The Challenge of Preserving Biodiversity in Taiwan

Tourism Bureau

Taiwan is home to a broad variety of species, some of them unique to the island. But development puts many at constant risk.

Since the go-go era of the 1980s and 1990s when environmental protection was ignored in favor of economic development, Taiwan has improved its performance in protecting its environment and biodiversity. Waste disposal and pollution controls have become much stricter, and more than a million hectares of land and coastal areas are protected either in Taiwan’s nine national parks or its various ecological preserves. The more than 30% of Taiwan’s entire land area under such protection compares to just 14% of similarly protected area in the United States.

Under the Wildlife Conservation Act nearly all hunting is prohibited save by aboriginals under special circumstances, and the ecologies and populations of many species have revived over the past two decades.

Biological diversity – or biodiversity –is the “variety within and between all species of plants, animals and micro-organisms and the ecosystems within which they live and interact,” as defined by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). While biodiversity is generally taken to mean the number of different species, the term also refers to genetic variety within a species, as well as ecological diversity, which looks at the network of different species present in local ecosystems and the dynamic interactions among them.

Swinhoe's pheasant is one of Taiwan's seventeen recognized endemic bird species. Photo: Francesco Veronesi
Swinhoe’s pheasant is one of Taiwan’s seventeen recognized endemic bird species. (Photo: Francesco Veronesi)

Taiwan and its surrounding waters are blessed with a large amount of biodiversity. The island’s location in the subtropical Western Pacific is one reason, as tropical areas have much higher biodiversity than temperate regions. Additionally, Taiwan’s extremes in altitude – the island goes from shallow coastal waters to steep mountains reaching nearly 4,000 meters – creates a wide range of habitats that can support myriad life forms.

“In the United States very often if you drive two hours you will probably see either a desert or cornfield,” observes Eric Hsien-shao Tsao, head of Taipei Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center. “But here in Taiwan you will probably find yourself traveling from a mountain top to the ocean. This is what we call biodiversity – habitat diversity. We should take advantage of that and not ruin it.”

Preservation of biodiversity is considered crucial to environmental sustainability, as each species and organism is interconnected and the loss of any single species can have unforeseen consequences. Scientists have so far identified between 1.4 and 1.8 million different species around the world, according to the WWF, and estimates of total numbers – including those not yet discovered – range from around two million to as many as 100 million species sharing the planet.

Many of these species go extinct naturally every year, but due to human-induced habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, and overhunting and fishing, current extinction rates are 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than natural rates. The loss of biodiversity could have significant impact on agriculture, fishing, medicine, and economies.

The Asiatic Giant Hornet is the world's largest hornet. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The Asiatic Giant Hornet is the world’s largest hornet. (Photo: Wikipedia)

According to the Biodiversity Research Center at Taipei’s Academia Sinica, some 4,183 species of vertebrates (animals with backbones) inhabit Taiwan and its surrounding waters, including 2,945 species of bony fish, 186 species of cartilaginous fish (sharks and rays), 123 mammals, 717 birds, 130 reptiles, and 47 amphibians. Unsurprisingly for anyone who has spent any time in Taiwan’s beautiful outdoors, the island is home to a huge insect biodiversity, counting some 27,881 arthropods, which includes insects, spiders, centipedes, and their relations, and crustaceans such as crabs. Academia Sinica also lists a total of 8,681 species of plants, including 724 species of ferns.

Biodiversity is not limited to species that are visible, of course, and Taiwan’s humid, subtropical climate supports huge numbers of microorganisms, including hundreds of viruses, thousands of bacteria, and even six species of archaea, an ancient group of microorganisms.

Taiwan’s proximity to mainland Asia also contributes to greater biodiversity. Taiwan was connected to Asia by a land bridge as recently as 15,000 years ago when the oceans receded during the last ice age, allowing many species to migrate to the island. Subsequent adaptation and evolution over the millennia caused many divergences with mainland species, with the result that many species are considered endemic, or unique to Taiwan.

By contrast, the isolation of oceanic islands such as Hawaii results in lower overall levels of biodiversity but proportionately greater numbers of endemic species. According to the Council of Agriculture’s Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute, approximately 975 vascular plants are endemic to Taiwan, as well as 17 bird species, 27 reptiles, and 50 butterflies, with many more endemic subspecies.

Endemic species

One of the most famous endemic species in Taiwan is the iconic Formosan black bear, Taiwan’s largest carnivore, which inhabits the upper reaches of the mountains along with the endemic goat-like Formosan serow. Endemic Formosan macaques have become common in Taiwan’s lower elevations, and several species of bats are likewise endemic. The endemic Taiwan blue magpie is perhaps Taiwan’s most famous bird, along with Swinhoe’s pheasant and the Taiwan whistling thrush. Yet another example of an endemic species is the acclaimed Formosan landlocked salmon.

The Formosan Black Bear is a resident of Taiwan's great outdoors. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The Formosan Black Bear is a resident of Taiwan’s great outdoors. (Photo: Wikipedia)

According to Shen Sheng-feng of the Biodiversity Research Institute at Academia Sinica, the number of endemic species in Taiwan is actually increasing, not because evolution is somehow speeding up, but because research into species is becoming more advanced and refined.

The term “species” denotes the most specific classification for a group of organisms, following from domain, phylum, class, order, family, and genus. Yet the definition of what actually constitutes a species has shifted over the years and still remains somewhat uncertain. Generally, “species” describes a group of individual organisms that interbreed in nature and produce viable offspring – essentially a gene pool. This definition is still problematic, however, as many single-celled organisms reproduce asexually, while many sexually reproductive species can interbreed with related species and producing viable hybrids. Differences between species may then come down to behavior or geography, and increasingly to genetics.

“In the past you determined differences based on morphology – color or shape,” explains Shen. “Now, though, you need to do molecular phylogeny.”

Molecular phylogeny is used to analyze differences in DNA sequences between different organisms to gain information on their evolutionary relationships. From such genetic analysis scientists have increasingly determined that Taiwanese species that might be related to those on the mainland are different enough to be classified as endemic to Taiwan. And whether a species is considered endemic or not can have profound consequences, as the case of the Taiwanese humpback dolphin illustrates.

The Chinese white dolphin (scientific name: Sousa chinensis), ranges widely throughout the coastal waters of the Western Pacific Ocean from northern China all the way to Australia. For years, scientists have debated whether the population that lives off the coast of Taiwan is distinct enough to be labeled a separate subspecies or even species. Finally, in 2015 a study of these dolphins’ morphology, behavior, and phylogeny published in the journal Zoological Studies concluded that “evidence strongly demonstrated that the Taiwanese humpback dolphin population is differentiated at the subspecies level and… is independent from that of dolphins from adjacent waters of mainland China.”

The Taiwanese humpback dolphin is a critically endangered subspecies of the Chinese white dolphin. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Taiwanese humpbacked dolphin, also known as “Matsu’s fish,” is now identified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other scientific organizations by its new scientific name, Sousa chinensis taiwanensis

The new identification allows the IUCN to consider this much smaller population separately from its more common cousin. The organization now categorizes the Taiwanese humpback dolphin as “Critically Endangered,” which will hopefully lead to stronger protection for the animals. Taiwan’s government has already limited coastal developmment in areas that Taiwanese humpback dolphins are known to frequent.

Not all species retreat in the face of development, as can be seen around the world in the increasing prevalence of urban wildlife. Several species of wildlife have reportedly become common even within the city limits of Taipei, including gem-faced civets, ferret-badgers, and muntjac (tiny barking deer). Sambar deer populations are likewise reportedly recovering in Taiwan’s high mountains, while wild boar and Formosan macaque populations have revived to the extent that they are considered agricultural pests.

There are less than 100 Taiwanese humpback dolphins left in the wild. (Photo: Wikipedia)
There are less than 100 Taiwanese humpback dolphins left in the wild. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Several wildlife biologists are even proposing reintroducing the clouded leopard to Taiwan’s southern mountains, arguing that reintroducing a magnificent apex predator to Taiwan’s environment would provide ecological balance to a restored ecosystem, much as the reintroduction of the Rocky Mountain wolf did in Yellowstone National Park in the United States. The idea has been met with guarded support in the wildlife biology and zoology community.

Despite these successes, many species in Taiwan continue to struggle to survive in a world increasingly dominated by human impacts. Eric Tsao of the Taipei Zoo actively engages in local species conservation through the zoo’s wildlife rescue center, which has developed several innovative methods that are proving instrumental to preserving wildlife populations. Tsao is particularly proud of the Taipei Zoo’s success with Chinese pangolins, an endangered species that is notoriously difficult to keep in captivity.

The endemic blue magpie is perhaps Taiwan's most famous bird. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The endemic blue magpie is perhaps Taiwan’s most famous bird. (Photo: Wikipedia)

These armored mammals resembling armadillos live in Taiwan’s low-lying hills where they are susceptible to habitat loss due to development as well as poaching (they are considered delicacies by many in the region). Breeding them in captivity is regarded as crucial to the survival of the eight species of pangolin living in Asia and Africa, but zoos were unable to replicate their diets of termites and ants until the Taipei Zoo found a way using honey bee pupae harvested from domestic hives. It now can not only successfully breed pangolins in captivity, but also keep rescued pangolins alive until they are well enough to return to the wild. The Taipei Zoo sends personnel around the world to train other zoos on its methods.

The study of biodiversity is in many ways the study of survival and reproduction, which offers important insights into the nature of life and even human behavior.

“Animal evolution has been happening for millions of years, and through all of this time animals have been struggling to survive between and within species,” observes John Wang, an American researcher at the Biodiversity Research Institute. “Basically you want your kid to survive. Collective and individual behavior – cooperation and conflict – always go hand in hand.”