Sun, Dec 29, 2002 - Page 2 News List

Spoonbill deaths force rethink

GROUNDSWELL So far, 66 endangered spoonbills have died, but moves are underway to ensure no more lives are put at risk because of failures in environmental management

By Chiu Yu-Tzu  /  STAFF REPORTER

The recent deaths of endangered black-faced spoonbills in Chiku Lagoon, Tainan County, has sparked hot debate about Taiwan's disappearing wetlands and its inability to prevent the spread of disease among birds.

As of Friday, when Legislators Su Ying-kwei (蘇盈貴) of the TSU and Lee Chun-yi (李俊毅) of the DPP vowed to unite their colleagues to allocate NT$1.6 billion in 2003 toward wetlands protection, 66 endangered black-faced spoonbill had died after being infected with C. botulinum toxin.

"The lack of habitat for the spoonbills resulted in the spread of botulism," Su said.

The loss represents more than 9 percent of the spoonbill population in Taiwan this winter, with Taiwanese birdwatchers counting 705 birds arriving in the country for their cold-weather migration.

It is estimated that there are only 1000 spoonbills worldwide.

According to Su, the lack of food in Taiwan's wetlands forced spoonbills to hunt for food at nearby fish farms.

However, cold fronts that hit Taiwan in early December caused a sharp drop in temperature that led to the appearance of botulism toxin in the fish, which was passed on to the spoonbills.

The black-faced spoonbill was first spotted in Taiwan in 1893 when a British scientist recorded its appearance in Anping, Tainan County.

Between 1925 and 1938, Japanese bird watchers recorded an average of about 50 black-faced spoonbills visiting Anping every year.

However, local scientists and conservationists in Taiwan did not conduct comprehensive research on the bird until 1988, when ornithologists in Hong Kong warned of the dangers of disappearing wetlands and the impact it could have on spoonbill numbers.

Each year, the birds leaves their breeding sites in North Korea, flying all the way down to southeastern China, Taiwan and even Vietnam.

In 1988, it was estimated that the spoonbill population numbered 288 and the estuary of Tsengwen River in Tainan County was the bird's largest habitat. From October to April, Hong Kong birdwatchers said, about 190 black-faced spoonbills wintered at wetlands in Taiwan.

In 1992, the Council of Agriculture (COA) listed the bird on the endangered species register and ended hunting of the bird in Taiwan.

In 1994, a proposal to build the Pinnan Industrial Complex, which was proposed by two petrochemical and steel-making companies, Tuntex Group and Yieh-loong Co, sparked a movement to protect the endangered bird. The project would have taken over part of the lagoon for factory construction.

Since the suspension of the development project, Chihku Lagoon has been turned into a fascinating nature spot that annually attracts tens of thousands of tourists who are eager to witness the beauty of these rare birds.

As the spoonbill population increases, Su said, Taiwan's efforts in protecting wetlands remained too limited to guarantee the preservation of the birds' wintering sites.

"Obviously, the ecological reserve is not large enough to ensure sources of food for hundreds of black-faced spoonbills," Su said.

Tainan County Government designates only an area covering 300 hectares of wetlands as the bird's main habitat.

Su said that he would persuade his colleagues to provide an additional NT$1.6 billion budget proposal to encourage local governments to turn state-owned coastal lands on the west coast into wetland preserves.

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