Butterflies and Ecotourism in Bhutan

Butterfly Bhutan

Butterflies are not just some beautiful creatures or a delightful sight but they have a huge ecological value. They are also excellent indicators of environmental conditions. Experts say, when habitats are destroyed, butterflies are among the first species to disappear, often because their host plants disappear.

The word ‘ecotourism’ was coined in the 1980s. Conservationists often see ecotourism as a long-term strategy to help protect a natural area. They believe that if the local community can earn money from visiting tourists, they will have  an economic incentive to protect the natural habitat rather than develop it for other economic uses. Ecotourism is also defined as the practice of touring natural habitats in a manner meant to minimize ecological impact. Butterfly tourism is considered a niche ecotourism attraction where they simulate the natural habitat of butterflies and rainforest – where travelers study the life cycle of butterflies and this tourism product contributes towards the conservation of butterfly species in the region or the country. 

According to Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) Nature Guide Series titled ‘Butterflies of Bhutan’, it is estimated that Bhutan has about 800 butterfly species. However, so far 563 species have been definitely recorded.

The report says the processes of morphological and behavioral changes are stunning as the butterflies have distinct physical and behavioral characteristics that mark change and development. It begins from a tiny colorful crispy egg to a crawly heart throbbing larva, to a complete sedentary pupa, and to a gaudy winged adult butterfly. Butterflies are a group of species that occupy soil, tree, water and air. In Bhutan, butterflies are found from the southern foothills to the snow-capped mountains in the north. Also, butterfly diversity decreases with gain in the altitude in the Himalayas.

Bhutan’s national butterfly is Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis ludlowi), which is identified as endangered species. Bhutanitis ludlowi is commonly known as Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory. It was officially declared as Bhutan’s national butterfly in 2012. It is found at an altitude of 2000m to 2500m. Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory is listed as endangered species under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Not much was known about the butterfly species until recently. The butterfly was first discovered by plant hunters, Frank Ludlow and George Sheriff at Tobrang, upper parts of Trashiyangtse valley in 1933-34.  Commonly seen in Bumdeling valley in Bhutan, Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory was rediscovered after 75 years in 2009 by a Bhutanese forester, Karma Wangdi. It is commonly seen in Trashiyangtse district during autumn season. It was also recently photographed in Trashigang district.

According to an account from ‘Butterflies of Bhutan: Mountains, hills and valleys between 800 and 3000m’ by Piet van der Poel and Tashi Wangchuk, “The British Natural History Museum in London has a large number of specimens from Bhutan, mostly collected by explorers during the first half of the last century, but no systematic studies seem to have been carried out. Bhutan probably has some 800 to 900 species of butterflies.”

This is a huge number for a small country such as Bhutan. “There are more butterfly species in Bhutan than in the whole of North America (679 species) or of Europe (440 species). The incredible range of habitats present in Bhutan, from subtropical in the south to alpine in the north presents a vast array of habitat niches for butterflies. Also, both Palaearctic and Indo-Malayan species are found in Bhutan. The largest number of butterflies is found in the subtropical zone, but an amazing number can be found at midelevations and in the mountains even at elevations above 5,000m. The hardy high-altitude butterflies fly only during the summer.”

Conversely, little is known about the butterflies of Bhutan. Local butterfly enthusiasts say, there is a need for studies and conservation efforts to promote and conserve butterfly species and their habitats in the country.

Gem Silverspot (Issoria gemmata)

Butterflies are not just beautiful creatures or a delightful sight but they have a huge ecological value. They are also excellent indicators of environmental conditions. Experts say, when habitats are destroyed, butterflies are among the first species to disappear, often because their host plants disappear.

Bhutan is recognized worldwide for its rich biodiversity. The species diversity in Bhutan boasts precisely 11,248 species of flora and fauna, including 4,978 species of vascular plants, 3,511 insects, 129 mammals, 736 species of birds, 158 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 125 species of fish.

There are over 17,500 species of butterflies around the world and about 750 species are found in Bhutan. However, approximately 3% of the butterfly species are at risk of extinction due to urbanization and agriculture.

Given the presence of globally significant species in Bhutan, there are opportunities for high-end recreational tourism such as Golden Mahseer fly-fishing (catch and release) in major river systems. The potential for bird and butterfly tourism also remains spread over most of the rural areas.

Bhutan’s GEF-UNDP Ecotourism Project “mainstreaming biodiversity conservation into the tourism sector in Bhutan” was launched last year, with the aim to establish Bhutan as a model ecotourism destination, to generate livelihood opportunities, sustainable financing for landscapes within and outside protected areas, facilitate human-wildlife coexistence, and mitigate the negative impacts of increasing tourism on Bhutan’s socio-cultural heritage and globally significant biodiversity.

 The project’s flagship species for ecotourism are Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory butterflies, golden mahseers, red pandas, black-necked cranes, golden langurs, and the exotic birds of Bhutan.

Trashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan is a paradise of butterflies. Many travel companies in Bhutan combine cultural expeditions with butterfly tours as well. Autumn is the best season for butterfly tourism.

Photographs contributed by Tshulthrim Drukpa who is a birder, butterfly tour guide and co-author of the book ‘Birds and Butterflies of Bhutan’. You can contact him at keldruk@tashi-delek

Sonam Dema

Sonam Dema

She is freelance travel writer, former television anchor and producer. She is currently working for biodiversity conservation for GEF7 ecotourism project in Bhutan. During her free time, she likes to paint, read and write about arts and films from Bhutan. You can contact her at sonamdema123@gmail.com