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Taiwan butterfly patriarch on the “butterfly kingdom” that turned into a desert

Community and ForumBlogTaiwan butterfly patriarch on the “butterfly kingdom” that turned into a desert

Lev Bely, 31.10.2012 2:00

Chen Wei-shou can be called butterfly patriarch who headed Taiwan lepidoptera research. He now recalls him 6-year kid fascinated by the sight of “a flower that could move”. That was the starting point of his lifelong passion.

Today Chen is 81, and looking back he sees 70 years of life, 77 written books and one of the largest butterfly museums in Asia, no less.

A successful explorer who's lived an interesting life yet has things to worry about: today's Taiwan extremely lacks of butterflies, which before it had in plenty. Chen says that butterfly populations are now one hundredth of the level before industrialization.

“Taiwan used to be a paradise of butterflies. When I was a kid, one could easily spot butterflies even in Taipei,” Chen said.

Times went by and today among a few places where one can still see butterflies is Chen's butterfly museum, which he opened in 1972 on the campus of Cheng Kung High School, where he had worked as a teacher before he retired in 1996.

Local butterfly habitats were destroyed in the blink of an eye, when Taiwan made the rapid jump from agriculture to industry in the years after World War II.

“A lot of original forest was cleared out to make way for roads, homes and factories, and for the development of farmland,” said Lin Kuo-chang, an official with the Council of Agriculture.

“The widespread use of pesticides by farmers was also responsible for the massive disappearance of butterflies on the island.”

Territories along Taiwan's west coast got thinned out especially fast due to the light of the “economic miracle” that shined there especially bright. Many butterfly populations vanished in a wink, and these places became what Chen termed “a butterfly desert”.

Not only the economic boom was destructive to butterflies in 50—70yy. of the past century, when Taiwan turned into the “Island of Bad Luck” towards local lepidoptera. The very Taiwanese “contributed” to the butterfly decline: they just found a butterfly klondike right at their feet. Catching butterflies and making butterfly souvenirs appeared to be another great source of income. Then it became a real industry and butterfly trade soon made up one the most profitable Taiwan's exports in those years of rapid economic growth.

In the most successful years Taiwan exported 30 mln butterflies a year—most of that to Japan, and also to the U.S. and Europe.

Hard to cite statistics, but matter of fact, thousands of Taiwanese earned their living by one only butterfly trade for many years.

“Taiwan sold so many butterflies and butterfly products that the island ended up being called the 'butterfly kingdom',” Chen said. “Whether you like it or not, it supported many families.”

Five lepidoptera species that nearly all can be found only in Taiwan are now definite ones to concern about. However, it's already late for any concerns of the great purple spot butterfly (Graphium weiskei?), which officially recognized extinct in Taiwan. Three others, the broad-tailed swallowtail Agehana maraho, Magellan's iridescent birdwing Troides magellanus and the great purple emperor Sasakia charonda are on the list of endangered species and thus got under protection.

Authorities too don't stay aside: they organized butterfly sanctuaries and arrange special information campaigns. Every spring they also block a lane of a busy road in central Taiwan to protect the fifth endangered purple-spot butterflies, millions of which take their regular migration journey.

Chen himself long ago changed net to camera. His first documentary “Dancing queens of the Nature” gathered “Golden Harvest” national award in 1978, and those butterflies captured on film were his last caught since 1981.

“My collection of specimens had exceeded the museum's capacity. Besides, I felt I had collected almost every species that could be discovered in Taiwan,” he said.

“Butterflies helped Taiwan survive a difficult period. Now Taiwan people should do something in return for the sacrifices made by the butterflies.”

News24, http://www.news24.com

Photo: Chen Wei-shou, Mandy Cheng, AFP

Taiwan's butterflies

All the rest posts on: Asia, species recovery, species decline, collecting, experience, agriculture, ecology


31.10.2012 2:19, Peter Khramov

Brilliant post. Thanks.

01.11.2012 4:21, Eugene Karolinskiy

Correction: Graphium weiskei could barely ever be in Taiwan (this is a New Guinea species). The original text says "the great purple spot butterfly", so it's hard to surely name the species (probably, Euploea phaenareta). There is a list of Taiwan's butterflies, feels like reputable: http://www.google.com.ua/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=butterflies%20of%20taiwan&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&ved=0CB4QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fen.wikipedia.org%2Fwiki%2FList_of_butterflies_of_Taiwan&ei=M7yRUPi2Ho_64QTNnID4Dg&usg=AFQjCNGN9yvpbVL2i9ZIa93N-VmJPi3HJA.

01.11.2012 14:20, Peter Khramov

Whatever, Graphium weiskei seems to correspond Purple Spotted Swallowtail, yet who can be sure of all these common names, which can vary so much. And Euploea phaenareta is unlikely to come either, its common names look pretty different...

02.11.2012 20:01, Lev Bely

Evgeny, thanks, this was actually a guess of mine, concede it might be wrong though. If anyone has or will get the sure version, please comment with a source reference. Till then, I'll sign the species name in the post with a question mark.

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