Disease threatens spoonbills in Taiwan

Earth Island News

SAVE International

©SAVE Int’l

Last winter, 73 black-faced spoonbills died of botulism in Taiwan. About 50 birds had already died before the cause of the disease could be identified. Local officials, along with scientists from Japan and around the world, scrambled to determine the cause of the outbreak, to keep healthy spoonbills away from the source of the disease, and to save some ailing birds with antidote serum. Recent botulism epidemics have killed birds by the thousands on Lake Erie, the Salton Sea, and San Francisco Bay, but the situation in Taiwan is more serious than the numbers might suggest: 73 black-faced spoonbills represent one tenth of the species’ total population.

After spending the summer raising their young in Korea or in unknown sites in northeastern Asia, more than half of these rare birds come to Tainan County, Taiwan, for the winter. Here, on Chiku Lagoon and the estuary of the Tseng-wen River, the spoonbills enjoy rich habitat, enhanced by a dense array of shallow man-made ponds used for salt evaporation and for fish-farming. The number of spoonbills counted in this area has increased in the past few years, but this change is probably not an indication that the population of spoonbills is growing, but that they’re running out of other places to live.

Humans are destroying spoonbill habitat throughout the birds’ flyway along the eastern coast of Asia. A few sites in Taiwan, China, and Vietnam have been designated as protected habitat, but most of the spoonbills flock to places that lack governmental protection. In South Korea, tidal mudflats where the spoonbills forage are being filled. In Macao, a vacation resort is taking the place of critical habitat. When habitat has been destroyed, the remaining birds must find another place to live, and if the birds are concentrated on only a few sites, they become especially vulnerable to outbreaks like the recent wave of botulism. When insufficient habitat remains, all of the birds die, and the species becomes extinct.

Protecting habitat is a difficult proposition in Taiwan, where birds become victims to politics. Under Criterion 6 of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, signed in 1971 and now protecting more than 200 million acres worldwide, “A wetland should be considered internationally important if it regularly supports one percent of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of waterbird.” Counting one percent of the population of black-faced spoonbills takes only two hands. Hosting hundreds of spoonbills each year, Chiku Lagoon and the Tseng-wen Estuary clearly serve a vital role to the species. But Taiwan is not a member of the UN, and only members may join the Convention. Fending off threats to Tainan County’s wetlands requires vigilance.

In the past five years, a group of activists in Taiwan, the United States, and around the world struck down the proposed Binnan Industrial Complex, which would have included a steel plant and a petrochemical plant, and would have destroyed the rich habitat of Chiku Lagoon. Through its emissions to the air and water, noise, truck traffic, and eventual (and unavoidable) spills of chemicals, Binnan would have displaced the local populations of both fishermen and spoonbills. Students, faculty members, and staff at both the University of California, Berkeley and the National Taiwan University waged a campaign against Binnan, revealing the flaws in the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment and showing that tourism (especially ecotourism) and other practices could bring greater long-term prosperity than Binnan. Five years into the campaign, with a new president in Taiwan sympathetic to environmental concerns, the menace of Binnan seems all but defeated. Nevertheless, local officials have not given up on old economic models centered on big industry: the latest threat to the spoonbills lies in a proposed airport just five kilometers north of the spoonbills’ prime habitat. Activists have begun another campaign.

Take Action: To find out more about SAVE International, including how to make a donation, please go to www.earthisland.org/save. You can email SAVE International directly at poonbill@uclink4.berkeley.edu.

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