June 13th, 2011 Sections: Animals

Not long ago, I wrote a postcard about the insects that can be found in Kyrgyzstan.  I mentioned how some people have an anxiety when they encounter insects, but that is not always the case.  Most people find one type of insect, in particular, attractive and appealing: Butterflies.

Kyrgyzstan, with its sandy and stony deserts, the powerful ridges of the Tien-Shan and Alai-Pamir, the spacious steppes of the mountain valleys cut by canyons of the rough rivers and extensive glaciers above high-mountain lakes, provides a diversity of environments and ecosystems creating a rich variety of habits for numerous specimens of fauna – including insects, the brightest specimens of which are butterflies – the “living flowers of nature”.

Just as Kyrgyzstan is, for many people, a far away country, hidden in an unknown region, butterflies represent a hidden aspect of Kyrgyzstan’s nature, rarely encountered as the season when they fly is short, (“too short” according to some); some species fly only a few days every other year – and the exact dates vary each time so are unpredictable; some occupy only one square kilometre on a certain rocky slope, possibly above the snowline.

More than 300 species of butterflies inhabit the different ecosystems of the Central Asia.  There are 18 species of apollos living in this region and 14 of the alfalfa butterfly (Colias), which is the greatest diversity of this species in any region in the world.  New species are still being discovered.  For example, in 2006 the entomological world was shaken by a sensation when a new specimen of apollo, the Parnassius davydovi, was discovered by the Russian entomologist S.V.Churkin in the Moldo-Too range of the Central Tien Shan.  This was the first such discovery for the last hundred years.

Indeed there are a number of rare butterflies to be found in the region.  In particular, the Red Data Book, lists

  • Common Swallowtail: A large yellow butterfly – an example of one of the 550 species in the family of swallowtail butterflies.  Although the majority of Swalowtails are tropical, examples are found on all the continents except Antartica and the family includes the largest butterflies in the world.  The wingspan of the Common Swallowtail can measure between 60 and 95mm.  Swallowtails get their name because of the long “tail” at the extremities of their wings, but the main feature which marks them out is a unique organ behind the head on the catepillars – which in times of danger can exude smelly secretions as a form of defence.  This particular species, Papilio Machaon Linnaeus, is widely distributed throughout the former Soviet Union, but it prefers open habitats in forest, steppe and mountain landscapes.  It has been observed on the slopes of the Kyrgyz, Chatkal, Suusamyr, Talas and both the Terskey and Kungei Ala Too mountain ranges.
  • Colias christophi Grum-Grshimailo, 1885:The Clouded Yellow Butterfly – found in the Alai mountains.  It frequents stony slopes and mountain moraines and is usually seen flying in June and July.
  • Parnassius (Kailasius) loxias Pungeler, 1901 ssp. tashkorensis Kreuzberg, 1984: A cream coloured butterfly with a couple of orange spots on the wings which is found only in the Central Tien Shan and Western China.  It prefers steep slopes with clay or rock soil and flies in June and July.
  • Parnassius (s.str.) apollo (Linnaeus, 1758) ssp. Merzbacheri Fruhstorfer, 1906: A white butterfly with red spots found throughout Europe and the Middle East and across Asia as far as Mongolia – although widely distributed, individual local populations tend to be small and feature considerable variations from each other, and tend to be specific in the ecological requirements for their habitat.  As a result they are very susceptible to changes in their local environments introduced by human activity.  They tend to be found on plain landscapes and high mountain meadows – jailoos.  They can be seen in flight throughout the summer months, June through August.


  • Papilio (s.str.) alexanor Esper, 1799 ssp. judeus Staudinger, 1893: A yellow and brown “striped” butterfly found throughout Southern Europe and streching across the Middle East to Central Asia.  They prefer stony mountain slopes and fly between May and August.

For interested entomologists, (I have to admit that most of the Latin names are lost on me), it is also possible to encounter:

  • Parnassius loxias and P.patrisius priamus, P.boedromius, Melitaea fergana khantengri and Colias staudingeri in the Sary-Djaz Rivers Bazin, ridges Terskey and Kaindy-Katta;
  • Parnassius delphius f. styx, P.d. pulchra, P.boedromius martiniheringi, P.patricius kordakoffi, P.b.hohlbecki and P.b.sokolovi on the ridges of the Northern Tien-Shan – Alexander, Baidulu and Kungey;
  • Parnassius maximinus and Colias draconis in the Western Tien Shan, Chatkal Range;
  • Parnasius autocrator, P.simo, P.staudingeri hunza, and P.st.jacobsoni, P.kiritshenkoi and Colias marcopolo on the ridges of the Eastern Pamir;
  • the orange and scarlet Colias draconis, an inhabitant of the steppe slopes of the Western Tien-Shan;
  • the Scarlet fiery Colias regia;
  • the Colias christophi helialaica, an inhabitant of the fogbound passes of the Alai range with unusually ash-brown colours;
  • the Colias erschoffi.


Over the years, there have been numerous studies undertaken and scientific reports published about the butterflies of Central Asia.  As a result entomologists have amassed a vast knowledge of the distribution, habitats, flight period and life history of the butterflies of the region.  However, the specific habitats and habits of these beautiful creatures are often a “tightly-kept secret” to keep poachers from coming in and selling the precious species on the world market.

The international “insect trade” is a little-known, and environmentally destructive business.  Each year, hundreds of thousands of butterflies, moths and beetles are caught in many countries and sold to private collectors in the West.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mountains of Central Asia became the prime target for butterfly hunters.  The trade can be lucrative, but also extremely dangerous and there are several accounts of occasions where the insect smugglers have died in encounters with rival gangs or law enforcement agencies, or simply in the harsh environmental conditions of the remote locations in which the rarest (and therefore most valuable) specimens are found.


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