Wings of a rainbow
By Renu Warnasuriya
Small, colourful and extremely timid, they flutter away when you move too close. Watching them requires both patience and vigilance. But once spotted these creatures are a treat to the eye. Insignificant as they sometimes seem, butterflies are an important part of Sri Lankan wildlife.

Environmentalist Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, has not only the perseverance to track these creatures but the skill to capture them on film. There are 242 species of butterflies in Sri Lanka, including Skippers.However there is still no account of the exact number of endemic species."In Sri Lanka we don't have a tradition of looking at the smaller animals," says Gehan explaining that, we are too engrossed with the leopards and elephants to notice these small beings. He however feels that the lack of vocabulary to identify individual species is also a contributing factor. " The only way to refer to a butterfly in Sinhala is to say samanalaya," says Gehan.

Gehan has published a number of booklets and other material on wildlife, including birds, dragonflies and butterflies. His latest publication is a colour poster of 57 species of butterflies in Sri Lanka. Photographed under wild conditions, the poster is so far the only one of its kind. Fortunately his hobby of wild life and photography fit in well with his work as the CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays.

Gehan's interest in butterflies began while he was living in England, where he was a member of the London Natural History Society and the London Wildlife Trust. "Like their members I also began looking at the smaller things," he says adding that they even examined moths. Once he came back Gehan continued to study more on butterflies He started photographing butterflies recently, though his interest in photography goes way back to teenage days. " If they settle on a flower and you move very carefully and slowly, you can get close enough to get a shot," explained Gehan admitting however that certain butterflies are indeed impossible to photograph.

So far he has been able to capture around 90 species on film. "There are some that I have not even seen," says Gehan adding that some are also quite difficult to identify. Then Gehan turns to Michael and Nancy van der Poorten, who according to him " really know their Sri Lankan butterflies!" Certain species are confined to particular areas of the country depending on their habitat requirements.

The Ceylon Tiger and The Indian Red Admiral are found in the highlands and Horton Plains is an ideal place to spot both these types. The Soother Duffer on the other hand is most likely to be seen in rainforests or thick forest areas like Morapitiya and Sinharaja. Some of the more common butterflies found in the lowland areas include the Common Tiger, the Plain Tiger, the Blueglass Tiger, the Three Spot Grass Yellow, the Common Indian Crow, the Grey Pansy, the Great Egg Fly, the Common Sailor Torny Coster and the Dark Grass Blue. Gehan also mentioned that certain butterflies like the Striped Pierrot are generally confined to the Mannar area.

He explained that butterfly watchers usually stick to the same places as bird watchers mostly the rainforests and highlands. Wetlands like Thalangama are also good butterfly spots. Gehan however mentioned that you are more likely to find butterflies in areas where there is less human habitation. Though they seem to be everywhere, Gehan believes that the Sri Lankan butterflies are in fact threatened by pollution and pesticides.The loss of their habitats, with deforestation is also a problem.

”But there's much we can be done to save them. " People can start butterfly friendly gardening," said Gehan explaining that it is possible to attract around 15 to 20 kinds of colourful butterflies even to a garden in Colombo provided that it has the right kind of food plants. Native species of plants like Athhonda and Balunakuta, rich in nectar could attract certain kinds of butterflies.

Athhonda for instance attracts butterflies belonging to the Tiger family, including the Common Tiger and the Plain Tiger while Balunakuta attracts butterflies of the Yellows family. He also mentioned that citrus plants attract butterflies of the Swallow Tail family. Though considered 'weed species' these plants are extremely good for our fluttery friends. 'Butterfly patches' popular in Europe, where people separate a small area to grow these kinds of plants for the butterflies are also a good method, he says adding that there are certain species like the Common Barron who are attracted to rotting fruit!
Gehan's butterfly poster is now available at Jetwing House, 46/26 Navam Mawatha, Colombo 2, for Rs.300.

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