Taiwan’s task: balancing development and conservation

Scotland and the East Asian island of Taiwan seem worlds apart, but they share something in common: a strong desire to protect the natural landscape countered by an ever increasing demand for resources. We also share PhD student Yi-Hsiu Chen, who has been collaborating with research teams at the Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute and the National Taiwan University, for several years, looking at how we measure and minimise damage to ecosystems from developments like reservoirs and wind farms.

In this post, Yi-Hsiu and her colleague Fang-Yee Lin (National Taiwan University) discuss these projects, with the aim to stimulate discussion on these difficult situations and the shared issues faced by Scotland and Taiwan.

A Fairy Pitta with an earthworm, a bird species of concern in Taiwan (© Wan-Jyun Chen)

Taiwan’s task: balancing development and conservation

Taiwan, a sweet-potato shaped island in East Asia, is tiny compared to most countries. Somewhere between Belgium and Switzerland in size, forested mountains up to 4000m cover roughly 70% of the island. Crossed by the Tropic of Cancer, Taiwan has both subtropical and tropical climates, meaning the weather is generally warm and humid. In the summer, the temperature often approaches 40°C, and even after three years of living in Scotland, I can still vividly recall the sound of thunder and the smell of sudden heavy rain falling on a hot pavement—my favourite memory of a Taiwanese summer.

Sounds like Taiwan has little in common with Scotland, doesn’t it? In fact, they may have more in common with each other than you think, because both face conflicts between economic development and environmental conservation.

Owing to the dense population—over twenty-three million people—the conflicts between development and conservation have increased dramatically in the past few decades. There is a widespread public desire to protect the unique and diverse natural environment; yet this can conflict with the rising population’s need for more space and resources.

In such dilemmas researchers play a key role finding solutions, and as such I have been working with colleagues in Taiwan on three projects that aim to balance conservation with public need.

Biodiversity offsetting and habitat restoration: Hushan Reservoir

If the impact of a development on an ecosystem is unavoidable, is it possible to compensate for the loss of biodiversity? Biodiversity offsets are conservation strategies that aim to avoid a net loss of biodiversity when a development that may degrade the environment has to proceed. Taiwan, like the EU, is putting increased emphasis on biodiversity offset policy when planning development projects—the Hushan Reservoir is a good example.

The location of Hushan Reservoir (© Wan-Jyun Chen)

In 2004, the Taiwanese government decided to construct a reservoir to supply the growing water demand for agriculture and human consumption in western-central Taiwan; but, the area selected was also a breeding ground for the Fairy Pitta, a bird listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. Unfortunately, the reservoir was unstoppable, so to compensate for the construction we assessed the potential habitat loss within the construction site and the habitat quality of the nearby area, with the aim to prioritise zones for reservation or restoration. Reservations protect those sites with good quality, whereas restoration should restore sites that have been damaged but have good connectivity to the sites with good quality.

The question is, can we really make up for the damage that human activities cause by biodiversity offsets? One leading scientist thinks we should proceed with caution—Dr Martine Maron, a landscape ecologist at the University of Queensland, highlights three factors we should consider: measurability (what should we measure when assessing a habitat?), uncertainty (are we sure the offset will work?) and time lags (how long will it take to compensate for the loss?). To tackle these challenges, we need an accurate, feasible and biological meaningful quantitative framework.

Ecosystem risk assessment: Guandu nature reserve

If a complex and dynamic ecosystem is under threat from human activity, how do we know what is at risk or how to track the damage? In our first move to improve biodiversity offsetting we need to take a step back and rethink how we evaluate an ecosystem. To do this we need to identify an adequate framework for assessing the risk of collapse faced by Taiwanese ecosystems.

In 2013, a new risk assessment framework was proposed for an IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. This identifies key criteria to help us understand the current extent and functionality of an ecosystem, where previously the IUCN had focused solely on individual species—largely ignoring the interactions between them and the interwoven communities they live in. The extent of an ecosystem can be relatively easy to define and measure, often as simple as marking it on a map. However, ecosystem functionality—the effectiveness of all the processes and interactions in an ecosystem—is more difficult to measure, and needs to account for how many different species are there, the range of roles species fill, and the different ways these species respond to environmental change.

To trial this new IUCN framework we selected Guandu nature reserve, a wetland ecosystem and important habitat for wildlife in Taipei metropolitan area. This reserve suffers from water pollution and clogging of wetland by sediment, and we hope this new method will allow us to successfully quantify the vulnerability of this complex ecosystem to human activities.

A channel with mangrove forest in Guandu nature reserve (© Wan-Jyun Chen)

The developing wind power industry and the potential impact on wildlife (by Fang-Yee Lin)

Similar to Scotland, Taiwan is considered one of the countries with the greatest potential for wind power. As of April 2015, Taiwan has 28 on-shore wind farms, containing a total of 321 individual turbines—an average of one wind turbine per 4.7km of western shoreline. However, this is the main migration route and crucial habitat for migratory shorebirds on the East Asia-Australian flyway. For hundreds of thousand birds visiting Taiwan every year, these energy-generating infrastructures are on their daily route between their foraging mudflats and roosting grounds.

Imagine there is an array of giant fans between your dining room and your bedroom: they may be annoying or even dangerous, but what is the impact on birds? The answer is controversial. Our five-year study revealed that although nearly half the birds flew at a blade-swept height, the local collision mortality was low. The shorebirds changed their flight routes to avoid the presence of the wind turbines, especially locations where they were particularly dense. Without tracking birds and measuring how much extra energy these detours use, it is still unclear what the potential impacts will be on the migration behaviour or population dynamics of these shorebirds. Long-term monitoring will continue to resolve these puzzles in the future.

Shorebirds pass through on-shore wind turbines (© Wen-Jay Chih)

In summary, finding a balance between development and conservation will never be easy, especially in locations like Taiwan that have diverse ecosystems, yet only a small landmass for a massive human population; but our work is showing that there are solutions. While our goal still seems to be far away, we are making progress, and by taking a rigorous scientific approach our work is helping to promote and develop initiatives for environmentally sustainable development on fragile island ecosystems and beyond.

Further Information

Above studies are carried out in collaboration with Ruey-Shing Lin and Wan-Jyun Chen in Taiwan Endemic Species Research Institute, Chie-Jen Ko and Fang-Yee Lin in the Institute of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, National Taiwan University, and Formosa Nature History Information Ltd..

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