Episode 34: Searching for a butterfly in a conflict zone

A photographer searches for an elusive butterfly to help reconnect with her late father.

Photographer Rena Effendi travels to the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia to search for a rare butterfly.
Photograph by Lana Šlezić

Photographer Rena Effendi’s father, a Soviet entomologist, collected 90,000 butterflies in his lifetime. But there was one species he couldn’t capture—Satyrus effendi. Effendi takes on the quest to track down the endangered butterfly named after her father, but to do so, she must navigate its home territory, a conflict zone in Azerbaijan.

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PETER GWIN (HOST): Do you remember when you first heard about this butterfly that was named after your dad?

RENA EFFENDI (PHOTOGRAPHER): It was just sort of an accidental discovery. Again, my father never told me.

GWIN: Right.

EFFENDI: And he died before the internet was, you know, kind of invented.

That’s Rena Effendi, a National Geographic photographer from Azerbaijan.

EFFENDI: So I was looking up my name, and then I was looking up, wondering if my father’s name is out there, and I found a Wikipedia page about my father.

GWIN: Oh really?

EFFENDI: Yeah. Somebody created this Wikipedia page. And I read about him and then I read this kind of footnote, and it said, you know, “A butterfly is named after the scientist. It’s called Satyrus effendi.” And I clicked on that, and the butterfly had its own Wikipedia page, and I started reading about that and I was in shock. Oh my God, there’s a butterfly that’s named after my father, and it has my name and it’s flying. So I became very curious. So that was maybe about, I don’t know, I would say six or seven years ago, so it’s quite recent. And then I became kind of obsessed with the idea of finding this butterfly.

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, we follow Rena on her search for a rare butterfly … in the middle of a war zone. And as you might be able to guess, she’s not just searching for a butterfly. She’s also searching for something else just as elusive: an understanding of her late father.

More after the break.

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GWIN: Tell me a little bit about Azerbaijan.

EFFENDI: Well, it’s a small country. I was told it’s the size of the state of Maine, approximately. It’s in the Caucasus Mountains, and where I was born is the capital, the city of Baku, and it’s on the Caspian Sea. It was part of Soviet Union for 75 long, very long years. And gained its independence in ’91. And I was born in Soviet Union and grew up in Soviet Union. So I spent most of my childhood in Soviet Azerbaijan. And when I was a teenager, everything collapsed in ’91. I went to bed in one country and woke up in another.

GWIN: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. What was that like? Is there like one day, like that day, the day you woke up in the new Azerbaijan? What do you remember about that?

EFFENDI: I mean, I remember, I associate those memories with my school days because everything changed. We found ourselves in this kind of limbo state where we lost all the old books, ’cause they were permeated with the old ideology, but the new books have not been invented yet. So our teachers came, and they were just dictating from the head. They all had notebooks and they were just rewriting history and telling us history from a new angle, you know?

So it was just this overhaul of ideology and complete new ways and school uniform was abolished. And then all of a sudden girls came to school in miniskirts and fishnet stockings and lipstick, and it was just this madness. It was mad.

And all the busts of Lenin were piled in the courtyard. And you know, we had these communist kerchiefs that we all had to wear, the red kerchiefs, and they were being burned in the schoolyard. And it was just chaos and mayhem.

GWIN: So I’ve heard many different people describe that period. But what you describe sounds like, sort of, people are excited by this change. Was this something that Azerbaijanis had been waiting for for a long time or wanting for a long time?

EFFENDI: Well, I think, I mean, I come from a family of dissidents, you know. My father was a scientist, and he sort of adamantly refused to be part of the Communist Party. And therefore he wasn’t even allowed to travel outside. You know, you had to be member of the party to travel, you had to be member of the party to get to certain places, you know, and to advance in your career. So one of the reasons why he couldn’t was because he never joined the party.

And, and so I've always grew up in this atmosphere of, you know, dissidents, of my mother and father, you know, always kind of, you know, cursing the regime and not really complying with the ideology. So for us, it was, yeah, a long-awaited moment. Unfortunately, my father didn't get to see it because he died right on the brink of the Soviet Union's collapse.

GWIN: So you mention your father being a dissident. What else do you remember about him? What was he like at home, growing up?

EFFENDI: So at home, having a father who was a scientist, a butterfly scientist, it was, you know, very interesting because he brought a lot of his findings home.

So my mother, when, in order to, you know, light the gas stove, she would open matchboxes, and she’d often find caterpillars inside those boxes before she’d actually find the matches. You know, we had these jars with caterpillars turning into chrysalises in the bathroom and in the kitchen cupboards, everywhere.

So I remember as a child just watching, you know, watching these caterpillars harden into chrysalises, and my father would say, you know, this is gonna take half a year, you’re gonna look at it for half a year? So it was amazing in some ways, but also difficult in others because he was hardly ever at home.

He was always away. When the summer and spring season came, he would be out in the mountains for months and months on end, you know, hunting butterflies. And that was really his element. He wasn’t a family man. He was more, you know … he belonged out there.

GWIN: Rena’s father was a complicated man. He’d had previous relationships and two other daughters—that Rena didn’t know about—and he spent much of his time in the mountains, chasing butterflies. And what she remembers most about him was his love of butterflies.

EFFENDI: Butterflies are an essential part of our ecosystem. They’re pollinators. They are natural pest control for fields, for example. And, they’re also food for insectivores, you know, important insectivores, birds and bats. But I just wanna go back a little bit to the aesthetic side as well. It's important. The beauty is important.

They are the indicators of a healthy ecosystem. You know, the presence of butterflies over the meadow tells us that it’s a healthy meadow. Why don’t we, I mean, we preserve beauty in other, in other things, in other objects. Why do we preserve “Mona Lisa”? You know, the painting. Because it’s beautiful, because it’s old. Butterflies have been around for a hundred million years.

They’re older than “Mona Lisa.”

GWIN: Much older.

EFFENDI: Just as, just as enigmatic, you know, and beautiful. So why not? This is a big incentive for us to preserve them.

GWIN: Right, right.

GWIN: Now did you ever go butterfly hunting with your father?

EFFENDI: I was seven years old. I remember my father took me on a hunt, and, you know, I was this kind of city child. Not used to the outdoors. So it was, I remember we took like a nine-hour bus ride that made me really sick. And then we camped in the mountains, and it rained and I woke up miserable and wet the next morning. He dragged me out of the tent and said, “OK, let's go.”

So we were in the mountains with a satchel, and I remember I caught a butterfly. It was a bright yellow butterfly. I don’t remember which species. And I touched it with my fingers. I touched the wings, and then I kind of felt the tremor of the wings in my hands, and I felt instantly guilty. So I let it go.

And he told me, well, now that you touched it, it’s gonna live a lot less, you know? So because the life span of the butterfly is very short. So once you catch it, it’s actually, you know, OK not to let it go. It’s OK to take it. And you know, if you’re studying it, if you’re studying the species, you know, it’s OK to collect it.

And I remember that kind of stayed with me for a while. You know, this kind of butterfly guilt, you know, I caught it, I touched it, and then I let it go. And I shortened its life span, you know, already short life span.

GWIN: So did he ever tell you why butterflies? What was it about butterflies?

EFFENDI: He never told me. We were not … I mean, he had a very elusive presence in my childhood, so I barely knew him. So in many ways, I’ve gotten to know him much more after he died because I started reading about him. There were some old clippings of newspapers where he gave interviews about his work. And I started meeting, randomly meeting people who knew him and talking to them about his life and discovering his persona.

And he always said that many young boys chase butterflies and write poetry, but very few of them take it into the adulthood. You know, it’s almost like just really, really, you know, you can count with your fingers, you know, how many people. I mean, he was the only, in the whole country, he was the only lepidopterist specializing in daytime butterflies. In the entire country, the only person.

You know, my father, you know, he had collected 90,000 butterflies.

GWIN: Oh my gosh.

EFFENDI: So he’s like a mass murderer of butterflies, you know. One of the tragic things that happened to my father’s collection of 90,000 butterflies, it’s turning to dust because no one is taking care of it. It’s a high-maintenance thing. You always need to change the chemicals. You need to take care of it. So there’s only about 30,000 now remaining out of 90,000 that he worked on, that he brought.

GWIN: Oh wow.

EFFENDI: So his legacy’s turning to dust.

GWIN: What does butterfly dust look like?

EFFENDI: Looks like any other dust, unfortunately. It’s not very pretty or colorful. It’s just dust. Yeah.

GWIN: Rena grew up and became a documentary photographer, traveling all over the world.
She covered the victims of war crimes in Côte d'Ivoire, Bengali weddings in India,
life on a Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, and the lingering effects of Chernobyl,
among many other assignments. In a way, the photographs she was chasing were her own butterflies, little fleeting moments of color and meaning.

But then, she discovered something that hit much closer to home. One day, Rena was online, and she came across a Wikipedia article about a butterfly. It twas named after her father. It was called Satyrus effendi.

GWIN: How did this butterfly come to be named after your father?

EFFENDI: So my father had a friend. His friend was a famous Ukrainian lepidopterist, Yuri Nekrutenko. And both of them traveled together all around the Caucasus. And they were both kind of considered Soviet Union’s best specialists on butterflies of that region, Caucasus and Central Asia.

So they traveled a lot together. And Yuri, he always joked with my father, saying that, you know, you have three daughters. I don’t think your name is gonna live on. It was like a slightly sexist joke. And he said, well, if I discover a new species, I’m gonna name it after you. So your name continues, you know, the name line Effendi can continue.

So he did. He discovered a new species in the Caucasus Mountains in Zangezur National Park. And he named it after my father. This was a few years before my father passed away. So my father did not see it live, that butterfly. He never managed to catch it.

GWIN: This butterfly, Satyrus effendi, has your same name, you mentioned this. Do you ever feel like it’s a sibling? I mean, is this sort of part of your family?

EFFENDI: Oh my God. You know, the funny thing is that I think this butterfly has a lot of the same qualities as my father.

GWIN: Really?

EFFENDI: It’s stubborn, you know, and me as well, it’s very stubborn, very hard to catch, very elusive like my father, and you know, rare in many ways.

Like my father was one of a kind, you know, in terms of, like, the work he did in this country, he was the only one. So it’s, it’s, it has that. And, and Satyrus, you know, Satyrus, this butterfly is named after a Greek myth of Satyrus, and Satyrus is a creature in Greek mythology, perpetually drunk.

GWIN: Oh no.

EFFENDI: Oh yes. And promiscuous as well. Not like me, this is all my father by the way. Satyrus. Yeah. So in many ways it shares a lot of qualities with my father as well, you know? And, and yeah, there is some sort of affinity maybe. I don’t know, I haven’t really seen it alive. I’ve only seen it as a sample. It’s quite a large butterfly, quite, you know, impressive, with two eyes like owl eyes looking back at you.

GWIN: Yeah.

EFFENDI: And the orange glow in the middle of the wings. So I’m yet to see it live.

GWIN: So I think I’ve read, or maybe you mentioned to me that there’s only a handful of people that have ever seen Satyrus effendi.

EFFENDI: Yes. So there’s, there’s the Ukrainian scientist who passed away. He was the one who discovered this new species, and there are three more people. There are two Armenian scientists. One of them is my father’s close friend. My father taught him everything he knew about butterflies. And he caught it in Armenia the same year my father died. So three people.

GWIN: Three people, you’d be, you’d be the fourth if you find it.

EFFENDI: Yes. And I’m in touch with all three of them. And I’m gonna ask for their help to look for it.

GWIN: Right. I think you might have to go camping again and get wet.

EFFENDI: I know. That part I’m not looking forward to.

GWIN: You haven’t developed a love for camping since you were seven?

EFFENDI: I don’t love camping.

EFFENDI: It’s crazy because I’m scared of the mountains. I’m scared of heights. I like to be on the beach. I like to be on the sea level. This is me, you know, but you know what? You have to do what you have to do.

I have this pursuit after the butterfly that’s named after my father, Satyrus effendi, because part of me wants to pay tribute to his legacy in some way, because, you know, his name is not even on the board, anywhere, at the institute. His life'’s work, 40 years of work, is just turning to butterfly dust basically.

oday this butterfly flies along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two countries that had been at war for 30 years. Up at a very high elevation of 3,100 meters.

GWIN: Wow. So for people that don’t know much about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, how did that begin? What’s at the root of that?

EFFENDI: Yeah. So this conflict is a territorial dispute of Nagorno Karabakh, which is an enclave within the, kind of the dual territory of Azerbaijan, but both sides claim this land. Both sides have attachment to this land, cultural, you know, etc. And the war, it started in the late ’80s from communal violence, in the beginning.

But then as the Soviet Union fell apart, it turned into a full-fledged war between two states, which raged for 30 years. I mean, there was a cease-fire agreement in ’94, but it became one of those frozen, forgotten conflicts until 2020, when another flare-up happened between the two countries, and Azerbaijan reclaimed some of the territory after that second war.

So it’s been three decades of a more or less simmering tension, frozen conflict. No connections, communications between the two countries, closed borders. Now we have Russian peacekeepers on the ground guarding the borders, guarding these borders. So impenetrable borders, and there is a peace deal but it’s not enforced. And there’s no trust between the two societies and two people.

GWIN: And this is the region where Satyrus effendi, the butterfly named after your father …

EFFENDI: Yeah. It’s on both sides of that border. There’s a hostile border, and it’s on both sides of that border, of that impenetrable border, in limited, small habitats. It’s an endemic butterfly. It’s quite rare. And yeah, the habitats are right by the border.

GWIN: You mentioned that this project, it’s partly to help you kind of better understand your father. But it also feels like it’s got this sort of element of, like, you know, butterfly hunting on a conflict zone seems like kind of a lesson for humanity in some way. Is that part of your … Am I kind of projecting my own sort of idea on this? Or is that something you’re thinking about?

EFFENDI: I think, you know, I was thinking about it because I remember my trip to Armenia very recently when I … You know, I’m probably one of the, if not the only, I mean, one of the very few, if not the only Azerbaijani who was able to travel to Armenia after the second war.

So this trip was about preparation. It was about meeting people and just feeling just almost like a testing ground. Is it even possible for me to come, you know?

And when I arrived in the airport, the policeman looked at me, you know, and said, “Will you come with me please?” And he took me to a room and started asking me all these questions.

So what are you doing here? You’re an Azerbaijani. And I was telling him about why I’m there. You know, I said, well, look, I’m looking for this butterfly, and it’s named after my father. And as I spoke to him, his eyes grew bigger and bigger. And then he called in two other officers, like female officers. And they came and they listened and everyone, the more I spoke, and I showed them pictures and I showed them maps and I showed them a picture of my father, the picture of the butterfly, the map of where it is.

They just kind of … In the end, I realized like the more I spoke about, the more entertained they got and the more involved they got and the more friendly they got. And in the end, these two female officers—they were translating for him into Armenian, I spoke Russian, so they translated—I realized they’re rooting for me.

You know, they’re trying to make it sound friendly for me because they wanted me to be released as soon as possible out of this kind of interrogation situation and leave. And then I realized like, look, this is, it’s all thanks to this butterfly. The fact that I’m in Armenia. You know, the fact that … In the end, he kind of, he called, made some phone calls, retold the same crazy story of the butterfly to, like, his superior in the Ministry of Security or something. And then in the end, he shook my hand and said, “Welcome to Armenia.” And when he said “Welcome to Armenia” to me, it gave me goosebumps.

GWIN: It’s giving me goosebumps.

EFFENDI: Yes, I am in this, what is supposed to be the enemy land for everyone in my country, they consider Armenians their enemies. And most Armenians consider Azerbaijan their enemies. We had this war, and we have generations of people who grew up in this war, lived through this war, and there I am welcomed to Armenia because of a single butterfly.

GWIN: Tell me a little bit about that trip. What were you doing there?

EFFENDI: The main reason was to meet my father’s friend who was 20 years his junior, and he was from Baku. They grew up in Baku in Azerbaijan. My father taught him everything he knew about butterflies. He taught him how to hunt and collect, and he’s a taxidermist. And seeing him was in some ways, it was just very, it was very magical, very beautiful in the way he kind of almost reenacted that time, you know?

And I was kind of plunged into that era of my father’s life. And so it was magical to discover that connection. And overall, I felt, you know, I felt like, why? Why are we entrenched in these horrible nationalist narratives that are pitted against one another?

Why do we have this war? We have the same culture. We have the same music. We have the same food. You know, in restaurants I opened the menu and it’s the same food that I grew up eating, you know? And the music is the same music that I grew up listening to, and people look the same. And it’s just, it’s ridiculous. These wars are ridiculous.

And I think we are, you know, we are very beautiful people in this region and very self-destructive, you know, with this kind of entrenched beliefs and this conflict. And so it made me feel sad that we have this war.

GWIN: Did you get up into the region at all where you planned to go while you were on that trip?

EFFENDI: Not yet, because the butterfly only flies two weeks in the year.

GWIN: This gets harder and harder the more we talk.

EFFENDI: I know. And only in the morning. It’s a morning butterfly. Unlike me and my father. We’re more night owls.

GWIN: So how do you plan … You haven’t found it yet, right? You're going to look for this butterfly.

EFFENDI: I’m going. Yes.

GWIN: And so how are you gonna do it?

EFFENDI: Well, I mean, my dream scenario is to cross the border, but that’s not gonna happen, because I simply can’t. I mean it’s guarded by national armies, but there’s also Russian peacekeepers. So, and I think in order to cross this border, I’d have to ask the permissions from the Russian Ministry of Defense, and they’re a bit preoccupied at the moment as we all know.

GWIN: Yeah.

EFFENDI: So that’s probably not gonna happen. So what I’ll do is, I will travel from Azerbaijan, from Baku, all the way to the border, all the way to Nakhchivan, and then find it on the Azerbaijani side first.

Then I will have to take another flight. I’ll be standing literally within a few hours’ drive from the other habitat, and I would have to take three flights and cross two countries to get to the other side.

GWIN: So fly from Azerbaijan to a second country. And then from there to Armenia.

EFFENDI: Yes, because there’s no direct link between Armenia and Azerbaijan. And then from Armenia again, I’d have to, I land in the capital and drive across the country, all the way back to that same border on the other side, and then look for it there. So yeah. That’s the logistics of today’s political reality. I mean, my father made those journeys, and it took him maybe between 12 and 16 hours overland. Very easy.

GWIN: Just from one side to the other.

EFFENDI: From one side to the other, very easy. So he would get, you know, on the bus. From Baku, drive across what is now reclaimed warscape.

GWIN: Oh wow.

EFFENDI: You know, minefield, destroyed cities. You know, in his time, this was not the case. It was the time of peace. He would drive across, hunt butterflies along the way.

And then get on a train. These train tracks have been disassembled now because they were used as anti-tank traps in the war. So there is no railroad anymore. And then he would drive across Armenia. There were no borders, no questions.

GWIN: It’s an irony. I think of this …

EFFENDI: Yeah, I mean it’s ironic. In some ways, his journey was effortless and free in the time of Soviet Union. And mine, in the time of independence and freedom, is sort of full of these roadblocks, you know? There are impenetrable borders and military checkpoints that I can’t cross, you know? And negotiations with high-level government officials, just to go butterfly hunting, you know?

GWIN: Yeah. What do you think you’ll feel like when you find this, or are you sure you’ll be able to know …?

EFFENDI: I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, this is the thing, I don’t know how the story will end because I don’t know if I’ll find it or not, whether it’s extinct or whether it’s still there or not. I don't know.


GWIN: We’ll catch up with Rena Effendi in a future episode to hear about her search. In the meantime, if you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and please consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

If you liked hearing Rena’s stories, you’re gonna love her photographs. Take a look at her portfolio at refendi.com. That’s refendi.com.

Also, we only briefly touched on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. To learn more, you can read Rena Effendi’s reporting on it for National Geographic. Through words and photographs, she follows the half a million Azerbaijanis who’ve lost their homes in the conflict.

Plus, COVID had a huge effect on Armenians and Azerbaijanis already struggling with the conflict, so check out our article about that too.


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Ilana Strauss.

Our producers include Khari Douglas.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Julie Beer helped fact-check this episode.

Our photo editor is Julie Hau.

Ted Woods sound-designed this episode.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

To see Rena Effendi’s photography, take a look at her portfolio.

Also explore.

We only briefly touched on the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which you can read more about in Rena Effendi’s article. Through words and photos, she followed the half a million Azerbaijanis who lost their homes in the conflict.

Plus, learn more about how the COVID-19 pandemic had a big effect on Armenians and Azerbaijanis already struggling with the conflict.