The morning was warming up in late spring last year when entomologist Karen Conniff took a boat across Phewa Lake in Pokhara for one of her regular walks to look for rare dragonflies. She was in search of a rare damselfly species called Philoganga montana which had been spotted in the same location before. After reaching the far shore of the lake, Conniff tied her boat and climbed through the humid forest, paying special attention to springs in the undergrowth. But no sign of the elusive insect.
Just then, crossing a small stream she spotted a black-green dragonfly sitting on a leaf spotlit by a ray of sunlight filtering through the forest canopy. She managed to take a few photographs before the dragonfly flew off, and she headed back down to the boat.
Back in her room in Pokhara later that day, she downloaded the images in her computer and noticed that the dragonfly had peculiar-looking anal appendages, quite different from the ones previously found in 11 other known Microgomphus dragonflies found throughout Asia. Immediately, she knew it was a species not recorded in Nepal before.
Read also: Pokhara's shrinking lakes, Yuvaraj Shrestha
The process of publishing any new finding of a new species is a labourious one. It has to go through peer reviews and strict scientific scrutiny. Finally last week, Conniff’s paper was published in the German journal, Odonatologica. It is now official: Microgomphus phewataali is a new species of dragonfly endemic to Nepal.
Although she should be elated, Conniff is worried that the new dragonfly species and others may not survive at the current rate of destruction and pollution of Nepal’s springs and rivers.
“The habitat of the dragonfly faces extreme stress from water overdraft for Pokhara’s rapidly growing tourism centre,” Conniff told Nepali Times. “The habitat could vanish in few years if people do not stop drawing water from there.”
Dragonflies have survived for 325 million years on Earth, and the early ones used to have wingspans of up to 2 metres. But never have these creatures faced a threat to their survival as serious as they do today from human-induced habitat destruction pesticide use and climate change. These agile and brightly coloured living fossils are now hovering on the brink of extinction.
Scientists call dragonflies ‘bio-indicator species’, meaning their very presence is proof of a healthy ecosystem. But when dragonflies start disappearing, it also shows that streams and ponds are going dry or polluted with toxins.
“Dragonflies are very sensitive, most of them require an absolute pristine habitat and as soon as humans mess that up, they are gone,” explains Conniff, who has been living in Nepal for more than a decade.
Conniff co-authored the paper on the new dragonfly with noted Nepali butterfly expert Mahendra Singh Limbu, and the two often go exploring for butterflies and dragonflies on Pulchoki Hill, or in other parts of Nepal. They decided to name the new species Microgomphus phewataali after Pokhara’s Phewa Lake.
Says Limbu, “With the disappearance of every dragonfly, you know that nature is being disturbed. We humans cannot afford to disturb the ecosystem balance.”
Besides toxins, the other looming threat to insects is climate change. Europe has lost nearly 90% of its insects in the last 30 years, and in America, the population of migrating monarch butterflies has dropped by 90% in 20 years. Climate models estimate a loss of 45-99% of the suitable habitat for various species of dragonflies and damselflies by 2080 in north-eastern US. When Britain found that one-third of its dragonfly species were endangered, it opened the first ever dragonfly centre to protect what was left.
Of more than 5,000 species of dragonflies found worldwide, 140 species are found in Nepal of which a few are found nowhere else. Pulchoki on Kathmandu Valley’s southeastern rim is a hotspot for dragonflies and there has been a steady decline in butterfly and dragonfly populations there. The reason is mainly due to the pumping out of water by tankers to meet the city’s needs, the damming of the Nagmati in Shivapuri and pollution at picnic spots and riverside garbage dumps.
Rare species like the Epiophelebia, an intermediate between the dragonflies and the damselflies that used to be found only in Shivapuri National Park have probably disappeared after its stream habitat was tapped for water supply downstream.
Dragonflies begin their lifecycle as eggs and spend much of their life underwater as larvae, some for as many as seven years. Once they mature into winged adults, time is limited. Most live only up to few weeks, and since water is their primary location for eating and mating, they do not survive if ponds and springs dry up or are polluted. Dragonflies are even known to control malaria and dengue, since they feed on mosquitoes.
“In addition to cleaning up mosquitoes, dragonfly also preys on other insects that infect paddy fields, effectively increasing agricultural productivity,” explains Conniff.
Dragonflies also undertake astounding migrations: some species found in Nepal have travelled across the Himalaya from Japan and Taiwan. Others fly on, riding prevailing winds across the Indian Ocean from India to Africa. But climate change has thrown off their migratory patterns and disturbed their natural lifecycles.
Nepal has been internationally recognised for its conservation efforts. It is all set to be the first country to double its tiger population by 2022, and rhino poaching has been stopped. But while the focus is on charismatic mammals, Nepal is losing the battle to protect its valuable trove of insect species. Dragonflies are in direct peril because of the destruction of aquatic habitats.
Says Conniff: “It is important to educate people about wetland conservation and watershed management. Getting more people interested in nature and finding innovative ways to manage water is an effective approach.”
What's the buzz, Sonia Awale
"Wetlands are not wastelands", Bhrikuti Rai
Kathmandu's silent spring, Sonia Awale
Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.