Thursday, February 22, 2007

Kingdom of Butterflies

Taiwan: A butterfly-lover's paradise
Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Japan, August 9, 2006
(unedited and untranslated version)

Two times a month, Wang Hui-wu, a government employee from Taipei County, brings his wife and two sons—Bin-yun, 8 and Bin-hsiang, 3, to see the butterflies at the Taipei Zoo’s Insect House. The two boys like to stand as still as they can in the butterfly greenhouse until a “leaf butterfly”—which disguises itself from would-be-predators by looking exactly like a tree leaf—alights on their head or shoulder.

For Wang, 38, the regular pilgrimages to see the zoo’s butterflies are the continuation of a life-long passion. As a teenager, he used to head into the mountains ringing Taipei with his friends from a high-school club, in search of the delicate insects. “Before, I used to catch butterflies with a net,” he says. "Now I catch them with my digital camera.” He’s making a digital album of photos of butterflies from the zoo that he’s posted to the web. And there are plenty of subjects willing to strike a pose. “They have a lot of species here that you can observe,” said Wang. “If you go to the mountains, they can be hard to find—you have to get lucky.”

Butterfly lovers in Taiwan are lucky to have one of the world’s best collections of the beautiful insects on display year-round, right in their backyard. The Taipei Zoo’s butterfly hall has been around for 20 years, but last April it moved into a state-of-the-art new facility: the two-story, more than 3,000 square meter Insect House. There’s an attached butterfly greenhouse filled with butterflies gorging on nectar plants.

Most innovative, the Insect House is tucked into a valley that’s a natural habitat for butterflies. Behind the building a short trail threads through the valley, providing an open-air natural zoo for butterfly-viewing. The zoo’s staff has planted plenty of nectar plants and is researching other ways to best lure free-ranging butterflies to the valley. “The butterfly valley is very special, and not only for butterfly watching, but for watching birds, wild animals and plants endemic to Taiwan,” said Yang Ping-shih, a butterfly expert at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

Taiwan is an ideal place for such a “natural zoo,” because of its rich variety of butterflies. Although it’s only about one-tenth the size of Japan, Taiwan boasts around 400 species (30 to 40 of which are endemic to the island), more than can be found in Japan. The reason is the island’s sharply varied climate, which ranges from tropical forest in the south to temperate climates in Taiwan’s towering central mountain range. “Taiwan’s butterflies are very diverse,” said Chen Chien-chih, a butterfly expert at the Taipei Municipal Teachers College. “There are some from mainland China, the Philippines, Japan, and even some from as far away as the Himalayas.”

That diversity—and sheer numbers—of butterflies once earned the island the nickname the “Butterfly Kingdom.” In the 1960s and 1970s the export of butterfly specimens and products to the US and Japan was a huge business—particularly in the region near Puli, which was called “Butterfly Town.”(The town now hosts the Muh Sheng Museum of Entomology,, one of the largest insect museums in Asia). But the island’s rapid development stripped away many of the natural habitats for the creatures. That, combined with the depletion of the population to feed the butterfly trade, greatly reduced the butterfly population and even threatened some species with extinction.

Now, butterflies are recognized as one of the island’s precious resources, and some species are protected by law. Butterfly viewing is encouraged, instead of butterfly collecting. In late May or early June, sightseers flock to the mountains north of Taipei for the Yangmingshan Butterfly Festival, whose highlight is viewing the milkweed butterflies. Some types of milkweed are known to migrate to and from Japan from Taiwan, but the reasons and patterns of migration are still poorly understood. From November through January, butterfly lovers can view the purple milkweed butterfly in the south, in Kaohsiung, Pingtung and Taitung Counties. These butterflies overwinter in valleys in those areas, blanketing pockets of the region.

Those are the major butterfly-watching events of the year, but Taiwan has something for butterfly lovers in every month. “In Japan, butterfly-watching is seasonal, taking place in the summer and autumn, but in Taipei we can go butterfly-watching all year round,” said NTU’s Yang. For those who don’t have time to head into the mountains searching for a glimpse of a rare butterfly, the Taipei Zoo’s Insect House is an ideal stop. Of its 150-some butterfly species, it displays at least 20 at any time indoors, in addition to additional species that might drop in as guest performers in the outdoor butterfly valley.

On a recent trip to the zoo, Insect House curator Wu I-hsin showed off some of the highlights of the zoo’s butterfly collection as they flitted between nectar plants in the steamy butterfly greenhouse. In addition to the “leaf” butterfly beloved by the Wang children, there’s the black and white tree nymph, which is nicknamed the “stupid butterfly” because of its na├»ve friendliness: “It will fly right up to you, it’s so easy to capture,” said Wu. Other star attractions are the black swallowtail or “spangle” butterfly and the “Paris peacock,” another type of swallowtail butterfly found in northern Taiwan.

The Insect House also boasts 50 other insect species on display—including a diving beetle, a water scorpion that breathes through its tail, which it sticks up through the water’s surface, protected insects unique to Taiwan’s Orchid Island, and huge walking stick insects from Malaysia. All of which means insect-lovers—especially butterfly fans—will find plenty to enjoy on a trip to Taiwan. “We have many insect species here you can’t find in Japan,” said Wu. “You can come to our zoo and in a short time see many of Taiwan’s insects and see what’s special about Taiwan’s habitats.”

Taipei Zoo Insect House
Open 9am to 5pm every day, 9am to 9pm on weekends in the summer. Closed every fourth Monday of the month for cleaning.
Admission: NT$60 for visitors over 12 years old, NT$30 for children over 6 or students with an ID, free for children under 6 and seniors over 65.
How to get there: Take the MRT Muzha line to the Taipei Zoo stop, the last stop on the line.

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