Tuesday, June 23, 2015

An online guide to Taiwan's wetlands

Throughout the world, wetlands are regarded as sites of exceptional biodiversity. In addition to hosting large numbers of aquatic plants, insects and birds, they help the overall environment in various ways. Wetlands are able to remove certain contaminants from water; they also absorb excess water and so mitigate floods. There's some evidence they're absorbing more carbon dioxide as the planet gets warmer, yet some studies indicate they're now releasing more methane than before. This is worrying, because as a greenhouse-gas it's far more potent than CO2.

Over the past four centuries, several of Taiwan's inland wetlands have disappeared, drained so Han Chinese settlers could farm the land. Parts of major coastal wetlands have been converted into industrial zones. In the past few decades, however, the country's remaining wetlands have been recognised as a valuable ecological resource. They now enjoy some legal and social protection. According to this government website, Taiwan has two wetlands of international importance, fifty of national importance and another forty of regional importance. In total, these wetlands cover around 57,000 hectares of land, or more than 1.5% of Taiwan's land area.

The fact the English-language section of the website obviously isn't complete and seems not to have been updated for some time hopefully doesn't reflect official indifference to the fate and state of wetlands around the ROC; the Chinese-language section is much better. The words 'Ramsar Citizen' may confuse some readers: They refer to the Convention on Wetlands that was signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971; Taiwan isn't a contracting party to the convention, no doubt because of its diplomatic isolation.

Both of the ROC's internationally-significant wetlands are in Tainan City, and both lie within Taijiang National Park: The estuary of the Zengwen River (曾文溪) and Sicao (四草, spelled Sihcao on the website). Officially, the Zengwen drains 1,177km2 (around 3.2%of the land area of the main island of Taiwan) and is 138.5km long. Within Sicao are nature reserves plus relics of the region's now-defunct salt industry. Both attract great numbers of birds, especially during the south's long, comfortable October-to-April dry season. 

Several of the wetlands described on the website are off-limits to the public. One is Yuanyang Lake Wetland (鴛鴦湖濕地), located in mid-elevation mountains in the north. It's Chinese name translates as 'Mandarin Duck Lake' - owls, woodpeckers and other avians abound. A surprising number of the sites listed are manmade. Among the locations in this category is Guantian Wetland (官田濕地), also in Taiwan, which I wrote about back in 2006.

Wetlands Taiwan has lots of good photos and Chinese-language information on its website. The photo above comes from the Society of Wilderness page on Shuanglianpi (雙連埤) in Yilan County, accessed by the road to Fushan Botanical Garden.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Dragon Boat Festival is coming

Possibly the oldest sport in Taiwan, dragon-boat racing is an integral part of Duanwu Festival, an annual celebration for people of Chinese origin for over 2,000 years. The festival’s key date is the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which this year falls on June 20. Each boat is guided by a drummer whose beats help the 20 paddlers synchronize their strokes; the vessels get their name from dragon-head decorations at the bow and the dragon tail at the stern.

Duanwu Festival is also when Taiwanese people make and eat sticky rice dumplings, known in Mandarin as zhongzi (粽子). These contain pork, mushrooms, peanuts and sometimes other ingredients. They commemorate Qu Yuan, a poet and government official who lived more than 2,300 years ago. Qu is remembered for his patriotism and loyalty. While in exile, he learned the emperor he had served had been overthrown. Distraught, he tied rocks to his feet and ended his life by jumping into a river in what is now mainland China’s Hunan province. Because Qu was so respected by those who knew him, when they heard about his demise they hurled rice balls into the water, so his body wouldn't be eaten by fish. That is how the rice-dumpling custom got started; the dragon-boat races are inspired by the local people who rushed out in their boats in a bid to save Qu.

While Taiwanese aren't nearly so keen on team sports as Americans or Australians, they've embraced cheerleading with a passion. Any event, including dragon-boat races, is an excuse. (Both photos taken from Changhua County Government's website.)