After functioning as one of Taiwan’s most important military outposts since the 1950s, the Dongsha Islands (東沙群島, known as the Pratas Islands in English) are now being opened for a more amiable purpose — ecotourism.
In a trial run, the government initiated a summer camp last month that invited 46 university students to take a 16-hour voyage across the South China Sea for a glimpse of the islands’ unique biodiversity.
Before this unprecedented nature excursion, with the exception of the military and a handful of academics, nobody had set foot on the atolls.
Located 450km southwest of Kaohsiung, the Dongsha Islands have been claimed and occupied by Taiwan since 1946.
However, the islands have never been open to the public for reasons of national security.
The island group includes Dongsha Island, which is 2.8km long and 865m wide, the Dongsha Atoll, and two underwater banks. The atoll, which includes the coral beneath the sea, is round in shape, with a diameter of 25km.
“Dongsha is important to Taiwan in terms of military strategy and operational tactics,” said -Chiang Huang-chih (姜皇池), a professor specializing in international maritime law at National Taiwan University’s College of Law.
Every ship that sails south from Taiwan must pass the island, so it is necessary for the government to maintain a clear sea channel and prevent blockades in times of war or emergency, Chiang said.
Despite the islands’ military importance, Taiwan has chosen to tone down its armed presence in recent years and promote peaceful development with Southeast Asian countries over disputed South China Sea territories.
For instance, its military presence at Dongsha was replaced by the Coast Guard Administration in 2000.
Although occasionally the coast guard deters fishermen from other countries from entering its territorial waters, it also works hand-in-hand with officials from the Marine National Park to conserve the islands’ biodiversity.
According to park official Chen Hui-ju, Dongsha’s location in the tropics has blessed it with 200 species of plants, birds and insects, as well as 300 coral reefs.
Park officials and the coast guard not only protect the wildlife from pollution, but have also initiated projects to conserve the coral, restore indigenous species and rebuild hatching grounds for green sea turtles, she said.
Some initial results have been encouraging.
The coverage of live coral on the outskirts of Dongsha Atoll, which was almost destroyed by warm waters resulting from an El Nino weather pattern in 1998, has reached more than 80 percent, according to information from the park administration office.
On Aug. 23, a green sea turtle weighing more than 100kg trudged ashore and laid her eggs, the first recorded instance of this in years.
With more recovery efforts under way, a senior park official said they were now focusing on transforming Dongsha into a “green” island, which includes using solar power for electricity.
“I read about Dongsha in textbooks, but had never seen it with my own eyes. It’s such a mysterious place,” said Chao Lo-yu (趙珞榆), a student from Taipei College of Maritime Technology who went on the four-day government--sponsored tour.
“However, the scenery here is beyond my imagination. I am totally overwhelmed,” she said. “The massive amount of sea grass along the shores and countless stars in the sky are things I had not expected from this remote military island.”