Home to a vast assortment of Taiwan’s flora and fauna, numerous wetland conservation areas around the island are waiting to be discovered.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY STEVEN CROOK
Wetlands cover no more than 1.6% of Taiwan’s land area, and many are located in unappealing coastal districts. Yet they make a massive contribution to the island’s spectacular biodiversity and provide a range of ecotourism opportunities.
Conserving and rehabilitating natural wetlands isn’t only crucial to protect some of Taiwan’s most remarkable bird, crustacean, insect, and plant species – it’s also required by Article 18 of the Basic Environment Act, which sets out the government’s duty “at all levels” to “actively protect wildlife, ensure biodiversity, protect forests, estuaries, and wetland environments.”
The Wetland Conservation Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act reiterate the central government’s responsibility to preserve these areas. Each year the Urban and Rural Development Branch of the Ministry of Interior’s (MOI) Construction and Planning Agency also approves a budget for conservation, education, monitoring, and other wetland activities. Few environmentalists, however, express satisfaction with official efforts to save Taiwan’s wetlands from climate change, overdevelopment, and pollution.
Taxpayers without interest in nature have good reasons to support local wetlands. Such ecosystems act as natural filters that remove contaminants from wastewater. By storing carbon in the soil, they keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Calculating the economic value of any ecosystem is complex, yet it seems that compared to manmade infrastructure, swamps, and marshes provide human communities with incredibly cost-effective protection against storm surges and heat waves.
Sightseers can contribute to wetland conservation by being responsible visitors – this includes sticking to marked paths, keeping pets under control, as well as avoiding littering, disturbing wild creatures, and carrying away natural objects of beauty or interest.
Wetlands in the North
Despite development pressure, several wetlands still exist in the northern third of Taiwan – more, in fact, than the MOI’s Ramsar Citizen map would have you believe. (“Ramsar” refers to the Convention on Wetlands that was signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, though Taiwan was not a signing member.)
Tianliaoyang Wetland (田寮洋濕地), just inland from Fulong Beach in New Taipei City, doesn’t get a mention even though it offers exceptional birdwatching opportunities. According to eBird, an online global database of bird observations, 354 avian species have been seen here – more than at any other birdwatching hotspot in Taiwan.
The Ramsar Citizen map treats 11 distinct sites as parts of the Tamsui River wetland. Among birdwatchers, the best known is the 57-hectare Guandu Nature Park, within walking distance of Guandu Station on Taipei Metro’s Red Line. No fewer than 229 bird species have been recorded here. But despite careful management by the Taipei Wild Bird Society, the park’s ecosystem faces various threats, including invasive species such as tilapia, red-eared slider terrapins, and stray dogs.
Guandu Nature Park (關渡自然公園) is the only place featured in this article where there’s an admission charge (NT$60; elementary and junior high students pay NT$30; children under six and visitors with disabilities get in for free), and access is limited to certain times (9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday).
Since the construction of the Port of Taipei in the mid-1990s, silt accumulating against the port’s north jetty has resulted in the appearance of a new wetland. The dunes here have become a breeding ground for oriental plovers and other birds, while the intertidal zone is a feeding ground for gulls and terns.
The Ramsar Citizen website frankly acknowledges the problems faced by each location it profiles. Humans bringing vehicles into the Port of Taipei wetland cause ecological disruption, and the expected impact of the under-construction Danjiang Bridge, which will be 920 meters long, is unclear. The health of this and other wetland sites around the Tamsui Estuary is also imperiled by residents who dump waste soil and trash or trespass to catch crabs or shrimp.
The West Coast
Like the wetland beside Taipei Port’s northern jetty, Gaomei Wetland (高美濕地) in Taichung didn’t exist until human activity changed the shape of the coastline. From the mid-1970s onward, a levee in Qingshui District captured silt dislodged from around the mouth of the nearby Dajia River, creating extensive tidal mudflats.
Since 2004, around 700 hectares of dry land and seashore here have been classified as part of the Gaomei Wetlands Wildlife Sanctuary (高美野生動物保護區). Despite this status, there’s no limit to the number of people that can visit the wetlands. If you come during the weekend when dusk is approaching – Gaomei is famous for its sunsets – you might have to share the 500-meter-long boardwalk with well over a hundred people. On weekdays, you have a much better chance of seeing the crustaceans and waterbirds that populate the intertidal zone.
The ocean-facing parts of Changhua, Yunlin, Chiayi, Tainan, and Kaohsiung are characterized by gray flats inhabited by crabs and mudskippers, swampy windbreak forests, lagoons, oyster farms, and abandoned salt pans. In recent millennia, an abundance of sediment washing down from the mountains every typhoon season has pushed the coastline westward. However, rising sea levels may yet retake some of the ground that’s been gained.
The region’s wetlands are key resting spots on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, a corridor through which vast numbers of birds migrate between their summer breeding grounds in the far north and warmer regions where they spend the remainder of the year. Among notable wintertime visitors are Kentish plovers, Lesser and Greater sand-plovers, Pied avocets, and Black-faced spoonbills. The latter species, which is present between late September and early spring, has both driven and benefited from efforts to protect local wetlands.
The spoonbill has long been synonymous with Tainan’s Qigu District, where Zengwen Estuary Wetland (曾文溪口重要濕地) and Sicao Important Wetland (四草重要濕地) are located. The Taijiang National Park’s Black-faced Spoonbill Conservation Area (黑面琵鷺保育區) can be found just north of the mouth of the Zengwen River. As of publication of this article, the area’s ecological exhibition hall is closed for repairs, but if you continue a few hundred meters to the west, you’ll come across birdwatching blinds from which you can gaze out across the water.
Part of the global black-faced spoonbill population (recently estimated at 6,600, up from fewer than 1,000 in the 1990s) spends the colder months in Chiayi County. The county’s Budai Salt Pans (布袋鹽田), Haomeiliao Nature Reserve (好美寮自然保護區), and Aogu Wetland Forest Park (鰲鼓濕地森林園區) each offer sightseers a distinct experience.
The salt-pan terrain is flat and completely exposed, so bring a hat. Like other artificial forests so close to the sea, Haomeiliao’s woodlands look sickly and are littered with fishing-industry waste. But the adjacent tidelands, as any patient visitor will discover, are alive with fiddler crabs.
Aogu is managed by the Forestry Bureau, a government agency usually associated with sites deep in the mountains. This 1,465-hectare park has a history unlike conventional nature reserves because it’s the outcome of a misguided attempt more than 60 years ago to convert marshlands into productive fields for the state-run Taiwan Sugar Corp.
While seawater contamination meant Aogu’s land was never suitable for growing crops, subsidence created brackish ponds and sheltered lagoons ideal for waterbirds. For first-time visitors, the Seaview Pavilion (觀海樓) near the peninsula’s northwest corner is an excellent place to start. Volunteers staff the information center here and share news on recent bird sightings.
Like the Zengwen and Sicao wetlands, Aogu and Budai are recognized by BirdLife International – a UK-headquartered global partnership of non-governmental organizations – as Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas.
At Linyuan Ocean Wetland Park (林園海洋溼地公園), in the southeasternmost part of Kaohsiung, the main attraction isn’t birds but marine creatures. This six-hectare site hosts two brackish lagoons, hundreds of mangroves, and a population of light brown Cassiopea andromeda jellyfish that peaks in the cool season.
Jellyfish of a similar size tend to cluster together. In shallower spots, most of them are no bigger than a passionfruit. Elsewhere, you might find a school of jellyfish in which each is bigger than a rice bowl. The jellyfish spend most of their time upside-down because they live in symbiosis with single-celled algae called dinoflagellates. Like plants, these microorganisms are photosynthetic, providing each jellyfish with up to 90% of its daytime energy needs. In return, the dinoflagellates obtain nutrition, carbon dioxide, and a protected position close to the water’s surface where they can receive more sunlight.
If turned over – for instance, by a visitor who hasn’t read the notices asking humans not to disturb the jellyfish – it shakes off its languor, gradually rights itself, and settles back down within a minute or two. Gazing at these marine creatures as they laze in sun-dappled water is every bit as soothing as watching spoonbills feed on a tidal flat.
A little over 30 km from Taipei’s Xinyi District as the crow flies, but at least an hour and a half by car, Shuanglianpi (雙連埤) in the hills of Yilan County has been a conservation triumph.
The 17-hectare Shuanglianpi Wildlife Refuge (雙連埤野生動物保護區), named for a sublime lake 470 meters above sea level in Yuanshan Township, is cared for by the Taiwan-based environmental NGO Society of Wilderness, with financial help from the Wistron Foundation, the charitable arm of electronics manufacturer Wistron Corp.
On sunny days, the lake’s reed beds are abuzz with dragonflies (58 species) and other aquatic insects (32 species). Throughout the refuge, 206 species of terrestrial insects have been spotted, plus a variety of ferns and other intriguing plants. It’s usually possible to park near the water’s edge and walk all the way around – the total distance is about 2 km.
Compared to Shuanglianpi, Matai’an Wetland Ecological Park (馬太鞍濕地公園) in the East Rift Valley is far more tourist-oriented. The place name is a Mandarin Chinese transliteration of an indigenous toponym, Fataan, which refers to a type of bean (sometimes called the pigeon pea) that sustained local Amis households during a long period of warfare with another Amis clan in what is now Hualien County’s Guangfu Township.
For many tour groups that spend time in Matai’an, the highlight is a lunch or dinner full of indigenous flavors. At least three restaurants near the wetland serve Amis-style cuisine. Compared to some of Taiwan’s other Austronesian cooking traditions, salads, and vegetables are much in evidence. If you order a freshwater fish dish, your server may explain that it was caught nearby using the palakaw method, which makes it easy to trap shrimp and eels as well as fish.