Taiwan endangered species focus of new awareness

White dolphin (Matsu's Fish Conservation Union, Taiwan)
Image caption The population of Taiwanese white dolphins has plunged because of factory pollution

Every spring, sections of a highway in Taiwan are closed - not for construction but for butterflies.

The measure is taken to ensure that tens of thousands of purple milkweed butterflies are not hit by vehicles as they migrate.

Such efforts reflect increasing eco-consciousness in Taiwan, which is home to a wide array of fauna.

In recent years, the government has stepped up animal protection, raising fines against abuse and banning fishing for endangered whale sharks.

Public awareness is also rising. Volunteers come out annually to alert motorists to land crabs crossing a highway to lay eggs at sea, while dog pampering has replaced dog eating as the norm.

But the island still has a serious problem with its treatment of wildlife and pets.

Those endemic to Taiwan face especially grave threats.

Extinction threat

Fewer than 100 Taiwanese white dolphins remain - their population has plunged due to polluting factories.

Image caption Taiwan is a destination for trafficked animals including orangutans and giant tortoises

Formosan black bears are not faring much better. Although they are a national symbol and legally protected, they face extinction caused by poaching, habitat encroachment and public indifference.

Other species such as the cloud leopard and East Asian sea otter are believed to be extinct.

Furthermore, although Taiwan has one of the world's five biggest fishing industries, its waters are so barren from overfishing that most of its vessels head to distant seas.

Greenpeace has warned that Taiwan's huge fishing fleets and their methods risk wiping out tuna stocks.

Taiwan is also one of the biggest producers and consumers of shark's fin, contributing to a depletion in shark populations. Many sharks are thrown back into the sea to die after their fins are severed.

The island is also a destination for trafficked animals including orangutans and giant tortoises. People buy them for novelty or to make money from tourists, but many are kept in poor conditions.

Its stray dog problem, moreover, is considered by activists to be worse than other developed countries.

The government estimates there are 180,000 strays, but animal rights groups say the figure is much higher. Taiwan each year kills more dogs by euthanasia than Japan per capita.

Abandoned by irresponsible owners or breeders, many are found suffering from starvation, disease, or severe injuries caused by farmers' traps or car accidents.

Others are physically abused by people. And dog eating still occurs here, even though it is illegal.

Economic pressures

The island is at a juncture. With a modern population increasingly aware of the need to protect animals, it is at the same time a recently developed economy and the concept of animal rights is still new.

Activists say Taiwan's government does not actively enforce animal protection laws, responding only when there are complaints or media reports.

"What we see in Taiwan is some people really love a certain type of animal or their own pet, but they do it from a human's perspective.

"What we lack is an overall understanding of and concern for animal welfare," said Chu Tseng-hung, director of the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (East).

Species such as butterflies and crabs receive protection mainly because they do not conflict with economic growth.

But a new, environmentally-minded generation is increasingly demanding a reversal of priorities.

One of the strongest examples of this is an ongoing battle between a company seeking to build a petrochemical plant on Taiwan's west coast and dolphin conservationists who say it will further harm the dolphins' already damaged habitat as well as fisheries farming and the ecosystem.

Conservationists have held numerous protests. Last year they launched an unusual campaign: getting ordinary people to donate money to buy part of the coastal wetland that the company wants for the plant.

Image caption Conservationists have been taking to the streets of Taiwan in protest against cruelty to animals

More than 56,000 people have pledged about $8m (£5m) so far.

"This will at least provide the dolphins a corridor to swim in. If the project is allowed to go through, they would have little chance of surviving," said Grace Kan, spokeswoman of the Matsu Fish Conservation Union.

The company meanwhile is warning that if the project is cancelled, the industry's competitiveness will be hurt and jobs lost.

But Ms Kan reflects opinions previously non-existent on an island long-focused on economic growth at the expense of the environment when she says: "If an industry can't let people live healthily, shouldn't we reconsider whether we really need this industry?"

The government is awaiting an environmental impact assessment report before making a decision.

Officials say there is progress on some problems affecting animals, but admit more needs to be done.

"Our position is we need to protect valuable species," said Hu Sing-hwa, vice-minister of the Council of Agriculture, which overseas animals.

"With some species, we found out about the problems late, but we will continue to make efforts to increase animals' survival rate."

Officials say enforcing laws alone will not work. They are stepping up education, including in schools.

There are some positive signs: pet adoptions have increased. People actively report on wild animals being raised illegally or kept in poor conditions.

Many young couples now refuse to serve shark's fin soup at their weddings. And this year, convenience stores agreed to stop using the ingredient in their ready-made meals for the upcoming Lunar New Year.

It will take time, however, before there is a sea change in public opinion, which is what will ultimately make a difference.

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