Tuesday 10th November 2015

Tiger, Tiger, Gypsy, Gypsy

As I briefly described at the end of my first update of this Great Indian Adventure of 2015, Rosemary Fox and I arrived in the central Indian state of Madya Pradesh by overnight train from Delhi, a journey that went smoothly and without complications.

A driver was waiting for us at Katni station, from where we drove for several hours through rolling and lightly wooded countryside and a few rather shabby villages for much of the day, until we reached the entrance of Bandhavgarh National Park, where we turned off the main road onto a dirt track before finally arriving at Tiger Trails, our home for the coming five nights. The resort was attractively laid out next to a couple of small ponds, one of which played host to a resident Little Cormorant, which remained faithful to its one post throughout our stay.

The following four days saw us building up a routine of early morning and afternoon safaris inside the Park, bumping along the forest tracks in a series of Maruti Suzuki Gypsies, those workhorses of Indian wildlife tourism, in the hope of encountering wildlife. Rosemary and I are not keen on the modern style of tiger tourism, which we had experienced at its worst last year in Corbett National Park, with hordes of vehicles racing along the jungle trails in a desperate frenzy to have their clients get the best views of a tiger, in the hope perhaps of obtaining a larger tip. We instructed our driver and the guides we picked up each time from the park entrance that this kind of tourism was not what we wished to experience, stating also that we were more interested in seeing what other wildlife the park could offer rather than focusing entirely on tigers.

A beautiful morning scene in the jungles of Bandhavgarh

Although it was of course a privilege to enjoy the beauty of these extensive Indian forests, it soon became clear that we had been spoiled by our previous experiences of wildlife watching in the north of the country, mainly in Corbett, Rajaji and Dudhwa National Parks. All three of these seem to host a far wider range of bird species, and even mammals seem more numerous there. The higher diversity and numbers of birds can perhaps be explained by these northern parks’ proximity to the high mountains, offering a greater altitude range and meaning that bird species that come down to escape the winter chill take up their winter quarters here rather than further south. In any case, birds were noticeably few and far between, although I was delighted to encounter a small flock of a species I had sought in southern India last year without success, the impressive Malabar Pied Hornbill.

On our penultimate day, in the afternoon we found ourselves unable to obtain a ticket to enter the main part of the park, so we opted for the buffer zone instead. We also had a different Gypsy driver, a much calmer and more relaxed one, so we were spared the bumping and swerving we had become used to. This improved our experience no end, and we were also treated to a good sighting of six Indian Gazelles, or Chinkara, a species we had not previously encountered. Jackals were also quite numerous, and we spotted one Indian Grey Fox. Our guides were amused when I commented that I had two species of fox on my day list: Indian Grey Fox and Rosemary Fox!

A rather fuzzy picture of an Indian Gazelle, or Chinkara

Despite our high-minded intentions, it was not long before we found ourselves dragged into that seemingly unavoidable desperation to encounter the king of the jungle, although when we did finally connect, on our eighth and final safari, it was not with a king but rather two queens, two tigresses from neighboring territories, who were none too pleased to see each other. The first one came in from our left, scowling and looking uneasy. She stalked onto the road, and then scent-marked a tree, before wandering along the track away from us and towards her rival.

The tigress spraying a tree and a Gypsy behind

The tigress was uneasy at the presence of a rival female

Now she turned back to face her rival

At this point, Rosemary appealed to our driver to stop the vehicle to allow us to observe and photograph this magnificent beast, which by this time was looking none to pleased at the presence of the other tigress, who had appeared to our right. ‘Mam, I cannot stop!’, came our driver’s response, as he slammed the Gypsy into gear and raced towards the tigresses, almost exactly neck and neck with two other Gypsies, the three of us completely blocking occupants of other vehicles behind from seeing. By now sadly my attention had shifted from the interaction between the two tigresses, who seemed unconcerned by the human frenzy that they had unwittingly unleashed, to the human behaviour I was witnessing. It was as if the very worst aspect of human nature had been released, with drivers jostling their vehicles into the melée, and drivers cursing each other. Suddenly a rending crash indicated that two Gypsies behind us had collided, luckily not seriously, but we were appalled by all this desperate competition that was going on around us.

The second tigress then gave us an excellent viewing as she loped through the vegetation to our right, luckily for us away from the track where all the other vehicles were still jockeying for position.

The tigress walked past us despite the frenzy of Gypsies nearby

Rosemary and I both thought how shocked my grandparents would be to see such base behaviour, when surely the aim should be to enjoy the quiet experience of observing the tigers’ natural behaviour, and to marvel at the majesty of these noble cats. So what is the solution? I have no answer. Perhaps the majority of tourists are quite happy with this form of wildlife tourism. Perhaps Rosemary and I are biased, knowing how my grandparents would have encountered tigers, either meeting them on foot, observing them quietly from the back of their well-trained elephant Balmati, or from a machan up a tree. And it is surely better that the tourists are limited to small areas of national parks, leaving the larger core areas to the wildlife, where animals can remain undisturbed by the human hordes.

Following our time at Bandhavgarh, we spent a day driving to another renowned Tiger Reserve, Kanha. Here we also had eight Gypsy safaris, and rather similar to our experience in Bandhavgarh, we were struck by the relative paucity of wildlife sightings. In addition to the usual Spotted, Sambhar and Barking Deer, plus Nilgai and Wild Boar, the mammalian highlights of Kanha were Barasingha, or Swamp Deer. Although we had observed numerous Barasingha at Dudhwa last year, apparently the animals here belong to a different (sub-)species, the Dry Ground Barasingha (although we saw them standing in ponds), a highly endangered animal that occurs only in this area. From a low of about 50 individuals in the 1970s, their numbers have now picked up and are now standing at over 400.

Two Dry Ground Swamp Deer on far from dry ground

The other really impressive animal we encountered in Kanha was the Gaur, or Indian Bison. This enormous bovine was not new to me as I had the dubious pleasure of meeting it while on foot last year in Periyar National Park, and I can vouch for the size and muscular appearance of a full-grown Gaur bull, but from the safety of the Gypsy I was able to marvel at these extraordinary animals at a more leisurely pace. I wondered how they had avoided being exterminated by man, but as a form of cattle they are classed as holy by Hindus and are therefore less likely to be hunted for their meat. We saw perhaps 30 individuals in two herds.

A bull Gaur is an impressive beast

We did not connect with either tigers or leopards during our eight safari drives in Kanha, although signs of both were evident, and we heard the roar of tigers on several occasions. We did have one very fleeting viewing of a Sloth Bear, but it was gone before we really had time to register its presence.

And so our stay near our second central Indian tiger reserve draws towards its close, and tomorrow we are off to Pench, our third. Let us see how we got on there, and whether we will be treated to a tiger or a leopard sighting when we are alone, and not surrounded by jostling Gypsies all vying to obtain the best view.

Hanuman Langoor monkeys may be mischievous but they are also elegant

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Friday 6th November 2015

Tripwire for a Fox

Following our Great Indian Adventure in 2014, the now 85-year-old Rosemary Fox and I are again in India. The main purpose as far as I am concerned is to scout certain areas that I have not yet visited, with a view to running wildlife tours here in the future. As neither Rosemary nor I have ever visited the western state of Gujarat, we decided to concentrate on familiarising ourselves with its apparently conspicuous wildlife, and in my case, to get to know the parks and protected areas of that state from a tourism perspective.

Shortly after having bought our flight tickets to India, we received an unexpected invitation to attend the first ever Kumaon Literary Festival (KLF), which I jumped at as it would provide me with an ideal location and an excellent forum for a formal Indian launch of my 2013 volume, “Tripwire for a Tiger”.

Our adventures began at Manchester airport, where we met up, Rosemary having already flown over from western Canada to celebrate her sister Sheila’s 90th birthday in Shropshire. All went well on the first leg of our Etihad Airways flight to Abu Dhabi, but here we found to our surprise that we were booked onto different onward flights to Delhi.

Our troubles were not over then either, as once we had relocated each other at Delhi airport, the car that was supposed to meet us was not there, and once we had managed to reach our hotel under our own steam, there was no booking either! However, these obstacles did not prove unsolvable, and we were soon checked in, and in my case it was not long before I was immersing myself into Indian birding again in the delightful Lodi Gardens, originally set up by Lady Willingdon, wife of the then Viceroy, in 1936.

A Ground Squirrel in the Lodi Gardens, Delhi

Rosemary trying on a new set of clothes in Delhi

Two days later, at 05.00 AM, we found ourselves heading to the station to catch the Shatabdi express to Kathgodam, following the very same route that my grandparents and my father used to take back in the 1920s and 30s. Several other participants of the festival were also on board, and we spent a pleasant five hours or so trundling across the flat Indian plains, spotting the Himalayan foothills through the haze only just before we reached the railhead at Kathgodam.

Here there was some panic, as a consignment of sixty copies of “Tripwire” had been sent there by taxi, and I was supposed to meet the driver, transfer the books to another vehicle in which I would be travelling, and then head up to the venue of the KLF at Dhanachuli. However, there was no sign of that vehicle, and it was only after a lot of telephoning and detective work that it became clear that the driver who was supposed to pick Rosemary and me up did indeed have the books, but he had gone off with other passengers to another hotel. A book launch with no books was not a prospect I relished, but eventually I connected with them two days later.

The festival was a wonderful opportunity to meet and network with like-minded people, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The first three days were held high in the Himalayan foothills, at Dhanachuli, and a more precipitous location could hardly have been chosen, with more steps than years Rosemary has lived!

A distant view of the high Himalayas from our accommodation

On the third morning, we transferred to the hill station of Nainital, which has long and evocative links with my family, so it felt somewhat like a home-coming. The venue here was the delightful Abbotsford, an old colonial property set among towering trees above the bustling town and lake.

The old colonial property Abbotsford, where the festival took place

Whereas at Dhanachuli, Rosemary and I had been merely observers, here in Nainital we came into our own, and in the afternoon of the 26th October, I was honoured to share the stage for the formal Indian launch of “Tripwire for a Tiger” and a discussion on contemporary conservation issues with the Director of the Corbett National Park with Mr Sameer Sinha IFS, as well as with Rosemary.

As it was a late show, and the venue was outdoors, the chill air of this Himalayan hill-station and the darkness, plus the fact that I was immediately followed by another event, meant that I was not able to sell any books or do a signing, but the following morning, the rush began, and I found myself in the enviable position of signing copy after copy, and the books sold, as one observer jokingly put it to me, like hot curries!

Signing yet another copy of Tripwire at Abbotsford

The afternoon saw Rosemary again on stage, as part of a panel discussion on preserving wildlife, culture and heritage through literature. Interesting though this was, I had to leave shortly after it had started, as I was scheduled to perform a reading in Gurney House, former home of legendary hunter Jim Corbett.

This proved to be a highlight of the festival as far as I was concerned, and the opportunity to read two of my grandfather’s evocative articles to a highly appreciative audience was a pleasure indeed….and more books were sold!

After a final ceremonial close on the lawn of Abbotsford, the festival closed that evening, after a highly enjoyable and stimulating few days. Congratulations to Sumant Batra for having the initiative to stage such an ambitious programme in such a picturesque but logistically challenging area.

The following morning saw Rosemary and myself being picked up from our hotel for a breakfast at the home of the eminent Dr Ranjit Bhargava, former Director of WWF Uttarakhand, and one of the last few Indians who are able to recount personal memories of having met either my grandfather, or in this case my great uncle Prof. H G Champion CIE IFS. We were also honoured by the presence of Anup Sah, one of India’s top wildlife and landscape photographers and an accomplished mountaineer. Sharing the morning with these two gentlemen and their wives was a fitting end to our all-too-brief stay in Nainital, but we were due to be picked up at 12.00 noon, and I needed to squeeze in a visit to the Consul Book Depot in the Bara Market part of town, where I sold the last remaining copies of “Tripwire” before we headed off on the next stage of our Great Indian Adventure, descending the switchback road to our old haunt of Corbett Tiger Camp, near Ramnagar, where in the evening we were reunited with our great friend and “fixer”, Mr Sumantha Ghosh, with whom I hope to be running tours in the coming years. It was a pleasure to see him again, and to share some “garam pani” (literally hot water, but in our case, vodka!) around the campfire together.

Our wonderful breakfast group in Nainital

The following morning Rosemary was not feeling at her best, but I was off before dawn on a safari into the Corbett National Park, which somehow always feels like a sort of home-coming to me as my grandfather was at least partially responsible for the protection of this wonderful area, serving as he did with Jim Corbett and others on the Steering Committee for its founding in 1936.

Great Hornbills were particularly conspicuous that morning, affording close views as they fed on ripe figs and occasionally flapped majestically from tree to tree, their enormous wings making a rasping, swishing sound as the wind passed through their feathers. Tigers were not on show, but there was plenty of evidence of their presence in the form of pugmarks, fresh scat and scratch marks on trees.

A Great Hornbill in Corbett National Park

The following day was, according to our itinerary, supposed to be a “rest day” – well, it certainly proved to be far from that! Our first destination was the Janet Sheed Roberts School, where we were moved by our meetings with many of the disabled pupils in this inspirational institution.

The Janet Sheed Roberts School is an inspirational place

I was asked to do a short slideshow to the children, which I turned into an educational activity using my grandfather’s iconic animal photographs from the 1920s and 30s as a means of testing the students’ identification skills and adding to their knowledge of wildlife. It went down extremely well, and many of the pupils were positively desperate to identify the animals, waving their hands in the air and squirming with enthusiasm! The child who was able to answer the most questions was a girl who had lost both of her hands while working with her family in the fields nearby. Apparently improvised explosive devices are frequently placed among the crops to blow off the jaws of wild boar; this girl had taken the full blast, and to see her raising her stump in place of her hand was a poignant sight indeed. Our congratulations go to the teachers and sponsors of this extraordinary place.

Just before the presentation in a remarkable school

Running late, we rushing into Ramnagar, where we were granted an audience by the lady Divisional Forest Officer in her brand new, self-designed and constructed, office, which she has built in the old British style, with wooden ceiling and stone back wall. She is, among many other worthwhile projects, running a survey of the butterflies of the Ramnagar Forest Division, so we were able to share observations on that. I wish her all success in what is very much still a man’s world.

That afternoon, despite my rather shaky stomach condition, I gave a presentation on my grandfather’s life and work to the Ramnagar Hotels Association. Unfortunately the laptop gave up the ghost halfway through, but I was able to finish by reading out my grandfather’s article from 1941 on the founding of the Hailey (later Corbett) National Park in 1936. This the participants clearly found most interesting, and it was fascinating to hear the recommendations my grandfather made on how to handle the potentially large numbers of tourists back in the 1940s, in the company of some of those who accommodate those tourists today. I was asked to become a sort of titular ambassador of the Association, but I do not see myself in this role, as my real loyalty is to those who strive to protect the animals and their habitats, and I could find myself with a conflict of interest by siding too actively with the Hotels Association.

Receiving a gift of a beautiful photo of an Ibisbill after the Hotel Association do

And so ended a highly successful couple of weeks in Kumaon. From here, we endured a marathon drive to Delhi, followed by an overnight train journey to Katni, and then a drive to Bandhavgarh National Park, in central India, where we now are.

Will Champion and Fox try the red hot chilli peppers?

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Thursday 18th June 2015

THE AMAZING STORY OF THE RESCUED BUTTERFLY CABINET

In recent years, one of the achievements I have accomplished is the rescue of a beautiful butterfly cabinet that was destined for the rubbish skip.

The story begins long ago, when my father was given three wooden boxes of Indian butterflies and one of hawk-moths by Brigadeer-General Arthur Durham Kirby, CB CMG, late of the Royal Artillery. General Kirby had had an illustrious military career in the Boer and First World Wars, being awarded the Croix de Guerre in both France and Belgium, as well as the Order of Leopold in the latter country for his service towards their liberation.

In his spare time, Gen. Kirby was a passionate butterfly enthusiast, not only collecting himself in India, but he also had a team of collectors around the world, all of whom sent him back material from wherever they were based, allowing a collection to be built up that incorporated butterflies and moths from North, Central and South America, Australia and New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies, Formosa (now Taiwan), Japan, other parts of India, Europe and a few from Africa and Madagascar. The specimens were virtually all caught between 1899 and 1912, although a few date back as far as 1877.

General Kirby’s entry in the delightfully elitist ‘Kelly’s Handbook to the Titled, Landed & Official Classes, 1930′

As with so many ex-colonial butterfly collectors, late in life with failing eyesight and shaky hands, he could no longer work on his collection, and the inevitable question arose of what was to become of it. Having settled with his wife Muriel and numerous dogs close to Newton Stewart, in Galloway, and knowing that my father, then aged 13 and separated from his parents, who were also in India, was interested in butterflies, Gen. Kirby bequeathed those four boxes to him, and donated the main part of the collection, namely the 50-drawer mahogany cabinet, to the local high school.

As a young child, I was fascinated by those four wooden boxes, with their mothball smell (insect specimens are usually protected from museum beetles and other pests by charging the boxes with naphthalene or camphor), and I used to dream of the exotic locations in southern India where the butterflies had been caught. Later I came to inherit my grandfather’s Indian and African butterfly collections, plus those of a great friend of my grandparents, Meynell Hackney, who had worked for ICI in India. Poignantly, the collections of no fewer than four of his friends, all of whom were killed while fighting the Japanese in Burma, came with his butterflies, so I became the custodian of thousands of specimens, mostly caught between 1920 and 1955. Perhaps one of the activities I enjoy most of all when at home is setting and identifying these insects, and the knowledge I have gained from handling and examining these ancient specimens means that I am now able to identify many of these species when I finally see them alive, whilst on my travels in the tropics.

Towards the end of 2009, I became curious about what might have become of that long-lost cabinet, so I contacted the school, and asked whether they had in their possession an ancient butterfly collection. And indeed they did, but they were just about to dispose of it. It is no longer considered acceptable by many people that butterflies should be killed and impaled on pins, and children do not like to see such things, I was told. In addition, the cabinet was housed in a building that was about to be gutted and re-built, and it would have taken up useful space in the new classroom. Consequently, a debate had been taking place over what to do with the collection, and in the absence of anyone volunteering to take it on, it was destined for the skip….until I appeared.

The cabinet in the soon-to-be-renovated classroom

On Christmas Eve 2009, I was welcomed into the school by a geography teacher, Donald Cameron, who showed me the cabinet, which although many of the butterflies’ wings had broken off and numerous pins had oxidised, splitting the bodies of the butterflies open, considering the fact that it had had to deal with the prying fingers of generations of curious school pupils, it was not in too appalling a condition. The drawers had glass lids, which had no doubt protected the specimens from what would otherwise have been much more severe damage, and some had comments written with fingers in the dust on the glass.

One of the drawers, showing the state of the specimens after 70 years in the school

When I explained that I was the guardian of the four boxes that Gen. Kirby had presented to my father in 1941, Mr Cameron suddenly said that he thought the best solution to the question of what was to become of the collection would be for it to be reunited. Needless to say, I was delighted, but he informed me that such a solution would have to be approved by the Head, who would not be likely to be back in the school until well after the New Year, by which time I would need to be back at work in the Netherlands, and that the cabinet was due to be disposed of early in the new year.

As we wandered out, picking our way carefully across the icy playground, he suddenly spotted the Head’s car, indicating that he must have come in for something. We dashed to his office, just in time to catch him before he left for the holiday period. Donald explained the whole story, and to my great relief, the Head gruffly said: “The collection should be reunited. He can have it.”

And so I became the guardian and curator of yet another collection of musty old insects, but the question remained, how was I going to transport this large and cumbersome piece of furniture home, not to mention the drawers with their extremely fragile, brittle contents?

Clearly nothing could be done on that freezing Christmas Eve, but over the next few days, my mother came up with the brilliant idea of asking the local undertaker, who also happened to be a carpet supplier and fitter, whether he might be able to help. After all, as my mother said, he was used to transporting wooden boxes containing dead things!! Well, it turned out that he was indeed willing and able to help, and when I was next home in my February half-term break, a team of us removed all the drawers, and gently lifted the creaking cabinet, which was very unstable without its drawers, into the carpet van (I would have preferred the herse, but the cabinet was not quite the right shape), and strapped it upright to prevent accidents when going around corners.

The drawers were transported by car, five at a time, cushioned with duvets and pillows to limit damage on the potholed Scottish roads, and eventually the entire structure was re-assembled in our home, and the drawers replaced one by one.

Over the years the cabinet had sat in the school, and possibly even before that, it had structurally deteriorated, and particularly the central division between the two columns of 25 drawers had sunk down, meaning that the drawers were sitting at an angle, allowing light in (causing the butterflies to fade) and making it difficult to push and pull the drawers in and out. The outer shell was very unstable as well, and several of the wooden knobs on the drawers were missing. Clearly some renovation work was needed.

The cabinet in its new home

It is sad to recount that the two absolute heroes of wood-working who sprang to my assistance in the resurrection of the cabinet are no longer with us. The first, Jim Lupton, was an astonishingly gifted maker of models and artifacts, mostly using driftwood cast up on the shore near his home. He used his turner to run off a series of replacement knobs for the drawers, the final result of which could hardly be distinguished from the originals.

The other was a former aircraft engineer with De Havilland, and an all-round handyman genius, the late and much lamented (an improbably named) Basil Lockwood-Goose. Basil came over one day, well equipped with nails, extra wood, glue, clamps and other essential items, and set to a major overhaul of the cabinet.

First on the programme, after removing all the drawers, was turning the entire cabinet on its head. Basil then installed a new piece of wood under the collapsed central panel, and then proceeded to climb on top of the cabinet, and then whacked the bottom hard with a mallet, pushing the central sheet back into its place at the top. The new piece would later prevent it from sinking down again. My heart missed a few beats watching Basil laying into the fragile structure with such gusto, but he certainly knew what he was doing, and his objective was achieved.

The cabinet undergoing structural repairs

Further works involved re-gluing many of the fractured joins, and two large clamps were then installed to hold the structure steady while the glue set, and a couple of weeks later, Basil returned, removed the clamps, and the cabinet was righted and the drawers replaced. Since then, it has not budged, and it now stands as a reminder of these two splendid craftsmen, who were so enthusiastic about my renovation project.

The cabinet without its drawers

I have been busy renovating each drawer, with my father’s help, as the original cork sheeting has become brittle, and in some cases has lifted away from the floor of the drawer, severely damaging the specimens in the process, pushing them up against the glass lids. Rather than use cork, which then also needs to be papered, I am using a modern substitute, a white foam sheeting that is in use in most museum insect collections today, although I am also re-sticking the original cork beneath this in order to provide extra stability for the pins. The final result is most pleasing to the eye, and is less labour-intensive than corking and papering each drawer.

Since then, whenever I am at home, I am busy re-pinning, re-setting, re-arranging, identifying and labelling the specimens, and I have now completed around ten of the fifty drawers. It is a long process, partly as I am mostly abroad, and partly because I can only really manage to re-set a maximum of ten butterflies per day. The process involves selecting those specimens in the drawers that require re-setting (in practice this is all of them, as almost all the pins have oxidised, and most of the butterflies have folded up from the horizontal position that the wings should ideally be in), and then placing them in a so-called “relaxing tin”. My version of this is a transparent-topped plastic Ferrero Rocher chocolate box. Sheets of moistened toilet paper are laid on the bottom of this, the butterflies, still on their original pins, are then placed on the paper, the lid is put on, and then left for 36 to 48 hours.

Butterflies caught between 1902 and 1912 on the setting boards

This process allows the brittle bodies, wings, antennae, etc, to become pliable again. The next stage is perhaps the most difficult: removing the original pin and replacing it with a new one, without damaging the specimen. It is essential that the pin should go through the thorax of the butterfly at the correct angle, as near to perpendicular to the body as possible. In many cases the bodies of the butterflies, more than 100 years old as they are, have been partially consumed by pests, and in that case they require a more specialised treatment.

The pin, with the butterfly specimen about two thirds of the way up it, is then pushed into the central groove of a setting board. This is a wooden contraption, with a cork-lined groove running down the middle, and cork-covered flat elevated wooden boards on either side. The pin must be pushed into the groove at exactly the correct angle too, not leaning either to the left or to the right, not leaning forward or backward, and the base of the wings must end up level with the cork-covered wooden boards. It is a complicated, fiddly procedure that requires years of practice.

The wings of the butterfly are then flattened out with strips of thin paper, and pinned down around the wings. Using a setting needle placed carefully behind the veins on each wing, the wings are carefully manoeuvered into the desired position, usually with the rear margin of the forewing at 90 degrees to the body. Pins are then inserted through the paper around the wings (but not through them), and another strip is pinned around the outer half of the wings to prevent the wingtips from curling up. Finally the antennae are pinned into a position parallel with the front of the forewing.

A Giant Purple Emperor, Sasakia charonda, with one strip of paper still to be positioned

Once this has been accomplished (each butterfly takes 15 minutes or so), the boards are then left for up to a month to dry, in as pest-free a place as possible, as wasps and ants will eat the bodies, and there is nothing worse than finding that one’s prized specimens have been reduced to mere wings, the bodies eaten away by pests. I have a so-called setting house, a wooden box that can hold about 15 boards (depending on the size), and this prevents such attacks.

The excitement of removing the paper strips from the wings is one of the most satisfying experiences I know, and what had looked like very tired and disfigured specimens come out looking as if they had only recently been caught, rather than being more than 110 years old.

Newly set butterflies with the paper strips removed

The next stage is to arrange them in the newly “corked” drawers. The original layout was almost at random, with South American, Australian and African specimens all jumbled up. My new layout has North American, South and Central American, European, Australian and New Guinea, and African butterflies (and moths) appearing in their own drawers, arranged within those geographical categories by family. Asia has been split up into Indian and Burmese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Peninsular Malay, and finally a number of separate Dutch East Indies (Indonesian) islands, each of which has a very distinct fauna.

A restored drawer of Japanese butterflies, all dating from around 1912

Perhaps the one great disappointment is that the tiny labels that were originally pinned under each specimen have in many cases disappeared. These labels are absolutely vital in any insect collection, as they record the locality, date, and in some cases altitude of where the specimen was caught. Gen. Kirby wrote this information on extremely thin and flimsy paper, and over the decades, the paper has deteriorated and the labels have fallen off the pins, probably when the specimens were re-arranged at some later date. In addition, he often wrote the location where his supplier lived and sent the specimens from, rather than where the insect was actually caught. So, for example, most of the Japanese specimens (these have somehow retained their labels) are recorded as “Yokohama, June 1912″, or “Kobe, July 1912″. Yokohama and Kobe were ports where many foreigners resided, and the specimens were shipped from there. Some of the species occur only in high mountain areas, so they clearly could not have actually originated from either of those two cities, both of which are at sea level.

A drawer of North American butterflies before restoration

Some North American butterflies having been re-set, before being returned to their drawer

This apart, I am making solid progress, and as of early 2015, I have completed ten of the fifty drawers (five of which contain no specimens, and two of which are missing their glass lids). The main obstacle is the fact that I work abroad, and can only work on the cabinet when I am at home. I am currently working on a drawer of European butterflies, sent from Colombes, France, in 1912, and on two drawers of butterflies from Formosa (Taiwan), containing some particularly beautiful specimens, caught in 1902. It always gives me a thrill to think about what the far off lands where these butterflies were caught must have been like in those days, and how much has occurred since then. While restoring these fragile insects, I really do have little pieces of history in my fingers.

The peaceful grave of Brig Gen and Mrs Kirby in the woods they loved

The Kirby grave inscription

NB I wrote this post in January 2015, when all was peaceful in the Champion family. However, sadly my younger sister then launched an all-out attack on various family members, resulting in me being banned from the family home, so all work on the cabinet restoration is on hold until I am able to regain access.