Sun, May 04, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Tourists hard to find at Kuandu Nature Reserve

Birds are flocking to Kuandu Nature Reserve but the birdwatchers are staying away because of SARS. Protection of the nation's avians, however, carries on regardless

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Avian visitors to Kuandu Nature Reserve (關渡自然公園) are currently having a rare taste of homebuilding out of the gaze of camera and binocular toting bird watchers, as the annual nesting season gets underway in an usually empty park. Like many of the nation's popular weekend destinations, the nature reserve has seen a marked decrease in the number of visitors due to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic.

With thousands of migratory swallows returning to Taiwan to roost before departing for warmer climes in late August, this is traditionally one of the park's busiest times.

Although the exact number of swallows that arrive in Kuandu to nest is unknown, the town's most celebrated birdwatcher, Hsu Tsai (許財) -- the "Birdman of Kuandu" -- calls Kuandu the "bird capital of Northern Taiwan." The ever-jovial Hsu did try to figure out the number of swallows two years ago, but had to admit defeat as he was overwhelmed by the number of birds flocking to the area.

"Last year I had the idea to count, or at least gather data regarding the approximate number of swallows that nested in the town. It didn't take me longer than a few days to realize I was out of my depth," Hsu said. "The sheer number of swallows made the task an impossibility."

Although the number and species of birds now visiting the Kuandu area in order to nest has increased since the development of the park two years ago, Hsu said the area has been a magnet for migratory birds for hundreds of years.

"This area of the Tamsui River has always been home to migratory birds. Before the park opened there were somewhere in the region of 200 species of birds in the area," recalled the Kuandu native. "Since it opened two years ago I reckon that number has almost doubled and now stands at about 400 species."

The idea for creating Kuandu Nature Reserve was reportedly based on an off-the-cuff proposal made to then-Taipei City mayor, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) in 1981 by a Taipei resident. The land the park now occupies was declared a natural ecological preservation zone by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Council of Agriculture in 1986.

The 57-hectare man-made nature reserve, which consists of coastal forest, fresh water biological, stream ecological and low-elevation ecological areas, cost Taipei City taxpayers a total of NT$15 billion and was opened to the public on Oct. 27 2001.

Although the park has become one of Taipei's leading tourist attractions, the lush green and environmentally healthy looking conservation sight is not without its critics. Academics have pointed to a thin line that exists between conservation and overprotection. Experts believe that if the man-made mangrove forest continues to grow at its current rate it could damage the park's ecosystem, albeit a manmade one. According to reports released last year, the parks forested area has grown by 115 percent, or from 10.48 hectares in 1989 to 23.55 hectares.

Finding a balance

The general public might be under the impression that green is good. Some experts, however, think otherwise. If the park is to maintain a balanced ecosystem, which is currently home to between 124 and 220 species of migratory birds, depending on the time of year, then the introduction of less picturesque areas could be crucial.

"Wide-open mudflats might smell bad and not look as pleasant as greenery, but they serve an equally, if not more important function," said Hsieh Hwey-lian (謝蕙蓮), of Academia Sinica's Institute of Zoology (中央研究院動物研究所). "The bio-diversity found in mudflats is as crucial, if not more so in certain cases, as those found in mangrove swamps."

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