Of the 20,000 species of butterflies in the world nearly 1.25% (245 species) are to found in Sri Lanka. Different sources give the number of endemic butterflies (that is those native to Sri Lanka) as between 20 and 26. Some 76 to 99 species are regarded as threatened while the Ceylon Rose (Pachliopta jophon) is stated to be ‘critically endangered.’
Although the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance lists all butterflies in Sri Lanka as protected their environment is not. Because of unplanned development projects, their habitat gets degraded. Coastal habitats are threatened due to the development of hotels and resorts in many near-pristine areas of the coast. The heavy use of pesticides also destroys various stages of a butterfly’s life cycle.
The distribution of butterflies in Sri Lanka is largely determined by climate, topography and the underlying geology of the land, as these factors determine the types of vegetation that will grow in a particular area.
To encourage appreciation of Sri Lanka’s butterflies, one was adopted in 2010 as a national symbol of Sri Lanka; this is the Sri Lankan Birdwing (Troides darsius) which is actually the country’s largest. It has a wingspan spreading 165 to 180mm. The upper wings, which measure six inches across, are of deep velvet black, the lower, ornamented by large particles of satiny yellow, through which the sunlight seems to pass. Few insects can match it in bold beauty and it seems an appropriate symbol for the natural beauty of this island.
Since butterflies cause pleasure both to Sri Lankans and visitors, it was decided to extend their recognition by naming one as the symbol of each of the island’s nine provinces.
The butterfly chosen as the symbol for the Western Province (which extends southwards from Negombo to Aluthgama so this is the butterfly of Colombo too) is the Blue Glassy Tiger (Ideopsis similis). It frequents the southwest coast, flying among bushes and flowers.
Those of the other eight provinces are:
Central Sri Lankan Monarch, aka Sri Lankan Tiger, (Parantica taprobana) is an endemic, forest loving species found in the island’s centre.
Eastern Spot Swordtail (Graphium nominus). To be seen during the dry months of August and September on wet soil like river banks.
Northern Large Guava Blue (Virachola perse). A pretty light blue butterfly that flies fast.
North Central Banded peacock (Papilio crino). Flies fast, more common in dry zone.
North Western Sri Lanka Lesser Albatross (Appias galene). Endemic and often seen in large numbers
Sabaragamuwa Sri Lanka Rose (Pachliopta jophon) Endemic and endangered. Ornate rosy markings.
Southern Sri Lanka Tree Nymph (Idea iasonia). Endemic. Prefers forests and has a floating, slow flight.
Uva Baronet (Symphaedra nais). Migratory. Feeds on wet soil.
While butterflies can be seen throughout Sri Lanka there are several areas where they are more frequent. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sinharaja Forest is rich in butterflies with half of the island’s endemic mammals and butterflies being present.
Royston Ellis (www.roystonellis.com) is a British author resident in Sri Lanka since 1980