FEATURE/National park faces dilemma in protecting wild water buffaloes

01/16/2021 09:05 PM
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A wild Asian buffalo in Yangmingshan National Park. CNA file photo
A wild Asian buffalo in Yangmingshan National Park. CNA file photo

Taipei, Jan. 16 (CNA) The sudden deaths of dozens of wild Asian buffaloes in Yangmingshan National Park in the past four months has triggered questions about what should be done to save them and how much human intervention might be necessary.

Yet despite autopsies of the dead animals, meetings of experts, an examination of environmental factors, and heaps of criticism, park authorities seem no closer to answers than when the surge of deaths began, even when it comes to identifying the cause of the problem.

Such inaction could imperil the future of the wild herd, which numbered over 90 water buffaloes before they began to die in big numbers in November 2020.

What happened?

Water buffaloes have been grazing on mountain grasslands on Yangmingshan since the 1930s, when Japanese colonists set up a pasture in the Qingtiangang area that is now part of Yangmingshan National Park to graze their cattle and other livestock.

In 1952, the Kuomintang government established Yangmingshan Range in the same area, offering local farmers a place where the water buffaloes they raised for heavy-duty farm work could roam when they were not needed.

As time passed and water buffaloes were gradually phased out of their traditional role -- plowing fields -- they were forsaken by their owners, but were still looked after by the Taipei Farmers' Association until 2003.

Since then, the animals have been left to fend for themselves in the wild, roaming and grazing freely on the vast Qingtiangang Grasslands.

That changed in October 2019, however, when park headquarters confined the water buffaloes within a 42-hectare area with 2.7 kilometers of barbed-wire fencing to separate the animals from people in what became a popular hiking area.

The move was made after a woman strolling in the Qingtiangang area in August 2018 was rammed to the ground by a wild buffalo in heat and died from the injuries she sustained two weeks later.

Roughly a year after the fence was put in, the wild water buffaloes began dying in large numbers -- three in mid-October 2020, roughly 30 in November and December, and three more in the first 12 days of January 2021, cutting the herd by at least a third, according to park data.

That was after only one wild water buffalo death was reported to park headquarters per year in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Two wild water buffaloes are pictured in a shed in the national park for feeds prepared by the park authorities. CNA photo Jan. 10, 2021
Two wild water buffaloes are pictured in a shed in the national park for feeds prepared by the park authorities. CNA photo Jan. 10, 2021

Cause of death controversy

The rash of deaths, mostly in the Qingtiangang area, sent officials scrambling for answers.

In late December, Yangmingshan National Park spokesman Chang Shun-fa (張順發) said the initial findings of an investigation into the situation indicated they were victims of "malnutrition."

Autopsies of water buffalo carcasses found that the wild water buffaloes had enough to eat but that the food sources at their breeding sites were not sufficiently nutritious, according to Chang.

Just over two weeks later, the Taipei City Animal Protection Office fined the park headquarters NT$75,000 for failing to "comprehensively address the biological needs of the water buffaloes," leading to the surge in deaths since November.

The office argued that fencing in the water buffaloes left them vulnerable to seasonal weather changes, in particular severe winters with constant rains and strong winds.

Unable to graze wherever they wanted, they were prevented from getting access to the sources of nutrition they had long relied on, and while the park headquarters did not deliberately let the buffaloes die, its negligence resulted in their deaths, the office contended.

A park worker brings feeds to the shed. CNA photo Jan. 10, 2021
A park worker brings feeds to the shed. CNA photo Jan. 10, 2021

The Yangmingshan park headquarters dismissed the office's conclusion.

Liu Pei-tung (劉培東), head of the headquarters, argued that some of the wild buffaloes were found dead in the neighboring Dingshan Shitiling and Huangzuishan areas where no fences were installed.

There were also no signs of any of the dead buffaloes trying to break through fences to get to grazing grounds, and the 42-hectare area that was fenced in had several ecological systems, including grasslands and valleys, Liu said, without confirming that those systems had grasses with the necessary nutrition.

The fence policy was actually necessary, he said, because the park headquarters is an ecological manager responsible for striking a "balance between park visitors and the breeding of water buffaloes."

Liu Chen-hsuan (劉振軒), a professor of veterinary medicine at National Taiwan University, has blamed the deaths on aged vegetation on the grasslands and this winter's rainy, cloudy and chilly weather, which he said limited the growth of protein-rich young grass.

The rain also washed away some of the minerals, leaving insufficient nutrition for the wild animals.

But similar conditions have existed in the past without many of the water buffaloes dying, making it hard to pinpoint the truth.

Without a clear cause of death other than the issue of nutrition, park authorities seem baffled as to how to proceed.

A park worker feeds one of the two wild water buffaloes often lingering in a shed in the national park. CNA photo Jan. 10, 2021
A park worker feeds one of the two wild water buffaloes often lingering in a shed in the national park. CNA photo Jan. 10, 2021

Tackling the problem?

They did take the emergency step of putting salt bricks -- food bricks for licking that are enriched with protein and minerals -- and fodder made of a mixture of different kinds of grass in places where the wild water buffaloes usually congregate.

But the Qingtiangang residents have their own dietary habits, and Chang has noticed that the wild animals are fond of the carpet grass growing on the grassland and are unwilling to eat the prepared foods unless the weather was too bad for them to graze.

A longer-term option is to move the wild water buffaloes.

In the park's meeting with experts and scholars on Jan. 6, some suggested gradually moving the water buffaloes away from Qingtiangang to other suitable pastures because they believe the unstable weather on Yangmingshan is not ideal for such animals.

They failed to explain, however, why the water buffaloes could live and breed in the area for several decades without problems but was suddenly unable to cope with the climate.

Nonetheless, the park seems amenable to that idea, though still hesitant to actually take action. It said it will hold public hearings and hold more talks on the idea before deciding whether to forward with it.

Perhaps the best solution would be to remove the fence and post a warning to hikers. As Ho Jen-tsu (何仁慈), a volunteer conservation inspector at the park, argued, human intervention may be futile because the water buffaloes have lived for a long time without human interference and "no one can tell them what to eat and where to move."

The lack of solutions or even of a consensus reached on the cause of the deaths points to the tough challenge facing the popular park in northern Taiwan and the fragile future of the water buffaloes that have been fixtures in the area for decades.

(By Lin Yu-hsuan, Su Szu-yun and Elizabeth Hsu)

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