There are only four species of Bhutanitis known, two of which are only found in China. The other two can be found in Bhutan. All of the Bhutanitis species are listed on CITES Appendix II, meaning their trade is restricted.
In the 1987 publication Threatened Swallowtail Butterflies of the World, two of the four Bhutanitis species were regarded as rare and another insufficiently known, but it was acknowledged that all four would benefit from further study. In 2019, the IUCN Red List considered the Bhutan Glory Bhutanitis lidderdalii to be of Least Concern, Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory Bhutanitis ludlowi (which is Bhutan’s national butterfly) was listed as Endangered, Mansfield’s Bhutan Glory Bhutanitis mansfieldi, was recorded as Vulnerable, and the Chinese Bhutan Glory Bhutanitis thaidina was considered Not Threatened.
In August 2023 the Swallowtail & Birdwing Butterfly Trust provided a grant to Sonam Dorji a wildlife documentary maker based in Bhutan to produce a short film on the Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis lidderdalii) and Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis ludlowi) at a site in Bhutan which he discovered in 2020 where both species fly in the same location, something which had not previously been observed anywhere.
Bhutanitis ludlowi was only rediscovered in 2012 after a lapse of 76 years from when it was first collected in Trashiyangtse Valley of Trashi Yangtse in eastern Bhutan. (1) This is the national butterfly of Bhutan.
The aims of the project are to create awareness and implement a conservation strategy for the area where the two species have been observed flying together. Sonam will produce a documentary video on the life cycle of both species of Bhutanitis which will be used for education, conservation and ecotourism purposes.
Creating awareness among the adults and schoolchildren in the vicinity of the hill where these two iconic species have been observed is key. Sharing with them the importance of the area for the future of these butterflies and other flora and fauna.
The following is Sonam’s story of discovery.
In August, 2020 the covid lockdown was announced. During that time, on state television, it was declared that Bhutan’s national butterfly, Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis ludlowi) had been discovered in Bumthang, central Bhutan. The discovery was made by some rangers from the Phrumsengla National Park. The only place where Bhutanitis ludlowi had been previously reported was from Trashiyangtse, in the far-east of Bhutan. This new discovery was made at an altitude about 3000 m in a place called Khandupang.
Right after the lockdown, I made a dash to the site. It was almost at the end of August. I surveyed the area for a week and could not find any trace of it. I felt sad that I missed out on the nearest location to witness our national butterfly.
My quest and interest developed for this species when it was declared the national butterfly in 2012. It was first described in 1942 after a specimen was collected from Tobrang, Trashiyangtse, Eastern Bhutan. My interest was further piqued by the fact that the species carried our country’s name in its genus, Bhutanitis. Tobrang was located near the border area to Indian state of Trashiyangtse and is a restricted area, part of the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary. For me to reach and get there, I would have had to go there through layers of permissions from the military, which sometimes can be excruciating. My hope to see it had to be brushed aside for the time being.
I shifted my focus to the other species, Bhutanitis lidderdalii, Bhutan Glory, which is generally found all over Bhutan at an altitude of 2000m. B. lidderdalii has a wider range in Bhutan and is commonly seen from second week of September and flying until mid-Nov. From my field observations, the species is quite resistant to the cold and one time, during its peak emerging time, I saw several of them flying in heavy downpour of rain.
I learnt in 2021 that Bhutanitis ludlowi could also be found in other parts of Trashiyangtse, namely in Rigsum Goenpa (monastery). I planned a trip trying to fulfill my quest to see B. ludlowi and also explore other parts of eastern Bhutan, namely Tashigang where I had previously seen the Blyth’s Tragopan (Tragopan blythii), a stunning species of pheasant.
I headed towards the area making a stop for a week in the Bumthang, where the species was recorded last year. There was not any trace of it. It baffled me.
Rigsum Goenpa lies at an altitude of 2800 m. It is part of the Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary. It took me 3 hours of hiking to reach the spot, I arrived around 10 AM. The weather was not that hot but it was overcast. Just by the gazebo made by the monks put there for visitors to rest under, there were several Viburnum plants growing. In one of them, there was a B. ludlowi, flying around it. As I started to comb the area, I saw several specimens flying up and down the hillside. I stayed there for about 2-3 hours taking photographs and fulfilling my long cherished dream to photograph it. I learnt later that the some of the Buddleia plants which I could see were planted by the monks to attract B. ludlowi.
August in Bhutan is normally the monsoon period. The heavy showers cause landslides and one can often be stranded. However the intermediate sunny day or days that follow become one of the most worthwhile butterflying experiences. Most of the time, butterflies can be seen joyously gliding in the sun. I have always made sure that I am out in field observing them during these times. My trip to Trashigang in August of 2021 was quite an experience and one of the greatest highlights of my butterflying days. It determined the course of the next two years of my life!
It was August 24, 2021 when I started my journey from Trashiyangtse to Trashigang. It takes you about two hours of driving to reach the entry point to Trashigang. It was raining, not that heavy but enough to cause problems. About three hours into my drive to my night halt, I was faced with a huge landslide. The road was not washed away but the boulders from above the road had fallen and 2-3 elephant sized rocks had completely closed the road. Along with it, muddy soil with smaller rocks has almost covered 10 metres of road. Report by road officials estimated that it would take 2-3 days of clearing. I had no time to waste. Luckily for me, another feeder road going through a village had started operating and I could bypass the highway road block. That was another 1 hour of re-tracing my path and 1 more hour of driving along the feeder road to reach the same highway about 25 kms from the landslide area.
At the end of the feeder road I joined the highway, at a placed called Khenthongmani. I did not realise that this place would be my station for the next two years. As I headed towards my night stop area, about 2kms further from Khenthongmani, I halted in the middle of the road. Over years of observing butterflies, I have developed the habit of instinctively looking on the road for any signs of accidentally killed butterflies while driving. I made a stop, triggered by the sight of a leaf-like object lying in the middle of the ground. Watching from the car, it looked more like a dried leaf, but my instinct would not let me just drive past. I got out of my car and looked at it carefully. To my utter surprise, it was one of my most sought after butterflies, the Kaiser-I-Hind (Teinopalpus imperialis)! It had been crushed by passing vehicles but I could make out its identity from its distinct features. I immediately took out my camera and took pictures and videos of it. Since it was highway with the fear of other vehicles damaging the specimen I immediately called interested government officials of its presence and collected it. The specimen was sent to a government research institute.
From that day on, my quest for a live specimen of Kaiser-I-Hind began. I surveyed the surrounding hill as the Kaiser has the habit of hilltopping. The hill, locally called Shoskom lies at an altitude of 2800 m.
I have seen it covered in fog most of the time. Some nomads reside in the area which has to certain extent, caused damaged to the forest. Interestingly, this area is also the catchment area for water for the villages lying down below. My search in the area for Kaiser would bring me into contact with the nomads and I would often reside in their place to avoid camping and walking uphill. I also encountered with the Brown Gorgon (Meandrusa sciron), which from a reliable source in Thailand, Kaiser often dog fight with it. Three days into my search, I was just below one of the nomad sheds, I saw a swallowtail flying around. From my experience, it looked like a Bhutanitis species. I was quite surprised, I thought the period for Bhutanitis ludlowi was over. I waited for it to reemerge from the forest to the open area where I was waiting. It did and it was definitely Bhutanitis species. It was an old specimen and I managed to get a somewhat blurred picture but enough for expert to identify it. It was too early for B. lidderdalii to emerge as it comes normally in 2nd week of Sept. My own experience made me believe it could only be B. ludlowi. I however sent it to a Japanese expert who confirmed it to be B. ludlowi. My excitement knew no bounds. This was an amazing discovery. This species was thought to be only found in Trashiyangtse, in Bhutan. This was a different district and outside of the protected area system of Bhutan. However, I was little skeptical of it occurring again next year again like the ones in Bumthang. I shared the information with relevant authorities and personnel and largely kept it a secret. It was only in August 2022, when I scouted the location again and found the species flying around that I informed the Bhutanese population via the state television of its occurrence in Trashigang.
My next few days became more interesting again. On Sept 3rd, I saw a fresh species of B. Iidderdalii flying around. The old specimen of B. ludlowi was still flying around. This was the first time in Bhutan where the two species of Bhutanitis found in Bhutan had been observed to be flying almost at the same time. Trashiyangtse had only B. ludlowi. Here in Shoskom, which is outside of the protected areas of Bhutan, both the species were observed to be flying. I started calling this hill, Shoskom – Bhutan Glories’ Hill to create awareness and highlight the importance for future conservation efforts.
I have always believed that it is important that people residing in such important locations are aware of the importance of such species. It is this awareness which enables conservation efforts to succeed. Since the discovery, my efforts have gone into not only finding more species in the area but also engaging communities informally making them to understand the importance of conservation of the area. To reduce negative impact on the forest resources and making the nomads understand positive values of conserving such species, I have in my own little effort provided them with heating systems, and exploring the prospects of eco-tourism so that they get some economic benefits as well. In nearby shops, I have put up pictures of important species. In one particular shop in Khenthongmani, I have collected a little budget to put up a TV where all the videos of wildlife documented from the area will be displayed for local viewers to better understand their wildlife diversity. My plan is to make this a visitor information centre. Another shop has been identified at a different location where similar information centre will be put up. The added advantage is that the owner, a young lady, is genuinely interest in knitting and embroidery. I have teamed up with her to knit and embroider wildlife species found in the area. An example of her embroidery can be found below.
(1) Motohiro Harada, Karma Wangdi, Sonam Wangdi, Masaya Yago, Toshiaki Aoki, Yoshiko Igarshi, Shuhei Yamaguchi, Yasuyuki Watanabe, Sherub, Rinchen Wangdi, Sangay Drukpa, Motoki Saito, Yoshitaka Moriyama & Taku Uchiyama Butterflies 2012, No. 60. p4 – 13
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