Pokhara comes alive at night

Fireflies in bushes along Phewa Lake at a resort that is promoting firefly tourism. Photos: KRISHNA MANI BARAL

Visitors from all over the world are attracted to Pokhara for its stunning mountain views and its relaxed lakeside life. But very few know about Pokhara’s vibrant nightlife: its fireflies.

However, this July 4 on International Firefly Day just like last year, there will not be many to venture out beyond the city lights to admire the lakeside come alive with these glowing insects.

“Pokhara could benefit from promoting firefly tourism just like in Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia have,” says conservationist Hum Gurung, who is now promoting firefly tourism in Malaysia as Regional Project Manager with Birdlife International Asia.

A native of Sikles, Gurung grew up watching fireflies on the shores of Pokhara’s lakes as well as along streams in the mountains, and says some of the wetland habitats that fireflies prefer to congregate in should be protected.

Fireflies compete with light pollution from the tourist city's lake front.

In Japan, visitors actually have to buy tickets to enter firefly sanctuaries during the summer Hotaru festival. Gurung sees no reason why Pokhara cannot do the same.

“Why should mountains be our only attraction?” he asks.

Indeed, the Back To Nature Resort on the western edge of Phewa Lake is already doing just that. One humid monsoon night this week, the blinking lights of hundreds of fireflies made the forest glow, while the lucky few who had heard of the place gasped with awe.

“We have tried not to publicise this too much, we want to practice sustainable eco-tourism,” says the resort’s Dambar Pun. “In fact, we now have domestic tourists who come here from all over Nepal, and even extend their stay. They cannot get enough of the fireflies.”

The firefly’s blinking glow is a mechanism for mating and scaring off predators, and only happens a few weeks in a year in June-July. It therefore can be a part of a package of attractions for Pokhara visitors during the monsoon, Pun says.

Fireflies are actually beetles from the family Lampyridae and have been in existence since the age of the dinosaurs. They evolved a unique chemical reaction called bioluminescence using calcium, magnesium and a catalyst called luciferin to emit the glow, but without giving off heat.

Says butterfly expert Bhaiya Khanal, previously with the Natural History Museum: “Firefly tourism opens up a lot of opportunities including the possibility of finding more species. This, in turn, will promote their conservation.”

The main threats to fireflies in Nepal and elsewhere in the world are degradation of its wetland habitat, pesticide use, as well as light pollution that interferes with their mating signals. The climate crisis now also threatens all 2,200 firefly species so far identified. Fireflies have not been studied in detail in Nepal, and we do not even know how many species are found in the country.

In Pokhara itself, the spread of tourism along the lakefront has added light pollution to the dangers of pesticide use and urban expansion into the forested slopes. Fireflies take a year in their metamorphosis life cycle between egg, larva and adult, for this they need clean water and dark space.

However, ‘citizen scientists’ in 10 districts have been studying the insects and trying to spread awareness in communities about excess light pollution, pesticide use and habitat destruction.

Says Hum Gurung: “While developing firefly tourism, we must also be careful that tourism itself is not one of the reasons the lights go out on these magical insects.”