Each year, before the monsoons in Maharashtra, tourists gather in forests at night, to witness the fascinating illumination of fireflies that light up for mating.
Environmentalists have opposed such festivals, citing harm to fireflies during the mating season and disruption of the habitat.
Festival organisers are open to following guidelines but suggest that this ecotourism model could in turn benefit the village economy and encourage forest conservation.
Research indicates that the firefly population in India is decreasing. However, the unique behaviour of fireflies and their illumination patterns along with a short lifespan, make these insects difficult to study.
Those familiar with Marathi pop culture were left enthralled by fireflies that featured in the iconic scene from Man Mandira, a song from the 2015 Marathi film Katyar Kaljat Ghusli. In the video, fireflies illuminate the screen as a father and son take in the magical sight on the riverside. Anecdotes indicate that the song inspired people to seek out a similar sight and head to firefly-watching festivals across Maharashtra.
Right before the monsoons, firefly festivals are organised in parts of the state, where tourists gather after dark to witness the illumination by fireflies. This year, however, environmentalists have strongly opposed such festivals, citing harm to fireflies during the mating season and as well as light pollution and littering which impacts the sensitive habitat.
One such festival in Radhanagari, Kolhapur, has now been cancelled following opposition from environmentalists. Other firefly festivals in Maharashtra take place in Bhandardara, Rajmachi, Purushwadi, Prabalwadi, Bhimashankar, Harishchandragad and Malshej Ghat. During these festivals, there are night camps and walks in the dense forest with most tourists coming in from Mumbai, Pune and other urban areas in Maharashtra and paying between Rs. 1,000 to 5,000 per day for the experience.
Madhukar Bachulkar, a botanist from Kolhapur said, “We don’t have an objection to tourism but illegal night jungle safari and organising a festival at night would harm the mating season and ultimately end up with the loss of endangered species like fireflies.” Other reasons why environmentalists are calling for a ban on firefly festivals, he says, include the usage of flashlights, torchlights and vehicle lights that lead to light pollution and interfere with the natural mating process; crushing of female fireflies while capturing photos and videos; night camping in forest area; catching fireflies in bottles as souvenirs; littering of plastic waste; and night tourism which disturbs wildlife in the forest. The loss of habitat, vegetation, use of pesticides, light pollution and climate change are already harming the fireflies, Bachulkar said. In response to Bachulkar’s complaints, forest officers from respective districts of Pune, Nagar and Nashik have informed that they have set up guidelines for such festivals. To this, Bachulkar has said that there is no machinery to check whether these guidelines are being followed or not, so he is pushing for a complete ban on such festivals and night tourism.
Samrat Kerkar, who organises the fireflies festival in Radhanagari, which has been cancelled this year, told Mongabay-India, “We have been organising the festival since 2017 and we respect the concern of environmentalists. We have cancelled the fireflies festival this year in Radhanagari, but we were organising a festival on a private farm.” Kerkar also said that they have asked the authorities for guidelines or SOP to regularise the festivals. “We believe that sustainable ecotourism can bring some financial help to those who are living in forests and it can help in the conservation of forests as well. We are aware of some unavoidable situations in which there was a threat to the life of fireflies but we realise that forest and ultimately the wildlife is our heritage. To earn a livelihood which might ultimately help to preserve the forest is our ultimate motto,” he said.
Kerkar added that this festival in Kolhapur that takes place over a few days will help the rural economy in the small villages next to the forest area. The villagers can sustain themselves while complementing the work of the forest department and this can be an ideal case of coexistence.
The forest department in Kolhapur, following complaints from environmentalists, has stopped the gathering of tourists in the forests after 10 pm. Vishal Mali, the divisional forest officer from Kolhapur stated that the administration is strict about the rules and has advised tourists to follow the order. “We are not favouring any types of festivals nor banning them. The citizens should honour the laws and keep their faith in conserving nature.” Meanwhile, Swapnil Pawar, Wildlife Warden of Kolhapur also made an appeal to visitors and tourists not to interfere in the habitat out of curiosity. “We are endangering the species unknowingly. It has already decreased in population. The fireflies should be observed from roadsides only, as female flies are on the floor and this season is crucial for mating. We should follow these guidelines to protect the environment and our nature.”
“We welcome the guidelines of the forest department not to enter the forest after 10 pm, to avoid light and noise pollution,” said Kerkar. He is instead helping individual tourists to see the fireflies in their parked vehicles on the side of the road.
S. A. Patil, an entomologist and retired professor of Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth, an agricultural college in Rahuri, says that different species of “lightning bugs” each have a distinctive rate of flashes per second. The flashes are said to be produced by a chemical enzyme called luciferase, which is used to attract the opposite sex. The male insects light up pre-monsoon evenings, flashing lights in different patterns to attract females. The females signal in response from perches in or near the ground. When the male sees the female’s flash he continues to signal and moves closer. Eventually, through a series of flashes, they find each other and mate.
Patil said that these insects don’t bite, they have no pincers, they don’t attack, they don’t carry disease, they are not poisonous and they don’t even fly very fast. The loss of habitat, however, is affecting the population of fireflies, and firefly tourism could be a threat as it interferes in their mating process.
While the impact on the species and the environment is key behind the opposition to these festivals, there is speculation from some that the growing ecotourism and economy associated with it is an undercurrent in the conflict among firefly festival organisers, environmentalists and forest department.
A fascinating but difficult to study species
The Western Ghats, which traverse through Maharashtra is one of the few regions with hotspots of fireflies, notes Mitali Inamdar, a microbiologist and researcher from the Centre for Citizens Science, Pune who studies fireflies. But there is a drastic decrease in the number of fireflies as a result of anthropogenic activities. Some of the major reasons she notes include, land use change in forests, light pollution, loss of habitat and vegetation, infrastructure projects, vehicular traffic, high use of pesticides and insecticides and fluctuations in pre-monsoon rainfall.
There are around 2,000 species of fireflies in the world, but only some can glow. They belong to the Lampyridae family. Studies have shown there are some species found in different regions of India such as the northeast, south Kerala and some parts of Maharashtra.
The firefly’s lifespan is very short and more research is needed to determine the duration of each of its different phases (eggs, larva, pupa and firefly). When the fireflies emit light for mating, that is the last stage of their lifecycle. After laying eggs, both the male and female fireflies die.