Pange is the base camp for expeditions and treks into the Talle Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. It is around 10 km from Ziro, the nearest town, and can be reached either by a sturdy four-wheel drive or on foot on a mud track. It is a place with an abundance of butterflies and moths.
In December 2017, the Journal of Threatened Taxa, a peer-reviewed publication dedicated to conservation, reported a discovery from this place: “A new species of Zygaenid moth Elcysma ziroensis from India”. The paper on this finding was authored by Punyo Chada, Monsoon Jyoti Gogoi, and James John Young, and claimed that “Elcysma, a small genus of zygaenid moths occurring in Nagaland, western China and Japan, is recorded from northeastern India for the first time”. The only other such species from the region, “is E.dohertyi, so far known from Nagaland by a single specimen collected by W. Doherty in 1889”, the authors said.
The moth that was sighted is popularly known as the Apatani glory, after the local tribe, the Apatani. Punyo Chada, a local Apatani man who was named as one of the authors of the journal paper, is a state education department employee who is credited with having photographed it for the first time.
The discovery was “unintentional”, says Chada, who lives in Siiro on the outskirts of Ziro. He is associated with a local NGO called Ngunu Ziro that is involved in promoting tourism in the area. Chada says another NGO called Future Generations Arunachal had organised a camera trap project for mammals in Talle Valley in 2010, and their NGO was helping out. “We used to visit the sanctuary weekly. During that time this photo was taken”, he says. He had no idea that he had photographed a new species. The photo sat in his house for years.
“In 2013-14, a few of my friends visited my house. They saw the photograph and posted it on some Facebook butterfly groups somewhere”, says Chada. That’s when things began to happen for him and the moth that came to be called Apatani glory. “The moth experts started saying this may be a new species. The moth lady of India Dr V Shubhalaxmi of the Bombay Natural History Society came here”, he says. After that, a number of groups descended — or rather, ascended — to Pange looking for the moth. None of them spotted it.
Shubhalaxmi herself did not see the moth on her visit. Her trip there happened through a series of serendipitous connections. India’s ‘butterfly man’ Isaac Kehimkar had spotted the photo taken by Chada that had been posted on butterfly groups, and declared that it was not a butterfly — the antenna was different. “He passed it on to me”, the moth lady says. “I said it’s a moth, but I couldn’t say which. I could say it was of the Zygaenidae family from the antenna. At best, I could figure out the genus but not beyond, from the available information”.
Intent on solving the mystery of this moth she could not quite place, Shubhalaxmi contacted a moth expert in Hong Kong, who in turn sent it to a specialist in Taiwan, Dr Shen Horn Yen, an expert on Zygaenidae moths. “He said it was a new species”, she says. “He asked, if we could get a specimen.” The BNHS director heard of this and got excited about the possible discovery of a new species and sent Shubhalaxmi on a trip to Talle Valley. When she finally got there, after waiting long months for the right season, she could not find the moth. “Looking for it in the forest there is like looking for a pin in a haystack”, she says. However, she did spot the Bhutan glory, a butterfly that looks very much like the photo of the moth Chada had clicked.
Chada’s photo by itself was insufficient to recognise it as a new species. “A specimen needs to be deposited in specified institutions”, says Shubalaxmi. There was no specimen that had yet been collected. In fact, the moth had not even been photographed a second time.
That second photograph happened, again purely by chance, when one of the participants at a butterfly meet in Talle Valley in 2016 clicked it. “It was very accidental”, says Chada. “This is a mimic of Bhutan glory, so he photographed it and thought it was a Bhutan glory. Then the experts said, ‘No, this is the moth we are looking for!’ So, we applied for permission to collect.” That permission was given, and a ‘torn deformed moth’ that became the subject of the journal article came to be found.
The article mentions that the authors managed to locate “a very torn deformed moth found to be an undescribed female Elcysma at an elevation of 1,700 m in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh”. It is described as having a forewing span of 7 cm. The forewings are predominantly black-and-white, or “a roll of black convex splashes running from the post basal to the dorsal area”. In appearance, it is described as resembling Bhutanitis lidderdalii, popularly known as the Bhutan glory butterfly, which was first documented in 1873. The moth is a diurnal one, meaning it can be seen mostly during the day.
However, usually it is not seen at all. The Apatani glory is a rare sight. The species has so far been seen only in autumn, specifically, in September. The process of its discovery was one that resulted from a chain of serendipitous events, any of which could have been disturbed by an event as minor as the fluttering of a moth’s wing in Talle Valley. Similar serendipity attaches to its sightings even now.
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