Nature is a playground for the country's foremost butterfly expert, who believes that butterflies can act as a conduit for conservation.
“A true teacher is an eternal student.”
This quote perfectly describes naturalist, photographer, teacher, and prolific author Isaac Kehimkar. Better known as India’s Butterfly Man, Kehimkar has spent a major part of his life studying these majestic yet fragile winged wonders.
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After an enthusiastic response to his previous book, The Book of Indian Butterflies, he is all set to add yet another feather to his cap with its sequel, Butterflies of India, to be launched in mid-July.
It was after his accident in 2010, which left him with serious injuries to his leg, that Kehimkar thought of starting work on his next book that provides key information about different species of butterflies, like their habitats, and gives identification techniques.
This new book, a Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) field guide, is the first of its kind as it covers more than 1,000 species and sub-species of butterflies through 1800 stunning field photographs.
Kehimkar says his book is the result of hard work of more than 50 photographers and butterfly enthusiasts, who supplied him with photos through social networking websites and enabled him to extend his reach to the remote corners of the country. Thanks to their help, Butterflies of India has pictures of several rare butterflies of India, including the Bhutan Glory found in northeast, Dragon Tails from Namdapha, Malabar Banded Peacock Butterfly from Western Ghats, and the Andaman Swordtail, endemic to the Andaman Islands.
Kehimkar has also managed to include a picture of the magnificent and rarest of rare, Kaisar-i-Hind, by getting in touch with nature enthusiast Tage Kano, the first person to photograph this species in India in Arunachal Pradesh.
Having grown up in Mumbai at a time when technology still hadn’t taken over modern lives, Kehimkar’s childhood was spent wandering the wilds of Deonar, a suburb of Mumbai. As a child, he had several pets and his very own plant nursery and spent most of the monsoon, his favourite season, catching fish and crabs in the paddy fields with local Koli boys. Unsurprisingly, he grew up with an affinity for nature that just got stronger with time.
Soon after graduating in Political Science and Psychology from Mumbai University, Kehimkar ditched a marketing job for a life surrounded by nature. It was his father’s advice – it’s more difficult to get jobs that give happiness than those which give higher salaries – that helped Kehimkar choose his love for nature as his career.
He joined the Bombay Natural History Society as a library assistant in 1978 and spent time learning from people like Dr. Salim Ali and Vyankatesh Madgulkar who often visited the BNHS library. He also honed his writing skills by publishing several natural history photos and articles in Sanctuary magazine.
It was a story he did on the butterfly lifecycle that started his lifetime fascination with butterflies.
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With an entire library at his disposal, Kehimkar lapped up all available information on butterfly research and natural history in the decades he spent at Bombay Natural History Society. Today, as the General Manager of Programmes at BHNS and Joint Editor of BHNS’s quarterly magazine Hornbill, he continues to share this information by writing about the small wonders of nature – butterflies, reptiles, flowers, and plants. He has been published in several national newspapers and magazines, including Sanctuary Asia, and has authored two comprehensive field guides, Common Indian Wildflowers and Book of Indian Butterflies, other than his latest book.
Kehimkar loves travelling around the world and constantly exploring nature, and has passed on this love of the wild to his kids, Sameer and Amitiah. Chasing butterflies, he has also seen most of the country, from tracking butterflies at 16000 feet in Ladakh to traipsing through the leech-infested forests of Assam and Arunachal.
Talking about flowers and butterflies that hold special significance for him, he says,
“Among flowers, it’s the Brahma Kamal (Saussurea obvallata), that blooms in the Himalayas at 15000 ft. This flower represents the serene beauty of the Himalayas – placid and unruffled. A Himalayan butterfly is also my favourite. It is the regal Red Apollo (Parnassius epaphus) that flies above 10,000 ft in the drier cold desert regions of the Himalayas like Ladakh. I always tell people to visit the Himalayas at least once in their lifetime—it’s a great humbling experience in these mighty mountains.”
Today, Isaac Kehimkar is keen to popularise the concept of butterfly gardens in urban areas, as a way to reach out and bring young people closer to nature. He also wants to promote butterfly farming for forest dwelling communities as an alternative and sustainable livelihood. On the potential of butterflies to be a vehicle to achieve conservation goals, he says:
“India is one of the hotspots for butterflies in the world. England just has 47 species of butterflies, while we have a rich heritage of 1500 species! Through butterflies, we can also raise awareness about the biodiversity hotspots they are endemic to.”
Having worked closely with the likes of renowned naturalists, Dr. Sálim Ali, Vyankatesh Madgulkar, Humayun Abdulali, and J. C. Daniel, this naturalist-teacher believes in passing on both knowledge and values to generations of young Indian conservationists through his books. This recipient of the Sanctuary Green Teacher Award 2014 also feels that social networking sites and a passion for photography can give more impetus to young people to explore nature.