A thousand flickering fireflies, through an expert’s lens

Through their gentle rhythmic flicker, countless ‘bioluminescent beetles’ aka fireflies illuminated the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, and Sriram Murali was there to witness the magic.

Minmini(fireflies) – Billions of synchronous fireflies at the Anamalai Tiger Reserve from Sriram Murali on Vimeo.

In April this year, Sriram Murali, a software engineer who is also an expert in light pollution and fireflies, walked deep into the Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR) at night with a small team to witness a unique phenomenon. Right before their eyes, thousands of lakhs of fireflies turned a large portion of the protected forest in Tamil Nadu’s Pollachi region into a magical land that looked no less than the fictional bioluminescent world of Pandora from the movie Avatar!

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Fireflies and star trails at ATR in Tamil Nadu. Image: Sriram Murali and Anamalai Tiger Reserve Forest Department.

This was no dream though. Perched atop every plant and tree, this massive congregation of fireflies illuminated the reserve with a fluorescent yellowish green light by coordinating their flashes in synchronised patterns. Murali captured the moment in his lens and called it ‘an eighth wonder of the world’. Rightly so. The phenomenon is extremely rare, and is a result of decades of conservation work by several passionate officials that have toiled to protect the Anamalai reserve.

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In conversation with Sriram Murali. Image: Courtesy Sriram Murali.

Amid the reports of fireflies populations declining across the world and several initiatives taken by global and local authorities to protect them (Maharashtra is hosting a dedicated fireflies festival this June!), we engage with Murali in an interesting conversation to know about it all — the fireflies, the magical moment, and the darkest of night skies that illuminate his life.

Your pictures of the mass congregation of fireflies at ATR have been ruling the internet right now! How does it feel?

I am glad people are fascinated by the phenomenon across the world. It is a testament to our undying love for the wonders of nature, and underscores our yearning for the same.

How was the experience of capturing the beautiful moment?

It was as if I had walked into a dreamland! I often wonder how life would be on other planets elsewhere in the universe, and I felt this phenomenon gave me a glimpse of that. It is fascinating that such a tiny insect coordinates so well and puts on a grand show. 

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Murali captured different species of fireflies illuminating the forest reserve with their rhythmic flickers. Image: Sriram Murali and Anamalai Tiger Reserve Forest Department.

You are a Firefly Specialist Group member at IUCN now. What does your role exactly entail?

My role is to educate the public about firefly diversity and ecology through storytelling and filmmaking. I work with local and national partners to develop action plans to conserve at-risk firefly species and monitor their abundance.

You are also a passionate advocate of IDA. Why do you think it is crucial to talk about light pollution?

Living in big cities, we are always bathed in light and are hardly aware of its ill effects. Light pollution caused by excessive lighting washes away the stars in the sky. We hardly look up and often forget that we belong to a much bigger world. The night skies remind us of our place in the universe. It gives us perspective. Light pollution also impacts many species of wildlife, including birds, bats, turtles, leopards, etc. Excessive light makes birds and frogs call all night and impacts mating and foraging behaviour of many nocturnal species.

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The poster of Murali’s next film. Image: Artwork by Nurul Syahirah.

Tell us a little about your next film project.

My next film, In Search of the Stars showcases my journey through the Western Ghats of India, in quest of the stars. A naturally dark place is also a naturally wild place. The film explores the profound relationship between the night skies, wildlife, and humans.

What inspired you to become a natural history filmmaker? What are the challenges you have faced so far along your journey?

When I started photographing dark night skies, most people were skeptical of star-filled skies and questioned if they were real. So, I made a short film, Lost in Light, showing how light pollution impacts the night skies. It soon became viral, hitting the news headlines in over 40 countries. The film was published in Nat Geo and screened in film festivals. During a screening at the San Francisco Green film festival, I was next inspired by several environmental films and wanted to make my own film on light pollution. Saving the Dark was internationally acclaimed and became a tool for dark-sky advocacy. I found my passion in telling stories about nature, and I never looked back ever since.

While all of these pursuits are my passion, I work full-time as a Trust & Safety Analyst for Google. Managing a full-time job and pursuing my passion at the same time has been very challenging. However, my job has enabled me to keep all my filmmaking and conservation work non-profit.

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A window into the world of fireflies! Image: Sriram Murali and Anamalai Tiger Reserve Forest Department.

The best places to experience the wonders of night sky in India?

Ladakh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Spiti Valley, and Kodanad in Tamil Nadu.

Your most favourite destination for dark sky photography?

Around my hometown in the jungles of the ATR. With owls calling all night, deer and bison grazing at a distance, elephants lurking around the corner, fireflies lighting the landscape, and countless stars overhead — this is the truest, most natural form of darkness.

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The star-lit night sky at ATR. Image: Sriram Murali.

Tell us something fascinating about fireflies that you learned while shooting them.

Of the 2,000 species of fireflies, only a handful synchronise their flashes. Male fireflies coordinate their flashes to attract females of the same species. Scientists say that it might makes it easier for females to identify the males of their own species from a distance. However, there needs to be a certain density of fireflies for them to start synchronising. Synchronised fireflies in large numbers are rare, found only in very few places in the world.  

Describe your ideal dream vacation.

In a remote island, formed by volcanic eruptions, with pristine beaches, lush rainforests, waterfalls, and a night sky full of stars!

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