Zhao Li loves butterflies. Locally nicknamed "Prince Butterfly," Zhao, 30, has devoted nearly all of his time to the study and collection of butterflies.
A butterfly researcher at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu, the capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, this young man has collected more than 100,000 butterfly specimens, and has taken 39,000 butterfly and insect photos. He is also planning to set up a private insect museum.
Life long passion
"He has been a butterfly lover since he was a little boy," said Gao Lianqi, his mother, a worker in a printing factory in Chengdu.
A photograph on the wall of Zhao's study in Chengdu, bears witness to his early passion for the delicate little creatures. The picture shows a little boy chasing a butterfly in a park. The boy is stretching out his small hands to catch a butterfly resting on a fence, with an expression of concentrated joy on his eager face.
"He was 3 years old then. I took him to Wangjiang Park in Chengdu," the mother recalled. "He mounted his first butterfly specimen at the age of 5," she said. By his first year of high school, he had collected over 1,000 specimens of animals and plants, most of them butterflies.
His study is filled with exquisite butterfly specimens and books about his favourite insect.
"Every summer holiday when I was in middle school, I would visit relatives in a mountainous area in the western part of Sichuan, where there were a lot of rare butterflies," Zhao recalled.
In order to collect these rare specimens, he would ride a bicycle by himself to the remote mountains, taking with him only a simple lunch and drinking spring water when he was thirsty. "In the summer of 1991 alone, I travelled about 500 kilometres on my bike, covering more than 10 mountain counties in the province," he said.
A trip to Hainan Province in August 2000 was another exciting exploration he still remembers, during which he got a close look of Teinopalpus aureus, one of the world's rarest butterfly species.
He went to Jianfenglingshan, the highest mountain in southern Hainan and stayed at the top of the mountain for five days taking many pictures of the butterfly. His pictures are believed to be the first detailed images of this rare species.
"It is the magic of butterflies that provokes my passion for them," said Zhao, who studied biology in university and has made butterfly research his career.
In Zhao's mind, the butterfly is a truly magnificent creature, rich in colour, full of grace and magic. He observes butterflies not only with his eyes but with his whole body and soul.
It was for the sake of that grace and beauty that Zhao once put his life in danger. It happened one summer when he was still in university. He went to a remote mountain to collect butterfly specimens with his young sister and his parents. Suddenly it began to rain heavily and a landslide occurred. They were horrified, thinking they were trapped. Fortunately, a local farmer passed by. He guided the family to a safe place. After returning home, none of them could forget their frightening experience. "However, my parents did not try to deter me from my explorations. They only told me to be careful," said Zhao.
This trip also aroused the interest of his younger sister Zhao Xi, who became his helper from that day on. A painting major in university she has helped him paint some of the butterflies' surroundings, where the difficult terrain made photography extremely challenging. Usually she would try to remember the habitat and paint the scenes afterwards.
"My brother is a true scientist," Zhao Xi said. "He has a deep respect for factual evidence and accuracy in his studies."
Zhao Li has been admitted as a member of the Association for Tropical Lepidoptera (United States) and several other international butterfly associations. Recently he was invited to be the chief Chinese expert for a lepidoptera investigation and research programme sponsored by the American National Natural Science Fund.
Making dreams come true
Zhao has two dreams.
One is that one day everyone will have the chance to see the magic of beautiful butterflies. To realize his dream, Zhao is preparing a private insect museum which has been approved by the local government. In order to popularize knowledge about butterflies, Zhao would like the public to have free access to the museum, especially children. However, he is having difficulty raising the necessary funds.
He also writes essays on butterflies for science magazines and has published several books in conjunction with international partners. He is a good writer with an appealing humanist tone. He tells readers how to identify butterflies as well as giving information on their biology, behaviour, life cycle and habitats. One of his works is titled "Chinese Insect Episodes," which offers insect fans a lot of interesting stories and wonderful pictures, at the same time as helping them understand more about these miraculous creatures. "I hope more ardent butterfly advocates can join me in establishing the museum soon," Zhao said.
To protect all butterfly species is Zhao's other dream. He has been telling people from all walks of life that many butterflies are facing the danger of extinction and calling on them to make an effort to protect them.
It is said that every year, butterfly habitats in Sichuan Province, which boasts a huge number of butterfly species, have been shrinking in size as agricultural development and pollution reduce or damage the forest habitat where the delicate insects live. Agricultural pesticides and weed killers are killing the mature insects and depriving their larvae of food. Another reason for the decreasing number of butterflies is that some illegal groups hunt rare butterfly species to smuggle them abroad for profit.
"It is certain that these insects have a very significant role in our ecosystems, at the base of the food chain, and also play an invaluable role in indicating the health of local ecosystems. The protection of butterflies will only work if the ecosystems in which they live are protected and illegal hunting is prohibited," Zhao said.
Zhao said that the future of mankind is tied to that of butterflies, just as the butterflies' future is tied to ours. "If you want to continue to enjoy beautiful butterflies flying freely, remember to protect them," Zhao said.
(China Daily 07/26/2004 page14）