Fireflies: India

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A rural tourist attraction/ 2019

Manjula Nair, Additional reporting by Swatee Kher, Fireflies are lighting up lives of Maha villagers, June 23, 2019: The Times of India

These are not leaves. They are fireflies in motion.
Picture courtesy: Aditya Waikul
From: Manjula Nair, Additional reporting by Swatee Kher, Fireflies are lighting up lives of Maha villagers, June 23, 2019: The Times of India

Locals are opening up their homes and kitchens to tourists who throng to see the insects put up a magical light show

Dusk is special in villages around Rajmachi near Pune. While the rest of country is switching on lights and possibly TV sets, here people brace for nature’s own light show. As the darkness sets in, ripples of light, small and rhythmic, emitted from the flashing bellies of fireflies spread slowly through the woods.

This fortnight-long spectacle used to be reserved for the locals but the secret’s out, and hundreds of tourists come here every year to see the synchronous fireflies put on their bioluminescent displays. For them, it is like entering Enid Blyton’s ‘Enchanted Wood’ with twinkling lights flashing magically in unison.

Tukaram Khandu Umbare, 45, who lives in Udhewadi, which is about 20km from Lonavala and the base for treks into Rajmachi, looks forward to the tourists who head here just before the monsoon hits the coast of Maharashtra. “We have seen fireflies all our lives but it has become a tourist phenomenon only in the past 10 years. It’s a good source of income for us,” says Tukaram, who runs a homestay. In 2017, he shifted his cow shed to make a new building, and can now easily accommodate around 100 people.

His wife and two children, his brother and his family are all a part of this venture. “My wife, Sangeeta, and my daughter cook meals for which we charge Rs 120 per person. For an overnight stay, we charge Rs 100 per person,” he says. The 30 houses in the village get around 3,000 visitors per week between end of May and June. “The rest of the year, there’s hardly anything to do. So, the whole village thrives on this season,” says Ganesh Umbare, 29, who collects entry tax from tourists and vehicles for the forest department at Udhewadi and runs a homestay.

The firefly is spreading its light in other villages in Maharashtra as well. In the north, Bhadardara draws tourists like Mumbai filmmaker Swati Ali and her husband, Robin Singhvi, who camped in a tent to watch the males flashing yellow to woo the females. “There were a lot of people who had come for the sightings. There wasn’t one specific spot where the fireflies could be seen, they were everywhere. It was a surreal experience,” she says.

Around 32km south-east lies another popular firefly spotting hangout — Purushwadi village. It was here that Grassroutes, an award-winning rural tourism enterprise, first offered a formalised firefly spotting experience. Shreya Thakkar, a marketing associate with Grassroutes, says firefly tourism was providing an alternative livelihood to villagers who earlier relied only on the vagaries of farming.

Kishan Kondar, 30, who works as a guide, housekeeper and cook as part of the Grassroutes team in Purushwadi, says 70 of the 110 homes in the village are engaged in cooking for the visitors. There are 25 others whose family members help with housekeeping or act as guides. “We can send the children to school and can afford their textbooks. The women don’t have to go to other villages to look for work,” he says.

In Radhanagari, located towards the southern tip of the state, Samrat Kerkar has set up his own adventure outfit Bison Nature Club that offers free firefly treks. The village has seen around 15,000 visitors so far. Kerkar says the locals understand that their income depends on firefly sightings. “So they do their bit to conserve these fireflies. They tell the visitors about the precautionary measures to be taken, such as no loud music, camera flashes,” he says.

Some environmentalists are still worried about how the hordes of outsiders will impact the firefly breeding process. “We are not opposing tourism, but the way it is being implemented,” says Sachin Punekar, botanist and founder president of Biospheres, an NGO.

Tourism may be a double-edged sword but for now, the tiny insects are lighting up the lives of many villagers.

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