Assam moth
Photo courtesy: Vijay Anand Ismavel

Guwahati: What’s in a name, a rather famous English author had once asked. For one Karimganj resident, however, a name is both a beginning and a continuation of their life’s works. In 1992, Vijay Anand Ismavel and his wife Ann came to Karimganj from Tamil Nadu to restart the then-closed Makunda Christian Leprosy and General Hospital. Thirty years later, Ismavel, a citizen scientist, had only one name in mind when he discovered a new species of ghost moth from Assam, which represents the first new species of Endoclita described for India in the last 60 years. What name, you ask? Endoclita makundae, after the hospital. 

Ismavel is not a full-time citizen scientist. He is, in fact, a full-time paediatric surgeon and CEO of the hospital. But such is his dedication that whenever he found time, he did the biodiversity documentation work, fieldwork, and research work. 

His discovery was reported in the ZooNova journal and John R.Grehan, Carlos G.C. Mielke, Dipendra Nath Basu, Ujwala Pawar, John E. Rawlins and Krushnamegh Kunte aided Ismavel in his work. The ghost moth species was found on February 28, 2019. 

Dr Vijay Anand Ismavel

“It is a newly discovered species, previously unknown to science. I discovered it on the campus and requested that it be named after the hospital,” Ismavel told EastMojo

“Dr. John Grehan, who is the world authority on Hepialidae described the species. Indian laws do not allow specimens collected in India to be sent to other countries, so the specimen was sent to the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore where Dr Kunte and his team processed the specimen. For fieldwork on moths, I used a mercury vapour lamp to attract the moths on a white sheet and spent many hours each night photographing all the new or interesting ones and getting their identity confirmed,” he said.

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“The name ‘ghost moth’ derives from a species in England where the white males would congregate at dusk over mooreland and the undulating flight would give the appearance of a ghostly apparition,” John R Grehan, associated with McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, Florida, USA and one of the coauthors of the study, told EastMojo

A female Endoclita specimen was collected at the Makunda Christian Leprosy and General Hospital in Assam’s Karimganj district. The hospital is located in the Barak Valley at an elevation of 37 m above mean sea level, and near the Longai river. 

The species differs from members of the genus in northeastern India through a combination of wing patterns and female genitalic morphology.

“My wife Ann and I came to Makunda in 1992 and restarted the closed down (for the previous 10 years) hospital. We are from Tamil Nadu – worked there for nearly 30 years. We completed our commitment to serving there in January 2022. I joined the Missions Department of CMC Vellore last month,” he said.

“We were searching for a place where we would be of the greatest transformational impact having a large population and few doctors,” he said.  

“A senior doctor we knew (I had visited him in Maharashtra) saw Makunda and suggested that we visit. They wanted us to give a nearly 30-year commitment (till I was 58) and we agreed,” he said.

When the then newly-wed doctors arrived from Tamil Nadu at the Makunda Christian Leprosy and General Hospital, they found a decrepit, run-down establishment in a remote place beset by poverty and illiteracy, and plagued by multiple socio-economic issues. Electricity was a dim flicker and running water was a luxury. Supported by the Emmanuel Hospital Association, they embarked on a 30-year project that would revive the hospital and turn it into one of the most sought-after destinations for high-quality and affordable medical care in northeast India. 

 “To manage as a doctor, only some words are needed. After many years, we became fluent. Ann can also read Bengali. For other tribal languages, we used interpreters,” he added.

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Vijay Anand’s interest in wildlife had a rather interesting, albeit different origin. “In October 2008, at the age of 44, I had a heart attack at home in the Makunda Christian Leprosy and General Hospital. Following this, I was asked to go for daily morning walks to keep myself physically fit. As I walked through our campus, I became interested in the different wildlife (both flora and fauna) in the 350-acre forested campus. Although I had lived and worked there since 1993, I was looking with new eyes – filled with curiosity and wonder at what I was seeing” he says in his blog

“It is also a confirmation of the fact that God has given us such wonderful brains that someone like me with no interest or knowledge of wildlife could become an accomplished citizen-scientist in a short time – starting at midlife,” he adds.

Photo courtesy: Vijay Anand Ismavel

In 2015, he started the “Makunda Nature Club” – a group of staff and students of Makunda with an interest in documenting biodiversity, creating awareness, conservation work and research.

He noted a new bird that he had not seen earlier. It was a van Hasselt’s Sunbird – Leptocoma brasiliana sperata. This was followed by the publication of the observation of a rare spider, Platythomisus octomaculatus, the first time it had been seen in India and the second time it had been observed since its first sighting in Sumatra 120 years earlier and two Coreid bugs (Schroederia feana and Prionolomia gigas). 

The study says the future survival of Endoclita species will be dependent upon the continued existence of forested habitats. 

“This moth is quite large, and it is a tree borer. And yet it took five years or so to obtain a specimen suitable for study. This is because the moth does not appear to frequent lights that much (and usually the female). So the species is probably present in large numbers, but no one sees or notices their presence,” Grehan said.

He said India has a relatively low number of ghost moth genera, especially outside the Himalayas. 

“We described this new species only based on one specimen spotted by Vijay,” says Carlos G C Mielke of McGuire Center of Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, Florida, USA told EastMojo. 

Carlos said the description is a small contribution to our knowledge about Hepialidae, a primitive Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) family present on all continents. 

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