Taiwan’s Bygone Species and Their Possible Return

Taiwan’s Bygone Species and Their Possible Return
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

Bringing extinct species back from oblivion is no easy task. But the good news is Taiwan has experience in this realm.

It may sound like a story from the age of the dinosaurs, but dugongs once, and still might, ply the Formosan shores, Eurasian otters once swarmed Taiwan’s rivers, and there could still be that odd wily Formosan clouded leopard out there.

Dugongs have not been sighted off Taiwan’s east coast since the 1990s, but they were once here in large numbers. Dugongs, cousins of the manatee of Florida, often mistaken by sailors as mermaids in the days of yore, once swam along the Formosan shore. A relic population still exists off the eastern coast of Okinawa to the north, and they are an ecotourism attraction to the south in the Philippines. They can be found as far south as Australia and far west in the Arabian Sea. Taiwan’s shore is now a blank spot for the species, according to various range maps.

A 2006 report titled: Dugong: Status Report and Action Plans for Countries and Territories published by the United Nations Environment Program and the International Union for Conservation of Nature shows much of Taiwan — from Tainan heading south all the way to the southernmost of Taiwan and along the eastern coast up to Yilan, including Orchid Island and Green Island — as being historical dugong territory. It notes that anecdotal reports of this fascinating and unique species — the only surviving member of the Family Dugongidae, which hails from the Order Sirenia, a name deriving from the sirens of Greek mythology — come in from time to time from Taiwanese fishermen.

However, dugongs may have difficulty finding food in Taiwan. They rely heavily on seagrass as their main diet, but the only places in Taiwan where significant, but shrinking, seagrass meadows can be found today are the Dongsha atoll, the Penghu archipelago, the Xiaoliuqiu island, Green Island, and the Kinmen islands. Could transients still be passing through or do remnant populations persist in these remote locales? No one knows for sure, but is probably unlikely.

Whatever the case, everything should be done to protect their seagrass habitat not only because there can be some hangers-on but also because seagrass itself serves as a massive carbon sink. Aside from a few distant off-shore islands, seagrass is distributed patchily around Taiwan, limiting possibilities for both dugong recoveries and carbon dioxide sequestration.

The dugong’s best bet would be the Dongsha atoll, which contains 1,185 acres of seagrass. It is also home to a variety of fascinating biodiversity, including mollusks, sea snails, sea turtles, and other marine life. However, according to the 2006 report, dugongs haven’t been spotted along the Vietnamese or Hainan Island coasts in many years. It is unclear if they would be making a longer journey from their stronghold at the northern end of Palawan Island in the Philippines to smaller green pastures in Taiwan.

Another long-gone aquatic mammal that called Taiwan home

In late 2017 a Eurasian otter sought sanctuary in a Kinmen elementary school after being savaged by feral dogs (a fate suffered by many of Taiwan’s remaining mammals). Dehydrated and ill, the otter was airlifted to the Taipei Zoo for treatment and recovery. Kinmen’s main island and its smaller sibling, the Little Kinmen (Leiyu township), are the only places remaining in the country that hold Eurasian otter populations.

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Photo Credit: CNA
Eurasian otter

Yet otters once swarmed the rivers of Taiwan proper, including the Tamsui, Keelung, Xindian, and most other rivers. They were wiped out for their lucrative pelts, just as they were nearly obliterated from Alaska and the California coast centuries ago in a “fur rush” that eclipsed the gold rush of the same era. According to Dr. Kurtis Pei (裴家騏), professor of wildlife conservation, the last confirmed sighting of an otter in Taiwan was in Zhiben River (知本) in Taitung County in the wilderness upriver from the hot springs — a place I’ve been spending time in this year.

A member of an Indigenous tribe from Pingtung told me he believes that otters persist in the most difficult to reach gorges of the central mountain range, places even the bravest river-tracers can’t reach. I’d like to believe him, but camera-trap images are needed as proof, and otters are difficult to photo-trap even where they are present.

But how wonderful it would be to stop our YouBike to observe otters swimming on their backs and munching on fish in Taipei City. Long ago, they probably swam among dugongs, who have been known to swim upriver from the sea. That’s what one could have seen in Taiwan.

Lost feline: the Formosan clouded leopard

Dr. Po-Jen Chiang (姜博仁), who heads a project of Formosan clouded leopard conservation, did his best to find traces of the species. It was declared extinct in 2013, but much remote terrain remains unsurveyed in Taitung County, particularly deep in Zhiben Valley.

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Photo Credit: Taiwan Green Party
Formosan clouded leopard

In February 2019, rangers in Daren township (達仁鄉) in Taitung County — an area that falls within Dawushan Nature Reservereported to have seen a clouded leopard “hunting goats” in the wild. Another, or possibly two other (the reporting is unclear) groups of “rangers” claimed to have spotted a clouded leopard roaming around. However, there are no photographs, or even photos of footprints, no scat, no hair, just witness accounts.

The report was enthusiastically picked up by numerous international media outlets, which proclaimed that the Formosan clouded leopard was back from the dead. But until a photograph can be obtained, most likely via camera trap, the rangers’ observations should be treated with caution.

Leopard cats still persist in Taiwan, with Miaoli and Nantou their strongholds and their traces found in Chiayi, but many are hit by cars or poisoned in retaliation by farmers for the raid on chicken coops. If protection measures aren’t scaled up, Taiwan’s leopard cats could soon go the way of the Formosan clouded leopards.

Is there a future for these “lost” species in Taiwan?

Bringing cryptic or extinct species back from oblivion is no easy task. However, the good news is Taiwan has experience in this realm.

The Formosan sika deer (Cervus Nippon taiouanus) was declared extinct in the wild in 1969, yet captive populations began to be released into the wild in 1994 and they are now expanding their range beyond Kenting National Park and even Pingtung County. There are so many now that some say that the government should declare open season on sika deers — a truly remarkable turnaround.

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Photo Credit: CNA
Sika deer

The Formosan landlocked salmon (Oncorhynchus masou formosanus), which hails from the Ice Age, is classified as Critically Endangered by IUCN, but conservationists have long fought to keep it from going extinct. Its population in Shei-Pa National Park (雪霸國家公園) is thought to be stable — proof that if enough hard work is put in, rare species don’t need to go extinct.

On a recent trek in Taitung’s Zhiben Valley, I found a Formosan black bear footprint at approximately 350 meters. It is very low for the species, showing that with minimal human interference, even large mammals can begin repopulating areas they had been driven away from. That valley goes back more than 20 kilometers as the crow flies to the Central Mountain Range and is totally roadless, and we had only done two days of river tracing. Mysteries remain in those mountains.

Out at sea, the situation for the dugong looks dire. Even the small population in the seagrass off the eastern coast of Okinawa is in trouble due to U.S. military exercises, which sometimes include underwater explosions.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating to imagine that dugongs might still pass by Taiwan, mermaids from a bygone era, looking for a patch of seagrass to chow down and bed down in, and that Eurasian otters could be hiding out in the most remote crevices of the central mountains. Hopefully, in the years to come, we’ll uncover some very pleasant wildlife surprises in Taiwan — biological gold, some might say.

In the meantime, there are still plenty of animals — from sea to mountaintops — which deserve conservation efforts. For starters, the two largest mammals on the main island, the Formosan black bear and the Sambar deer. Leopard cats, a protected species, are being killed by people and in accidents, but to date not one single legal fine has been handed down. Sea turtles abound on the Xiaoliuchiu island — one of the only places on Earth where visitors can swim with, but not touch, an endangered green sea turtle. Other curious creatures roam the upper reaches of the mountains, such as yellow-throated martens, crab-eating mongoose, pangolins, small Indian civets, masked palm civets, serows, and many more. Taiwan may not be home to tigers and elephants, but there are plenty here to keep an amateur or even a professional naturalist busy.

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TNL Editors: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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