The leader of the net-toting group is Mark Williams, who has traveled widely, fending off baboons and dodging hippos and snakes, in search of his obsession.
Butterfly expert Mark Williams displays one of his finds. South Africa’s lepidopterist population has dwindled to a few dozen fiercely competitive fanatics, most of them middle-aged men.
South African butterfly expert Mark Williams shows one of his finds. In the case of butterflies that are nearly extinct, the act of killing the insect may surprise outsiders, but lepidopterists insist that taking a few specimens of rare species is essential, given the complications of identifying the insects accurately.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Mark Williams was out with his butterfly net in his favorite South African mountain range when a flutter of gray-blue wings sailed by. They were almost as small and nondescript as the other gray-blue butterflies drifting past.
Heart pounding and net flailing, he dashed after the bobbing sliver of color, hope fluttering like a wind-blown flag. He hooked in the tiny creature, its wingspan just over 11/2 inches. It was a Lotana blue, believed to be extinct. Nobody had seen one alive in decades.
“I ran it down and caught it with a huge … swipe, because they can move,” Williams said of that moment five years ago. “I knew straight away I’d rediscovered the Lotana blue.”
His search for the Lotana blue had taken eight years. Yet a lepidopterist’s life — the childhood bedroom stuffed with bird’s nests, pebbles and butterflies, the years of research, the wild goose chases — can be distilled into such wild, joyful moments.
Dashing through the scrub, net aloft, is a passion that has not changed much over the decades — except that like certain butterfly species, the South African lepidopterist population has dwindled to a few dozen fiercely competitive fanatics, most of them middle-aged men.
And the 63-year-old Williams, a man who has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles with his trusty net, confronting angry baboons, dodging bull hippos and narrowly avoiding snake bites, is one of their gods.
“I’m being called the Butterfly Whisperer,” Williams said with a smile, carefully moving the remains of rare and common species from one pinboard to another. “I’d love to go out with that title. Mark Williams, the Butterfly Whisperer,” he said, rolling the words as if savoring wine.
When Williams first announced his 2009 find, fellow collectors found it hard to believe until he published photographs online. Since then, Williams, who earns a living as a veterinary pathologist, has netted two other species not seen in decades: the Juanita’s hairtail last year, and the Waterberg copper in March.
The Waterberg copper was so intensely sought that the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa distributed “wanted” posters with pictures of the insect, and offered a reward of about $1,000.
Searching for the copper, Williams used Google Earth to pinpoint an isolated plateau in South Africa’s Limpopo province at the same elevation as the butterfly’s former habitat, but 25 miles east. He took a weekend off and forged along a bush track, trailed by his wife.
As soon as he saw the orange flutter of wings, he laughed, not so much at the joy of finding it, but at the irony that he, as the founder of the society, would be collecting the reward. He plans to invest it in future butterfly searches.
Although Williams is gregarious and talkative, he’s happy staring at Google Earth on a computer screen, shifting locations, sifting for possible sites. He will spend hours looking up rainfall data for various locations (to help him get the timing of his expeditions right) and analyzing vegetation cover (to find the plants the caterpillars eat).
Mostly, though, he has an edge because of the knowledge gained in more than half a century of tracking the insects in this land rich with butterfly species — about 650 of them.
Since Williams founded the Lepidopterists’ Society in 1983, the hunt for endangered species has grown more urgent, with habitat loss and climate change threatening some species, particularly those that have retreated to the tops of mountains, looking for cooler air, and may soon run out of altitude if the highest peaks become too warm for them.
At the end of this year, Williams will launch a quest to rediscover the Bashee River buff — the holy grail for South African butterfly experts. If the buttery-winged creature still exists, it’s most likely to be found on the densely forested banks of the Mbashe River, in the wilds of Eastern Cape province.
Williams likes to put himself in the shoes of collectors such as James Henry Bowker, a British colonel who in the 1860s was the first and last person to see the Bashee River buff, capturing three females, which he promptly pinned to a board and sent on to Cape Town.
Williams gets a faraway look in his eye at the thought of becoming the second person ever to lay eyes on the Bashee River buff, and perhaps the first to capture a male.
One of Bowker’s specimens remains mounted in the South African Museum in Cape Town, the other two in British museums.