de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). Butterfly Safaris: The development of photographic guides. Hi Magazine. Series 8, Volume 3. Pages 242-243.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne on his mission to make butterflies accessible to all through the development of photographic guides for tourism and conservation awareness

A dash of blue shot up from the dying grass, startling me. It sped away and settled down on the grassland which was bounded by a forest reserve on one margin and a stream which carved its way through carpets of green paddy. I stalked the mystery blue butterfly which eluded my efforts. My colleague Hiran Cooray and architect Sunela Jayewardene were bemused by my vain efforts. ‘What was it?’ asked Hiran. Something I have not seen before was all I could lamely offer. It turned out to be a Blue Pansy. We were at the site for Jetwing Vil Uyana, which would in due course be the first complete wetland constructed from bare land by a hotel anywhere in the world. I had borrowed the idea from the work of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) in the UK. Sunela was here to execute an architect’s remit I had written up. The idea had been enthusiastically embraced by Hiran who had visited the wetland centre with me in Barnes to understand the concept. As we drove back to Colombo, Sunela asked me what I will do with all of these pictures.

I explained that I was working on a series of affordable photographic guide booklets to birds, butterflies, dragonflies and mammals. There were two objectives to this. Firstly, to create new wildlife products for Sri Lankan Tourism. Secondly to make it possible for many Sri Lankans to name an animal such as a butterfly. My plan was to make cheap pictorial booklets priced around one hundred rupees. Even so, I was aware that many children from rural areas would find that too expensive. However both the government and NGOs were implementing programs to give access to the internet. So I knew I could make a picture gallery available on the web and also make pdfs of the publications available as free downloads. I was the first to set out to make a photographic guide of one degree or the other to butterflies in Sri Lanka. I was also the first to make an overt attempt to popularise butterflies amongst the public by harnessing the media. All of this was becoming possible as it fitted with an agenda to develop butterfly safaris as a tourism product for the commercial benefit of Jetwing Eco Holidays and other specialist tour operators.

I was helped in the identification of species by two excellent books. One was the very expensive but excellent ‘Butterflies of Ceylon’ by Bernard d’Abrera. The other was the ‘Butterfly Fauna of Ceylon’ by L.G.O. Woodhouse. The latter has been out of print for over three decades and is a collector’s item. Both of these books are indispensable to the serious lepidopterist. But the cost and scarcity put them out of reach of almost every average Sri Lankan. Cost, scarcity and a third factor, weight also made them not practical for wildlife tourists. A third book came close to fitting the bill for affordability and weight. This was ‘A Selection of the Butterflies of Sri Lanka’ by John and Judy Banks which had been re-printed several times. Unfortunately this suffered from a serious drawback. It arranged the butterflies by colour rather than in taxonomic order. This was frustrating to serious wildlife enthusiasts who don’t want butterflies from different families shown together simply because they have the same colour. This is like arranging an impala and a lion on the same page and a rhino and elephant on another because of the same colour. It works for some, but not for those who aspire to understand better their natural history. This booklet also was a little awkward being in a ‘soft cover landscape’ format which departed from the usual format for field guides. But that is a minor niggle and the book by John and Judy Banks was always in my collection of field books. But what many including me found awkward at first was the butterflies in the field did not look like anything in any of these three books. This is because books such as this used a traditional convention of showing the complete fore-wing and hind-wing. Once a person has attained degree of proficiency this becomes useful. It is also useful now as compact digital cameras have become commonplace and wildlife enthusiasts use them to take record shots. When I began to work on a photographic guide, a lot of people found the conventional plates a bit baffling. The pattern shown on the plates varies dramatically in real life for many species. This is because in the living butterfly the two wings overlap. What on a conventional plate may seem like two straight lines meeting at an angle, in real life fuses into a single horizontal bar across the wings. I realised that to make the identification of butterflies accessible, a photographic guide was essential.

My first effort was in 2002 when we published a series of leaflets which were printed onto a sheet of A4 and folded into three. The one on the butterflies titled ‘Common Butterflies of Sri Lanka’ with 49 species was sponsored by Jetwing Hunas Falls. I had photographed butterflies in Sri Lanka in the 1990s and used the images in illustrated talks I had given to the London Wildlife Trust and the London Natural History Society. Acquiring images of enough species to make a meaningful pictorial guide was a task on an entirely different scale. Fortunately, during the time I lived in London, I had purchased a Canon 100mm f2.8 true macro lens which would allow me to get close and capture detail to a professional quality. I also used a Canon 300mm f4 lens at times with a 2x extender. I also began to use professional films like Fuji Velvia. I lost a little quality when these slides were scanned and digitised to make the first leaflet I mentioned earlier.

The next stage in the evolution of the pictorial guide was what we billed a ‘Photo Softie’. This was done in 2003 in an A5 format, with 7 plates and contained 54 species. It did not contain significantly more species but now had the space to have the English name transcribed in Sinhala and Tamil. Lalin de Mel a former Director of Marketing for Jetwing Hotels and Hiran Cooray agreed to have Jetwing Hotels listed as sponsors to help Jetwing Eco Holidays with the product development. It was the first credible effort at a functional pictorial guide using photographic images. It was not expensive and became a standard part of the marketing literature we used on our annual visits to the British Bird Watching Fair. It was also on sale at bookshops including Barefoot, Odel and Lake House Bookshop Hyde Park Corner.

I was shooting on professional slide film and each roll of film cost around Rs 1,000 plus at least another Rs 500 to process, mount and file the slides. The Hayleys Group, the agents for FujiFilm agreed to sell me film at cost, to support my agenda as a wildlife populariser. This helped, but each roll of film left me around Rs 1,000 poorer; quite significant on a Sri Lankan salary. In September 2003, I switched to digital. There was a significant reduction in the perceived cost. The conversion to digital helped enormously to accelerate the acquisition of images. Subsequently I sold some land I had inherited at Horton Place; prime land in Colombo. The sales proceeds were rolled over into purchasing state of the art Canon hardware and my tiny private nature reserve in Talangama which gave me more opportunities for photographing butterflies and dragonflies. In March 2006 we published the first Photo Booklet on butterflies. It still retained the A5 format but had a stiff cover and was spiral bound. It also now had 96 species, which illustrated a significant number of the butterflies most people would be likely to encounter. To bring the cost to an affordable level we needed a minimum print run of 1,000 copies. It was too expensive to give away free and it was only available for purchase. But once again we made the pdf available as a free download.

We realised that for marketing, we needed a ‘pin up’ publication which would have a reasonable number of species and still be one which we can give away free. In May 2007 we had published an A2 format poster which had 47 species as a free give away to use at Bird Fairs to prospective customers. That year at the Italian Bird Fair and at the Dutch Bird Fair, my colleague Ajanthan and I realised that the butterfly poster was attracting a lot of interest. So we expanded it into an A1 format with 132 species. Laminated copies of this served as a field guide to our naturalist guides who had this as their standard butterfly identifier in their field bag. We also put it into the kit bag we give clients. The butterfly posters which we used as a promotional had in fact evolved out of a poster we did in 2004, which had been inspired by a poster I had seen done by the Singapore Nature Society on Singapore’s butterflies. I had been given a copy when with Amila Salgado and I joined Professor Sarath Kotagama and others at the Taiwan Bird Fair. With my adherence to the personality centric marketing which is commonplace in developed countries, I had titled this poster ‘Gehan’s Butterflies’ which incurred the wrath of a few.
The photo booklet continues to evolve and there are plans afoot to bring out an expanded edition with images contributed by others. However to minimise the staff time taken in handling sales, we may simply make it available as a pdf which can be downloaded free of charge. Over the years, my popular articles on butterfly safaris in the popular press together with the pdfs have inspired many others to begin photographing butterflies and dragonflies and to name them. The guides I have created have now made it possible for groups to spring up on Facebook and Flickr where people can showcase their images. I also collaborated with Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala for a children’s guide to butterflies which was published in 2006. I was the photographer on this book. However, it is not included in list of my citable work. This is because the book departs from the well established format where authors and photographers are shown as front cover and citable ‘authors’. This was a little surprising as the book would not have been possible without my images which were original material acquired in the field. The 2006 also saw the publication of a sumptuously beautiful book on the butterflies by the father and daughter team of Arittha and Ariesha Wikramanayake. Priced around Rs 6,000 and a door stopper of a book, it is clearly not intended to be a field guide or an affordable book for the public. It belongs in the genre of beautiful books which celebrate the diversity of life and more specifically butterflies. I feel a book such as this shows the country is not short of design and layout talent and can publish beautiful books on par with any publisher in developed countries. I have also felt a sense of pride for Sri Lanka when I have seen this book on sale in the UK. Between Woodhouse’s book and my arrival on the Sri Lankan butterfly scene with affordable portable photographic guides, the two most important developments have been the publication by John and Judy Banks’ and d’Abrera’s book. The latter was made possible by the extraordinary bio-diversity explorer Rohan Pethiyagoda who also played the role of publisher, giving many people the opportunity of having their work published as books or technical papers in journals. On the academic front, I suspect the next important development will be a forthcoming book by Michael van der Poorten. Although butterfly data recording is virtually non existent in comparison with developed countries, it is still expected to provide the best approximation to current distribution. The lack of quadrat recording schemes will mean that an update on distributional data will be provisional although a welcome improvement. The author is likely to provide important information on establishing with some certainty, the host plants of butterflies or pointing out where it is not known. The host plants stated in the literature for certain butterflies in Sri Lanka are based on observations on the Indian mainland and may not be true for Sri Lanka. I am looking forward to this book which I expect to be an invaluable reference. But I don’t think it will be time to close off my efforts to publish on butterflies. Naturalists, amateur or professional, like field guides which help to tell one species apart from another. The best examples of these are the field guides published on birds. I have been keeping field notes to the commoner species which I would like to see published in a photographic guide by New Holland Publishers in their pocket photographic series for which I have already done guides on birds and mammals. The text I have been preparing for such a guide will first make it into print in ‘Animals of Sri Lanka. This will be my second volume in the sumptuous series of coffee table format books being published by the National Trust – Sri Lanka.

Over the 9 years when I was with Jetwing and we began to publish photographic guides to butterflies to Sri Lanka, many Sri Lankans used them to identify species in the field. We also had many foreign birders and wildlife enthusiasts who used them on natural history tours. I suspect the first truly dedicated butterfly watching tour (as opposed to butterflies with other wildlife) to Sri Lanka did not run until March 2010. This was led by naturalist guide Wicky Wickremesekera.  This was a high point as this demonstrated that dedicated butterfly safaris to Sri Lanka were finally established as a product. Unfortunately I could not meet up with this group as my time was divided between finishing my time in Sri Lanka before moving back to London and the need to establish Kalpitiya as Sri Lanka’s third whale watching hot spot. The latter also turned out to be an Asian hot sport for pelagic seabirds. As 2010 closes, I have the satisfaction of knowing that before I returned to the UK, I established butterfly safaris into the vocabulary of Sri Lanka tourism. In 2011, the National Trust – Sri Lanka will publish ‘Animals of Sri Lanka’ with 71 species of butterflies depicted with photographs. Most importantly, it will have field guide type text with an emphasis of differentiating similar species for butterflies (and dragonflies). Although the book is in coffee table book format, it is a stepping stone for me. There is more to be done. On Monday 8th November 2010, Bill Oddie the famous British TV presenter and author on birds and wildlife was the guest of honour at a press conference at the Sri Lanka stand during the World Travel Market (WTM). Addressing the audience he said he had not been to a country where a single person had done so much as I have done to produce guides and publicise the wildlife in a country. It was very flattering to be recognised in this way. But I know the guides I am publishing are only providing a point of first access to the treasure trove of biodiversity in Sri Lanka. I am simply only helping people to put a name to things around them as what we can see is limited by the words we have to put a name to things. There is an infinite scope for deeper scientific study in the wealth of knowledge to be gathered. Knowledge will be a pre-requisite for conservation as much as it has been for wildlife tourism where specialist tour operators are in the business of being knowledge merchants.


Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne can be found on Facebook and www.flickr.com. Almost every major wildlife tourism product in Sri Lanka has had Gehan playing a pivotal role in its research and commercial development.