CNA photos No. 41-46 By Lilian Wu CNA staff writer He has run into a mountain ditch, smashed into a cliff, come face-to-face with the deadly bamboo viper and nearly frozen to death on a mountain top pursuing his lifelong passion, but he has never been deterred by any of those adventures -- or by opposition from his family.
Tsai Bae-chun, an ecology photographer better known as "Mr.
Butterfly, " has been chasing butterflies around for more than 30 years, and he says his passion for the beautiful creature has only grown stronger over time.
He fell in love with butterflies as a child, catching them and mounting them in a book as other children did to preserve their beauty.
But that interest did not become a burning obsession until 1979, when Tsai, at the age of 29, witnessed "in awe" the metamorphosis of the butterfly while visiting a friend in Hualien.
He saw a bunch of eggs hatch the first night, turn into caterpillars on the wall a few days later and then become pupa before emerging as colorful butterflies, an experience that left him obsessed with the fragile insect.
For the next six months, he was captivated by the natural beauty of Hualien and spent his time exploring creeks and mountains without even contacting his family once.
At the same time, he devoured every book he could lay his hands on to enhance his knowledge of the species, which only fueled his passion further.
He came across a Japanese reference book on Taiwan's butterflies, which to his delight and dismay, presented the country's endemic species in their original sizes and colors. In comparison, Taiwan's own books on butterflies seemed "so slipshod." Taiwan at the time was focused solely on rapid economic growth, but after seeing the difference in the books, Tsai felt the country's pursuit was too narrow.
"What's the use of a better economy if there is such a big cultural gap between Taiwan and its neighbor. It was really humiliating," he recalls.
He made up his mind then that he would one day publish his own pictorial almanac of butterflies endemic to Taiwan to bring the beauty of the "butterfly kingdom" to local residents.
When he finally returned to his home in the industrial port city of Kaohsiung six months later, he knew that he could no longer continue in the family business, a company that wholesaled cooking oil.
"My mind was set. I wanted to be a butterfly chaser," Tsai said.
Of Taiwan's 400 butterfly species, Tsai has recorded 345 of them, but tracking down so many has not been easy and led him on plenty of adventures around the island.
He recalled that in his initial and more "crazy" days, whenever he heard about the appearance of butterflies, he could easily cover more than 500 kilometers a day on his motorcycle.
Starting from Kaohsiung, he would ride the narrow mountainous Central Cross-Island Highway to Hualien and head south along the east coast to Taitung and Pingtung before returning to Kaohsiung, often covering 500 kilometers a day.
Several times, he was so mesmerized by the butterflies, he forgot that he was on a treacherous mountain road and ended up in mountain ditches. One day while in hot pursuit of an elusive beauty, he smashed his motorcycle into the side of a mountain.
"That was actually fortunate, " he says, "because if it had been the other side of the road, I would have fallen off a cliff." This blind pursuit of butterflies has carried over to his guiding philosophy -- "using the dumb way to get the best picture." Butterflies like to loiter by riversides, but Tsai believes photographing them from above does not make a good picture, so he gets into position by wading into rivers, braving rapid currents, slippery rocks, and, in the early spring when some species appear, freezing cold water.
When a butterfly is perched high on a tree, he often climbs up a higher tree to shoot it from a better angle. If the subject is frightened away, Tsai simply stays in the tree, waiting patiently for it to return.
His methods might seem foolish to other photographers who simply use a big net to catch the prey, release them in a fixed space and photograph them without any worries. But Tsai insists on shooting them in their natural habitat, just as insists on using micro lenses instead of long-distance lenses to get the best quality.
Chasing butterflies is a solitary job, as the butterfly is a shy creature that is frightened away by the shadow of human being. Alone in the wild, Tsai has had numerous encounters with leeches and wasps and heard the roars of wild animals, such as black bears.
He remembers one traumatic experience in the bitter cold on a 2,000-meter high mountain.
"My head was spinning, and I had difficulty breathing. I didn't feel I could live until the next day, " Tsai said. With no doctors or hospitals nearby, he could only rely on herbs for relief.
These many brushes with danger have been more than offset by the great joy gained by successful pursuits, such as spotting the rare and elusive broad-tailed swallowtail butterfly, considered by many the queen of butterflies, on Taiping mountain in Yilan County after a search of nearly a decade.
After near six years of chasing butterflies and learning butterfly basics -- what they eat, when and where they appear, their movements, and the trees they like to cling to -- Tsai published a picture booklet in 1984 to introduce the butterflies found in Kenting National Park.
The project finally won his family over to his cause after years of opposition.
He has since produced a similar booklet for Yushan National Park, written columns, served as a TV program host, and gone on ecological photography missions in many foreign countries.
In May 2007, his collection of 28 butterfly photos were exhibited at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, making him the first Asian photographer to have his work displayed at the museum.
Such honors are the result of more than just his "dumb way to get the best picture." He has developed a number of special skills that have enabled him to spot and get closer to his subjects.
He has superb eyesight and his ability to identify light waves, for example, help him spot butterflies that excel in camouflage, such as the orange oakleaf, which appears as a withered leaf when it folds its wings. Tsai can spot it because it emits a different light wave than that of a leaf.
Tsai says he has also learned to "communicate" with butterflies by observing their movements. When a butterfly sips nectar from flowers, its wings flap moderately, but the flapping quickens when it is alarmed.
If a butterfly is unwilling to leave a flower, the flapping will pick up to show it is aware of the existence of an encroaching threat.
He also has developed a "dance" that lets him get closer to his target. When he is five meters away, he swings his arms in an exaggerated way to acclimate the butterfly to his presence, and then moves to within two meters at a moderate pace.
To get even closer, he moves his legs forward first and then slowly follows with his upper body, but even this stealthy approach often fails.
For all of Tsai's recognition and expertise, chasing butterflies is not a money-making endeavor. To support his basic expenses of NT$1 million (US$30,300) a year, he has sold three houses in recent years and works as a street vendor from mid-autumn to early spring when there are few butterflies to chase.
Though not wealthy, Tsai uses some of his limited funds to give speeches around the island and offer butterfly-related gifts to children to instill in them the concept of conservation.
Tsai, who claims he has been "immature, " and a "toddler" during his long journey of chasing butterflies, says he will continue his blind pursuit to get people more focused on the environment.
"By getting people to appreciate the beauty of butterflies through my photos, they will naturally want to protect and preserve the environment suitable for them and eventually harbor a love for the land known as the 'kingdom of butterflies'," he says.
(By Lilian Wu)