Amid construction boom, Taiwan struggles to preserve biodiversity | Global Ideas | DW | 29.01.2013
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Global Ideas

Amid construction boom, Taiwan struggles to preserve biodiversity

The inaccessible mountains of Taiwan preserve a large part of its unique plant and animal species. But the island's rich biodiversity is under serious threat in its densely populated valleys.

A colorful bird sits on a branch (Foto: CC BY SA 3.0: Snowyowls/Wikipedia:

The unique yellow tit is only found in Taiwan

Thankfully there are no bulldozers that could simply move Taiwan's mountains into the sea in order to make place. “Otherwise more land would be used for construction for industrial complexes, houses and highways,” Bruno Walther, a biologist at the Taipei Medical University says. He's been teaching environmental science and medical ecology for the last three years.

Taiwan's high mountain ranges mean that construction can't be carried out on around half the country's surface area. Without human intervention, the island's flora and fauna remain largely untouched.

Quelle: Lizens: +++CC/Wm Jas+++ 15.07.2007, geladen am 21.01.2013

Mountainside in Taiwan

Taiwan is home to a bewildering range of plant and animal species. That's partly due to the various natural landscapes that stretch between the coastal regions and high mountain ranges. From coral reefs, wetlands and rainforests to Alpine mountains with summits raging over 3,000 meters high, Taiwan has everything.

The island also lies in two climate zones – the north is subtropical while the south is tropical. Despite the ideal conditions, the island's biodiversity is at risk. But researcher Bruno Walther says that Taiwan's unique geology is the reason why there hasn't been a significant loss in species despite rapid industrialization and a tripling of its population in the last 50 years.

Walther specializes in Taiwan's bird population. Together with researchers from the Taiwan Endemic Research Institute (TESRI), he observes and counts which and how many of the 589 documented bird species are found in various parts of the island.

Deutsch: Mikadofasan, English: Mikado Pheasant 25. November 2005, geladen am 21.01.2013 +++CC/Snowyowls+++ Quelle: Lizens:

A male Mikado pheasant (Syrmaticus mikado)

However most of the 17 bird types that are unique to Taiwan live in the high mountain ranges. One of these endemic species, the Mikado pheasant, lives at an altitude of 1,800 to 2,500 meters. The Taiwan firecrest is mainly found in the pine forests of the higher mountainous regions and the unique yellow tit lives in forests at high altitudes.

The feathered creatures which live in the plains have a much tougher time. If construction continues unabated or if the dwindling number of wastelands were to be used for renewable energy, as proposed by the country's environment minister, that would further squeeze the habitat of some species.

More than 95 percent of the surface area has already been built upon or used for agriculture. “The mass cultivation of sugar cane or grass plants for energy generation would further eat into the remaining refuges and rare quails and crake species such as the Taiwan slaty-breasted rail would be threatened by extinction,” Walther says.

+++Ralf Knapp+++ forscht in Taiwan über Artenvielfalt, u.a. den endemischen Farn „Angiopteris itoi“

A leaf of the fern Angiopteris itoi

But it's not just animals but also plants that have a hard time surviving as their habitats shrink. For instance, the construction of a forest road through one of the main biodiversity hot spots has almost killed of a rare fern. “There are now just between 20 to 30 plants of an endemic nature left on the entire island,” Ralf Knapp, who published a book last year called “Ferns and Fern Allies of Taiwan.” He says he comes across just a few remaining examples of the fern during his botanical expeditions in the subtropical forests around the capital Taipei.

Fortunately, researchers have managed to multiply the fern in a laboratory and raise it in a greenhouse. The first attempts to release it into the wild have been successful, easing concerns that the species is faced with immediate extinction. But botanists are worried by the increasing loss of bigger trees. Despite draconian penalties, Knapp, who came to Taiwan 14 years ago, says that the camphor tree is deliberately sawed off so that it dies off.

Cinnamomum camphora at the Botanic Gardens, Adelaide, South Australia 27. Dezember 2007, geladen am 21.01.2013 +++CC/Peripitus+++ Quelle: Lizens:

Camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora)

But it's just the wood or pure mindless destruction that leads to the cutting of trees such as camphor. Loggers are more interested in a rare mushroom that grows perfectly well on the rotting wood of the trees and can be harvested. The valuable mushroom is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat poisoning, diarrhea, blood pressure and liver cancer.

And, it's not just the camphor tree that's falling victim to the rush for medicinal plants. “Along with the tree, entire epiphytes (plants that are supported non-parastically by other plants) that live on it also die off. That includes a few orchid species,” Knapp points out.

Knapp works together with scientists from the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute. Just like at TESRI, which was set up 20 years ago, researchers are involved in preserving the country's diverse species. The scientists study the habitats and spread of animal and plant species, develop strategies to protect threatened species and raise awareness among the population through exhibitions and workshops.

+++Ralf Knapp+++ forscht in Taiwan über Artenvielfalt, u.a. den endemischen Farn „Angiopteris itoi“

Ralf Knapp with his daughter

“Awareness about the need to protect the environment is growing stronger among Taiwan's population,” Ralf Knapp says. There are numerous national parks and reserves as well as several dozen environment protection groups such as the “Taiwan Watch Institute” or the “Society of Wilderness.”

The government recently decided not to build any new roads in the inaccessible high mountains or renovate existing paths. But it's not just environmental concerns but also economic reasons for the rethink. Forestry is dwindling in the country and a dense network of roads is no longer needed. That's good news for the animal and plant species in Taiwan's mountains who no longer have to contend with shrinking habitats.

Glossary – Latin names of the animals and plants named in the article
Mikado pheasant - Syrmaticus mikado
Taiwan firecrest - Regulus goodfellowi
Yellow tit - Parus holsti
Slaty-breasted rail - Gallirallus striatus taiwanis
a rare fern in Taiwan - Angiopteris itoi
Camphor tree - Cinnamomum kanehirae
Rare medicinal mushroom - Antrodia cinnamome