Here's Peter Smetacek's extensive collection of butterflies

It is the largest private collection in the country, with over 3,500 species

gallery-image Made to shine: Peter Smetacek holding Chrysiridia rhipheus, the Madagascan sunset moth.
gallery-image Butterflies of paradise: Smetacek explaining his collections to visitors.
gallery-image Seen with butterfly net at his research centre.


Peter Smetacek has done for butterflies what few others in India have done. He is the founder of the Butterfly Research Centre in Bhimtal in Nainital, Uttarakhand, and is known as the butterfly man of India.

The lepidopterist has dedicated his life to conservation of butterflies and moths, amassing one of the largest private collections of them in India. His passion for butterflies goes back to his childhood, and he has been studying them for as long as he remembers. His father, Fred Smetacek, a central European immigrant, had established an insect collection at their home in 1946, long before Peter was born. After World War II, the family moved to the hills of Uttarakhand, eventually relocating to Jones Estate in Bhimtal in 1951. It was here that Smetacek’s fascination with butterflies found wings. Surrounded by international butterfly experts who trooped into their house to meet his father, young Smetacek absorbed the knowledge like a sponge.

His colonial era abode, which is over 150 years old, serves as a sanctuary and laboratory. It is enveloped by a dense forest, rich in biodiversity, hosting 243 species of butterflies and more than 800 species of moths. “This is what forests all over India should look like. Forest should grow naturally, not the planted ones,” said Smetacek, advocating natural forest growth and emphasising its significance in bolstering biodiversity and water security.

gallery-image Common peacock
gallery-image Mishmi moon moth | Courtesy Peter Smetacek
gallery-image Catopsilia pomona
gallery-image Spotted snow flat
gallery-image Smetacek pinning butterflies for specimen
gallery-image Smetacek measuring the dimensions of a butterfly

Smetacek founded the Butterfly Research Centre in 2010, showcasing an extensive collection that includes India’s largest butterfly, the Golden Birdwing. One of the four rooms in his bungalow is devoted only to butterflies. Well-made wood and glass frames hang on the walls. Each frame has some 30 to 40 specimens of butterflies.

When Smetacek was invited to deliver the Oxford University Entomological Society lecture series at the age of 25, he discussed the use of butterflies and moths as bioindicators—a topic still pertinent. Over the years, he has identified numerous species, contributing significantly to scientific literature. Recognised globally, Smetacek serves on the editorial board of the journal, Conservation Evidence, advocating evidence-based conservation practices.

“There is still no measure for the health of a forest. It has been a long and slow process, because in order to understand bioindicators, one needs to know the names of the various moths and butterflies one is studying,” said Smetacek.

During the 1990s there were hardly any experts on Indian moths. So, for about 30 years, Smetacek has focused on identifying and naming new species of moths and butterflies and documenting them. He has described three new butterfly taxa and about 20 new moth species.

While he was gaining expertise in the field, Smetacek’s collection swelled with new additions from all over the country; today, his collection of moths and butterflies is the largest private collection in the country, with over 3,500 species and over 10,000 specimen.

Smetacek conducts courses at the Butterfly Research Centre, welcoming enthusiasts and scholars alike. He publishes Bionotes, a peer-reviewed journal, and has contributed to cataloguing Indian and Nepalese butterflies. Now in his late 50s, Smetacek remains dedicated to his passion, and his selflessness has earned him the soubriquet rishi muni, meaning sage.