Last Monday, I drove down to Meinong, a small rural township in Kaohsiung County known for its Hakka and butterflies. The Hakka are a Han minority, with a distinct language and somewhat distinct culture, and comprise about 90% of the township's population. Hakka settled the area about 200 years ago and until recently thrived as tobacco growers. The area is still a rich farming district, and many old traditional three-sided dwellings dot the fields.
As for the butterflies, well, they actually have a more recent history. At least in part.
During Japanese times, the valley northeast of Meinong was planted with Hophornbeam tree. The wood of this tree is exceptionally hard and makes for durable
railway ties and gun buttstocks. But the leaves of the tree also happens to be a favorite food of the larvae of Catopsilia pomona, the Lemon Emigrant butterfly. The butterflies soon began to fill the valley with their pretty soft greenish-yellow wings in numbers that cannot be counted. (Not my pic below, alas.)
Despite its name, the yellows do not migrate in Taiwan, though they do elsewhere in Asia (it's a common butterfly in the region). I had thought that the reason for the lack of migration was the perennial good weather and food supply in Meinong but researchers at National Taiwan University have told me that this sub-species just isn't migratory. Oh well.
It was a little early in the season on Monday, but when we parked out car and started walking down the narrow pitch, we began to see butterflies flitting about the dry streambeds and in the dense jungle cover.
During the 90s the valley was slated to be flooded as part of a dam project. The DPP government put a halt to that in 2000 but did little to preserve the area. As a result illegal farming and other activities destroyed much of the butterfly's habitat. Their numbers started to drop.
When I say drop, I mean in the millions. Taiwan is known as the Kingdom of Butterflies and over 400 species call the island home. During the 60s and 70s tens of millions were caught every year and exported. If you are of a certain age, most of the butterfly kits you would have had as a kid came from Taiwan.
They even made paintings out of butterfly wings:
Miraculously, only a few species went extinct. Conservation efforts are quite strong now and all around the country local efforts are being made to restore areas to make them attractive to butterflies.
As for the yellow butterfly valley, about 3 years ago the government started enforcing their claim to the land. Of course, in that ridiculous way in which early shortsightedness always costs more, they ended up having to compensate squatters for the loss of their farms. Locals told us of people demanding money for a single papaya tree that had to be abandoned.
In any case, the area looks very cleared out now, and you can see most of the bamboo has been cut and the stalks cauterized. Lots of low scrubby grass now covers what was likely cleared land. Still a lot of fruit trees in the area and I imagine anyone is allowed to go and pick from these.
Eventually the valley will be turned into a proper reserve. And few places deserve that as much as this little rich little area. From the moment we started walking we were blessed with the songs of hundreds of birds: swallows, bronzed drongos, pheasants, shrikes, eagles and more.
I guess the small birds come for all the insect life that is around (attracted by the free meals of butterfly eggs and larvae) and the eagles for the smaller birds. Every time we looked into the bushes rising up the slopes we saw a dozen things with wings flitter or flash across our line of site.
The eco-system looked very healthy overall. There was a rich abundance of plant species, birds, butterflies, lizards, and the small streams even had crabs in them.
We only had time to stay for 2 hours and so just walked to the end of the dirt road and back. There are many trails in the area however and the streams themselves would be easy to walk up as well. They were pretty much dry the other day but I imagine would be higher in summer.
We spotted at least 10 different butterfly species (the valley is said to hold over 100), but I didn't get many good pics of them. They move a little too fast.
Some interesting ones of the eggs though. At one point I said that there must be a lot of eggs in the trees if this valley is going to boom in a month. And sure enough as soon as we started looking they were everywhere:
Some odd flowers were about too. Apparently this is the flower for the passionfruit tree:
The leaves of this plant folds in on itself when touched. Its name escapes me at the moment:
The Asian Longhorn Beetle, known in Chinese as the Sky Cow.
You can reach Meinong by bus from Kaohsiung in 1.5 hours (a little longer from Holland). There are many bike rental shops in town and the local B&Bs usually offer them free for guests. You can ride out to the valley in an hour. It's a very pleasant trip on its own, through banana, coconut and betelnut plantations.
July is said to be the best time to see an abundance of butterflies. I'll be back this year for sure.
The following directions are from my friend Steve Crook's article in the China Post:
There are bilingual signs to the valley from downtown Meinong. Follow them until you come to a large, modern temple. Turn right here; go past the Shuangsi Tropical Viviparous Forest. When you come to a fork in the road, stay close to the river. Keep going to the where a small bridge crosses a side stream; the surfaced road continues no more than another 50 meters, but rough farmers’ tracks go on up the hillside.
You know you are on the right track when you see this temple: