly.”
During his butterfly examining trips, Aijaz has faced challenges, in the form of uncertain weather, financial aspects, insect bites, and preservation of specimens.
“There were innumerable occasions when I had to either cancel my field trips or return back due to weather conditions and other prevailing situations,” he says.
“And then there were occasions when I had narrow escapes from snakes and dogs in woods.”
These field challenges apart, he points out that about 25% to 35% of butterfly species, including Queen of Spain Fritillary, Chocolate Pansy, Orange Oakleaf, Common Sailor, and others, are today facing threats and survival issues in the Kashmir Himalayas due to habitat destruction, climate change, forest fires and rampant use of pesticides.
“To stop it, a holistic approach is needed in our research activities,” Aijaz says.
“We need to understand that every living creature is part of ecosystem services and we depend on their full functioning.
Policy makers have to take inputs and suggestions from relevant subject experts/researchers while making or reviewing policies and interventions.”