A life dedicated to Nepal’s butterflies

All photos: Anil Rai

Colin Smith lies in his hospital bed dressed in a blue button-up, and the trademark Dhaka topi perched on his head. The short sleeve of his shirt reveal slender arms, as he holds on to a cushion, eyes closed.

His caretaker Min Bahadur Pariyar calls his name softly to signal visitors. Smith opens his eyes and gives a wan smile. Then he closes his eyes and dozes off.

The 85-year-old researcher known fondly in Pokhara as Putali Baje obtained honorary Nepali citizenship after decades of work on Nepal’s butterflies. He has been in the palliative care wing of Green Pastures Hospital here since May, following a bout with Covid-19.

Smith was born in 1936 at Highgate in London and learned about butterflies as a young boy through his uncle, who was a butterfly and moth collector. In 1966, he came to Nepal as an educator working for United Mission to Nepal (UMN) and taught at schools in Pokhara, Gorkha and Kathmandu.

Smith taught math and science at the Gandaki Boarding School in Pokhara, walking north from his room in Nadipur every day to reach school.

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"There were hardly any roads at the time —let alone vehicles,” Smith recalled during a recent visit. “Only one foreigner had a bicycle."

Smith then taught at the Luitel School in Gorkha, where among his students was former Prime Minister and Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, and the late neurosurgeon Upendra Devkota.

“Even during classes, Colin used to talk about and show us photographs of butterflies,” recalls Bhattarai, "Nepal should be proud to have someone with such passion towards butterflies, the knowledge of which has helped preserve the species.”

It was when Smith taught at the Prithivi Narayan Campus that he met Dorothy Merow, who had started a small natural history museum there. She persuaded him to collect butterflies for the museum, and by 1974 Smith had begun to direct his attention to the study of butterflies in Nepal fulltime, collecting specimens as he travelled across Nepal.

Smith went on to work at Kathmandu University, focusing primarily on moths. Later, he worked at the International Mountain Museum in Pokhara by which time he had stopped collecting specimens, and would only take photos of butterflies.

"I didn’t like to kill butterflies anymore, but we needed photographic specimens,” he explained.

Between 1983 to 2015, Smith travelled across 40 districts of Nepal, studying and collecting butterflies and moths for various museums in Nepal and the UK.

As he collected butterflies, Smith also began writing articles for academic journals, which led to his first attempt at making a comprehensive checklist of butterflies in Nepal. His booklet Beautiful Butterflies was a bestseller in Kathmandu and is now out of print. He would go on to write four more books about butterflies and moths as well as journal articles.

Smith made postcards out of the butterfly photographs he took to raise money for conservation. When the postcards didn’t sell anymore, he began handing them out to children during his butterfly walks. As he aged into his work, it earned him the endearing moniker Putali Baje, butterfly grandpa, in Nepal.

But as his knowledge about butterflies in Nepal grew, so did his attachment and love for the country and the people he had met here. One of those is Min Bahadur Pariyar who met Smith as a young boy in Pokhara. Pariyar became interested in collecting butterflies and in the process, the two formed a deep bond.

Pariyar has been by Smith’s side for 36 years, accompanying Smith on all his forays into the wild. And it is Pariyar’s family which has been taking care of Smith for more than 25 years.

At present, Smith receives £175 from his UK pension along with Rs4,000 per month as elderly allowance as a Nepali citizen – barely enough to cover his medical expenses.

“Colin has been struggling with health issues brought on by his age, as well as financial issues,” says Pariyar. “He needs to buy medicines and needs frequent visits to hospital.”

In 1995, Smith bought a small plot of land in Pokhara’s Lamagaun for Rs40,000, where he built a one-room cottage everyone calls Musako Dulo (mouse hole) because it is so tiny and frugal. The property is registered in Min Bahadur Pariyar’s name because Smith did not have Nepali citizenship at the time.

"I was maybe the richest man in Pokhara in my prime,” Smith likes to joke, before adding, "But now I’m probably the poorest, and cannot even afford the basic necessities.”

It was in 2019, after a long, drawn-out process and much lobbying by friends, that Nepal finally granted him honorary citizenship following a Cabinet decision.

Smith's body of work is on display at the Natural History Museum in Swayambhu, The Annapurna Butterfly Museum at Prithvi Narayan Campus in Pokhara, the Nature Science Museum at Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu University in Dhulikhel and across museums in the UK. They, along with his various publications over the years, are his legacy, a testament to his indefatigable spirit and passion for his work.

Of the approximately 17,500 species of butterflies in the world, 660 are found in Nepal, and 20 of them are on the endangered list. In 1968, Smith collected the Autumn Leaf (Doleschallia bisaltide) and the Blackvein Sergeant (Athyma ranga) butterflies, two species recorded for the first time in Nepal. Smith is passionate of the need for ecosystem conservation for all species, including insects like butterflies, dragonflies and moths.

In 2020, Smith contracted Covid-19, and he would continue to be treated for various complications for free at the Green Pastures Hospital until he needed to be admitted for palliative care.

Smith has a brother in New Zealand, one of few relatives that remain. They last met when Smith returned to England in 2007 to visit. The brothers have lost touch, and although he wants to visit his brother's two grandsons, he knows that is not a possibility at his age.

His wish of obtaining Nepali citizenship fulfilled, Putali Baje says he now wants to live out his days in peace and have his ashes scattered on the Seti River that flows down from the Annapurna mountains.

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