(Written by Astha Pandey)
About 65 million years ago, an asteroid hit killed the entire dinosaur population but, astonishingly, the dragonflies survived. It would be a grave mistake to label these insects as weak or unimportant. They are an indicator species and keep in check the insect and pest population. Considering their importance, they’re an underrated species to say the least, and Dr Pankaj Koparde would certainly agree. An evolutionary ecologist, who has been researching dragonflies, Koparde recently held a workshop in Pune.
Despite there being 6,000 species of dragonflies globally, their transparent wings and large eyes have escaped the attention of poets and painters who are more fascinated by birds, bees and butterflies. “India alone has 500 identified species and around 140 are recorded in Maharashtra alone,” says Koparde.
He is full of stories, sharing the thrill of discovering four dragonfly species in a recent expedition with the organisation, Dragonfly Southasia, in the Andamans during rain and bad weather. Another time, he was bitten by a dragonfly. “They consume mosquitoes and other small insects and cannot harm humans in any manner. They are not poisonous and are so tiny that, even if they bite you, which doesn’t happen all that often, it’s not harmful,” he says. To press the case of the dragonflies, he stresses that they exist in all continents and need only freshwater to survive and reproduce.
Koparde traces his roots to Konkan, an area rich in biodiversity, in Maharashtra. “That’s where I started watching birds and getting interested in the fauna around me,” he says. Koparde was an avid birdwatcher until a book, The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Peninsular India, an easy-to-use field guide by Dr KA Subramanium, sent him on a different kind of chase. “I became interested in dragonflies and, since 2009, have been studying them and damselflies. We have conducted many studies on their behaviour, bio-geography, how their habitats are shaped and the overall ecology of these species,” he says. Most of his work is in the western ghats, the northwestern ghats and some in central India.
History encourages one to think that dragonflies, which have been on earth for 300 million years, will continue to stay for generations to come. “In general, insects have a very high tolerance for environmental toxicity or any environmental change. They reproduce at a rapid pace. Whenever a catastrophic event happens, their numbers are so large that at least some of them are able to survive and their population gets established,” he says.
He adds a warning. What an asteroid could not do, humans are doing. “There are definitely many endangered species that require urgent attention,” he says. The problem is not only our conscious waste of resources but also the lack of knowledge regarding dragonflies. “The problem is that we don’t know much about our endemic species. We don’t assess their threats,” he says.
The issue that he refers to stands true for many other endangered plants and animals. During this age and time, it is not only essential that we check our actions but also that we educate ourselves. Without dragonflies, we risk a poor harvest. “Pest insects affect our crop land, our agricultural land and they can have a very devastating effect on the whole agricultural system, but dragonflies keep their numbers in check,” he says.