Known as the “guardian angel of Taiwan’s cetaceans,” National Cheng Kung University professor Wang Jiang-ping (王建平) has been an indispensable force in the drive to safeguard the critically endangered marine mammals for more than a decade.
Wang, who is also director of the university-affiliated Marine Biology and Cetaceans Research Center and convener of the Taijiang Cetacean Rescue Center (TCRC), started in the field of whale research and rescue after his first mission to save a dwarf sperm whale, nicknamed “Lady Kim” (金姑娘), that stranded itself on Golden Beach in then-Tainan City in 2000.
From that time on, Wang, university students and TCRC volunteers traveled around the country, including to Lanyu (蘭嶼) and Green Island (綠島), to protect whales living in waters near the nation from life-threatening situations.
Starting in a shabby tent that served as a provisional rescue center in Tainan’s Sihcao (四草) protected area, it was Wang’s relentless effort to protect whales that led to the establishment of the research center, as well as the nation’s recognition by the international community as the regional leader in cetacean research among other Asian countries.
“Over the course of 12 years, the rescue center has managed to save and treat as many as 26 cetaceans. Among them are two whales and one dolphin that have returned to the ocean,” Wang said.
Wang said the two whales, an infant sperm whale named Mei-mei (妹妹) and a baby killer whale called Hsiao-hsiao (小小), were both released in 2010, followed by a bottle-nosed dolphin, nicknamed Shun-tzu (順子), that was sent back to the ocean this year.
Wang said that there are 27 species of cetaceans in the water around Taiwan, which is more than one-third of the 81 cetacean species found worldwide.
“The nation’s high density of whales often amaze the international community, and that is why they [the cetaceans] are our most valuable treasures,” Wang said.
In spite of the hardships that whale rescue efforts require — around-the-clock attention and long-time devotion — Wang has spared no efforts in being the spearhead of “Cetaceans 911.”
However, Wang’s only concern is that there might not be anyone to continue his work after his scheduled retirement in three years, as most of his students are turned off by the hard work of whale rescue missions, while the rescue center’s meager annual subsidy of a little more than NT$1 million (US$33,700) only seems to make things worse.
“Saving a beached cetacean requires tremendous manpower and costs as much as NT$600,000, which means the subsidy is only enough to rescue two marine mammals a year,” Wang said.
Wang said that saving cetaceans is not the hardest part of the job compared with “cleaning up the bodies of deceased whales in the middle of the night and performing an autopsy on them.”
“The odors coming from an autopsy are just too unpleasant for most people to endure,” Wang said.
Saying in a self-mocking tone, Wang said he might end up a “lonely old man” as four of his research students have “bailed on him” this year alone.
However, Wang said the sight of many volunteers working to protect and treat whales is a consolation which keeps him moving along the path of whale conservation, particularly at a time when the country should step up its maritime research efforts in the face of fierce competition from China.