The fading light of Nepal’s fireflies

Many of us have fond childhood memories of the जुनकिरी firefly, chasing these fascinating flashing bugs through fields and forests. Across the world and in Nepal, poets and singers have waxed eloquent about the blinking light of these nocturnal insects.

But for a creature so adored, there has not been much of an effort to study the science and chemistry behind their luminescence, their distribution, or why they have declined sharply in number.

Indeed, the bugs that were once ubiquitous in gardens, jungles, riverbanks, streets and playgrounds in Nepal have all but disappeared. Where did they all go?

Fireflies belong to a family of beetles called Lampyridae and existed alongside dinosaurs 100 million years ago. But habitat destruction, rampant pesticide use, light pollution and climate change now threaten to put the lights out on all 2,200 species of fireflies so far identified.

Fireflies are also ecologically important species as their decline indicate the degrading quality of wetlands. And yet, there is no detailed study about the status of the species in Nepal, their scope and habitat.

"Thousands of firefly species are found globally but the number of species and their diversity are unknown in Nepal. This is sad and researchers have not given any priority to these insects," says Hum Gurung, Regional Project Manager with Birdlife International Asia who is promoting firefly tourism in Malaysia.

In the recent years, these charismatic beetles have turned into a major attraction for nature and wildlife tourists. In fact, their bioluminescent courtship displays draw over one million tourists annually to sites located in at least 12 countries, mostly in the Southeast Asia and North America.

A new study published on the journal Conservation Science and Practice provides the first comprehensive review of the geographic scope, magnitude, focal species, and other attributes of the major firefly tourism sites worldwide.

Tourism threatens many stages in the firefly life cycle.

Gurung, who is a co-author of the study, says that the rapid proliferation of firefly tourism provides a timely opportunity to examine how such activities may impact local firefly populations, and to highlight the biological factors that make certain species especially vulnerable to tourism-associated threats.

Here in Nepal, fireflies can promote a unique, insect-based night tourism that also promote the sky at night. These can bring economic, social, and psychological benefits to local communities and tourists alike.

Fireflies can also be a ‘gateway bug’ to get tourists and locals alike interested in conserving many other insects, often ignored in favor of large and small charismatic mammals.

But first, proper conservation mechanism must be put in place so that spreading firefly tourism does not end up destroying the very insect it is trying to promote and save.

“In Mexico, the rapid growth of firefly tourism over the past decade is thrilling but also alarming,” says co-author Tania López-Palafox. “We’re glad people can experience one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. But we also want to make sure the fireflies are still around for future generations to enjoy.”

Lead author Sara M Lewis (co-chair of the IUCN SSC Firefly Specialist Group formed in 2018) of the Tufts University has spent three decades studying fireflies and highlights the need to recognise ecological requirements across all firefly life stages.

The report further recommends minimising light pollution (bright lights from buildings, vehicles, flashlights, and even cell phones can disrupt firefly courtship rituals) to promote breeding success of firefly adults and protecting nearby habitat as the bugs spend most of their life cycle in a larval stage and require several months or even years to develop into adult form.

In some sites, firefly populations have been threatened by tourists inadvertently trampling females and degrading larval habitats during their visits. A well-managed tour with trained guides is a prerequisite for sustainable firefly tourism. So is local communities educated about and motivated to protect firefly populations.

Says co-author Wan F A Jusoh: “Local communities are the guardians of fireflies, and their stories and local knowledge carry the power to help protect them.”

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