Looking After Taiwan’s Wildlife

Muntjac, a species of indigenous deer, gaze into the camera from the grounds of the Taipei Zoo. Photo: Scott Mac

Researchers brave harsh terrain, risking snake bites and killer-bee attacks, trying to keep track of the major species of mammals deep in the Central Mountains.

Before setting off into the darkness of the surrounding forest, the hunter pulls three cigarettes from his pack, lights them, and places them on a stone slab, setting a betel-nut in between the cigarettes. A bottle of water completes the offering to the gods protecting these forests.

Behind him, the land falls away into a chasm hundreds of meters deep. Tall peaks show through the canopy, many scarred bare by landslides that routinely sweep forests from these slopes. The hunter bows his head in prayer before launching himself up the slope into the dense thickets in search of serows, goat-like mammals native to the tropical highlands of Asia. The goal is not to bring back meat or hides but rather to set traps to capture serows for research purposes.

The serow study site in Taitung County. Photo: Timothy Ferry

The aboriginal hunter and his assistant are on assignment from veterinarian Aren Chen of the Wildlife Rescue Center at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology (NPUST). Chen is heading an epidemiological field study for the Council of Agriculture’s Forestry Bureau to investigate an outbreak of scabies among the serows, and he’s depending on the aborigines he hired to provide sampling subjects. “They say they are very confident they can get us a serow here,” he says. “Very confident.”

Aren Chen, a wildlife veterinarian, leads an investigation into scabies outbreaks among serow. Photo: Timothy Ferry
Photo: Chiang Bo-ren

An irony of wildlife research in Taiwan, it’s common in that the true experts in the field are usually the same aboriginal hunters who poach the animals the researchers are studying. This irony is seemingly lost on the field research scientists who employ aboriginal hunters to help them track and radio-collar wildlife in the deep mountains.

A hunter prepares a snare with hopes of catching a serow for research. Photo: Timothy Ferry

“They’ve had long-term observation of these species – experience accumulation. No one else can do this,” says Hwang Mei-hsiu of NPUST’s Institute of Wildlife Conservation, an acclaimed expert on Formosan black bears. Wildlife biologists researching in the mountains and rainforests of Taiwan admit that, with few exceptions, only the aboriginal hunters who follow traditional lifestyles have the skill to do the work snaring the animals.

With its thick forests and steep gorges, Aren Chen’s research site in Taitung County, just two hours’ drive northwest of Taitung City, looks closer to interior Papua New Guinea than urban Taiwan, possibly explaining why only people who grew up in these mountains can work in them.

Given Taiwan’s dense population, with 23 million people crammed into an area only slightly larger than the state of Maryland, it’s difficult to believe that nearly two-thirds of Taiwan’s landmass is essentially uninhabited, consisting of tall mountains covered with lush rainforest.

Taiwan is a relatively young island, formed less than five million years ago when the collision of the Philippine and Asian tectonic plates heaved the sea floor into giant mountains. The spine of the Central Mountain Range runs 270 kilometers north-south from the southern edges of Taipei County’s Xindian to the wilderness of the Dawu Nature Preserve in Pingtung and Taitung Counties.

From east to west, Taiwan’s topography rises from sea-level to 3,952 meters (the height of Taiwan’s tallest peak, Jade Mountain) in less than 60 kilometers. These mountains are young and unpredictable. Covered in loose shale – the legacy of their sea-floor origins – and riven by step gorges and tectonic faults, the dense forests are vulnerable to massive landslides during the many earthquakes. Kurtis Pei, also with NPUST’s Institute of Wildlife Conservation (the only institute focusing on Taiwan’s large mammals), says aboriginal hunters often cite “falling rocks” as the greatest hazard on their hunting expeditions.

This dramatic topography provides a wide variety of habitats. Ecological regions range from tidal zones and monsoon rainforests all the way up to alpine tundra. Government websites claim that 4,021 species of plants have been recognized here, from massive tree-ferns to vine-covered oaks to cypress groves.

These habitats provide homes for over 60 species of mammals, 90 species of reptiles (including half a dozen varieties of poisonous snakes), and some 500 species of migratory and indigenous birds. The ecology also includes 30 amphibian species, 150 species of freshwater fish, and over 17,000 kinds of insects, including “killer bees” but no poisonous spiders.

Since the establishment of the Kenting National Park in 1970, Taiwan has placed nearly 20% of the island under some form of government protection, compared with less than 5% of the United States under similar protection. And over that same period, many wildlife populations have recovered from centuries of depredation to become stable and sustainable.

Taiwan’s large species

Taiwan’s uplands are home to three kinds of deer: Formosan sambar deer (cervus unicolor swinhoie), Formosan sika deer (cervus Nippon taiouanus), and Formosan Reeve’s muntjac (Muntaicus reevesi micrurus).

Sika deer. Photo: Timothy Ferry

The Formosan sambar deer is Taiwan’s largest herbivore, with stags weighing over 200 kilograms. Once hunted extensively for their hides and antler velvet, widely use in Chinese medicine, they now seem to be making a comeback in the higher elevations.

Formosan Reeve’s muntjac, Taiwan’s smallest deer, is still common in forests throughout the island. Growing to only about 70 centimeters in length and weighing between 10 and 18 kilograms (22-40 pounds) when fully grown, they are also called barking deer for their distinct calls. They usually live alone or in small groups, and will fight to defend their territories, using their short antlers and six-centimeter canine teeth to attack intruders.

In contrast, the sika deer, once common to lowland regions of Taiwan, is now considered extinct in the wild, decimated by over-hunting and habitat destructions. This species is closely related to red deer, with males standing about 1 meter at the shoulder and weighing an average of 70 kilograms. Once farmed for their velvet (along with sambar deer), sika deer herds have been successfully reintroduced to Kenting National Park and Green Island.

Formosan serow (capricornis crispus swinhoe), in the goat family, is Taiwan’s only indigenous bovid (cloven-hoofed) species. At less than 50 kilograms, solitary serows live in high mountains and rocky slopes. They are strong climbers and can leap over obstacles more than two meters high, and have even been known to climb trees.

Formosan macaques at the Taipei Zoo. Photo: Scott Mac

Taiwan’s only monkey species is the Formosan Rock Macques (macaca cyclopis). They are medium sized, about 40-55 centimeters long and weigh 4-8 kilograms. Living in troops of up to 40 members, they range the forest canopy from sea-level up to 3,400 meters searching for fruits and nuts. Despite being widely blamed for crop damage, their population seems to be stable and even expanding in some areas.

The Formosan wild boar (sus scrofa taiwanus) is a local sub-species of the wide-ranging wild boar and shares the characteristics of long snout and formidable tusks. Weighing up to 90 kilograms or more and living in groups (called sounders) of up to 20 animals, they cause more crop damage than any other species due to their penchant for rooting through the earth looking for roots, nuts, and berries, Taiwan’s wild boars continue to thrive, with their biggest threat coming from hybridization with domestic pigs rather than overhunting.

Formosan wild boar snuffle in the grounds of the Taipei Zoo. Photo: Scott Mac

Kurtis Pei expresses confidence that these species are not in any imminent danger. “As far as we know, their populations are all stable, and some are even growing locally,” he says.

Unfortunately, Taiwan’s signature animal, the Formosan black bear (selenarctos thibetanus formosanus) does not share that success. A subspecies of the Asiatic black bear, these solitary animals once roamed throughout Taiwan but are now confined to high mountain areas. Large males can weigh over 200 kilograms and stand 1.6 meters; up to 80% of their diet comes from plants. Once voted the animal most representative of Taiwan, the black bear faces an uncertain future. Bear expert Hwang Mei-hsiu estimated their total population at less than a thousand, with poaching remaining a substantial threat to their survival.

Unlike Hwang, most of Taiwan’s wildlife biologists are unwilling to venture a guess as to the number of black bears. Pei notes that much of the scientists’ information comes from the untested observations of aborigines. “We don’t have any monitoring mechanism in place, no sound scientific measurements, to monitor populations,” he says.

Pei recalls that when he obtained his Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from the University of Montana in 1990, prominent conservationists told him: “You don’t need to worry about [wildlife] management; just protect the land.” He and other members of that first generation of Taiwan’s wildlife biologists raised awareness of the importance of providing wildlife with legal protections. Now, says Pei, they need to find ways to learn more about the species they are protecting.

Rugged and remote

A major barrier to gaining this knowledge is the ruggedness of the terrain. Hwang compares her experience in the United States, where wildlife populations are extensively monitored, to her work in the upper reaches of the Yushan National Park studying black bears. “My friends in the U.S. can often drive very close to the data site. For me, I have to hike through very difficult mountains for three days – maybe more. So the efficiency is very low. I can only actually work for a couple of days before I have to go back.”

Many of Taiwan’s mountains areas are growing even more remote as the Forestry Bureau in recent years has stopped repairing roads lost to typhoon damage or landslides. While this has the benefit of placing more of Taiwan’s wilderness beyond the damage inflicted by curiosity seekers, it adds to the field researchers’ challenge, denying them easy access to regions significant to their studies.

Pei cites a number of further obstacles to field work, including frequent flash floods, poisonous snakes such as cobras, and killer bees. He recalls seeing one researcher close to death after being swarmed by bees, and he himself has experienced snake bites and broken limbs. Early in this decade, he even lost one of his student field researchers to drowning in a rain-swollen river.

That episode inspired Pei, Hwang, and the other professors at the Institute of Wildlife Conservation to create a Safe Field Research Course to help researchers cope with the dangers. In this course, students learn how to ford rivers, get used to carrying a 30-kilogram backpack on a 10-kilometer hike at a 2,000-meter elevation, and how to administer first aid for poisonous snake bites. The course finale is for students to spend a night along in the deep mountains without a single source of light – in fact with little except for a black garbage bag.

“They have to be able to keep their heads – to deal with the situation without panicking,” says Pei. “If you get isolated in the deep mountains, you’ll need to be able to sleep at night so you can help yourself in the daylight. Otherwise you won’t make it.”

Not surprisingly, up to a quarter of the students quit after the first week, and another quarter before earning their degrees. NPUST’s Wildlife Research Institute graduates around a dozen master’s-degree students a year, a tiny number compared with the research scope.

The academic challenges for field work highlight another difficulty: the lack of government involvement. “Most of my friends in wildlife biology in the U.S. are working for the government,” Hwang says. “But in Taiwan, there are almost no government researchers. Most wildlife research projects go to the universities.”

In the United States, she explains, most big mammals are considered game species, available for hunting. The government needs to monitor the populations to ensure that quotas are not exceeded. As Taiwan bans almost all hunting, there is no such market for data, so the work is left to the universities.

If wildlife populations are stable, should Taiwan loosen up its hunting laws? Many wildlife biologists support that idea, at least for aborigines. Currently, indigenous people are allowed to hunt for only a single week during the winter, with a limit of one kill per species. But many residents of mountainous areas continue their traditional lifestyle, unconcerned about any laws prohibiting hunting.

“For them, the laws are unreasonable,” says Aren Chen. “They feel it’s their human right to live by their cultural traditions.” Kurtis Pei says the major wildlife species – sambar deer, wild boar, muntjac – could sustain hunting, and supports legalizing it for aborigines. Bringing the activity out into the open would enable wildlife populations to be better managed through more comprehensive data, he argues.

Aren Chen agrees, observing that “the aborigines are good conservationists – they know how to hunt sustainable.” But Pei acknowledges that he and Chen are in the minority on this question. “Most biologists feel we don’t have enough enforcement, and that with enforcement, the poaching will stop,” he says. “But I don’t think so. The government will never have enough manpower to patrol all the terrain of Taiwan. It’s not possible.”

Hwang is less open to the hunting option. She notes that of the 15 Formosan black bears she radio-collared for her study, eight had lost a paw from being caught in an aboriginal snare. She says that while hunting – customarily with snares – might not impact herbivore wildlife, which tend to stay in local areas and greed fairly quickly, it has a serious impact on bear populations.

“The bears are not the target – they are only the by-catch,” she says. “The snares don’t discriminate. And as a male black bear may have a 100 square-kilometer territory, the chances of a bear encountering one of these traps are much higher.” She worries that any additional stress on the population could force black bears to join Taiwan’s other large carnivore, the Formosan clouded leopard, in extinction.

Hwang suggests other ways of creating market demand for data, including focusing on Taiwan’s biodiversity as a cultural treasure, and including local communities as part of the monitoring process.

Nevertheless, despite their differences on hunting, all the wildlife biologists interviewed shared Pei’s optimism for the future of wildlife in Taiwan. “I feel that in the future wildlife populations will continue to at least remain stable,” Pei says, “and that they will be managed with far more accuracy.”

  • This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS.