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Published: January 18th 2009
My primary motivation for traveling to Tawu Mountain Nature reserve in southern Taitung County was to visit a protected area set up with the help of legendary conservationist and wildlife hero Alan Rabinowitz
and George Schaller
. Two of the world's most proactive field biologists, these two dudes met with former Taiwanese President Lee Tung Hui and in 1987 finalized work in the area to secure its protection. Rabinowitz writes of his meeting with President Lee in "Chasing the Dragon's Tail":
"Toward the end of our trip, we met with Taiwan's president, Lee Tung-Hui. I was skeptical before the meeting. Few politicians more than a vague understanding of the true importance of conservation research. But President Lee was different. A handsome, handsome, vibrant man in his sixties, who was considered a young, almost boyish president, he had doctorate in agricultural economics from Cornell University. He was well aware of the benefits of environmental conservation and he wanted to seriously discuss them." (p.143)
The park is perhaps the only place on the island -with the possible exception of Jade Mountain, the highest peak in East Asia- where the Clouded Leopard
may still prowl the crags in search of muntjacs and monkeys. Every time
I travel to the region -which is once or twice a year- I ask locals if the yun-bow, Clouded Leopard, still exists in the mountains of Taiwan's sparsely-populated East. The overwhelming majority of respondents answer in the affirmative without even a wink of hesitation. They also claim that they are still hunted, with their pelts sold quickly and secretly on the black market. This is anecdotal evidence of course, and an officially confirmed sighting hasn't been logged since 1985, but if I knew for certain that the elusive leopard no longer stalked prey in these remote hills, I probably wouldn't come out here anymore.
I first visited Tawu Mountain with family and friends back in the summer of 2004, and at that time, we were stopped on our scooters at the preserve's entrance and made to go back to the police station at the gateway to the gorge to get day-permits for out excursion. It was a minor hassle, but it showed the local police force was taking the protection and monitoring of this area at least somewhat seriously. Recalling the annoying drive back to the police station, I pulled up at the office on the way. Looking into
Tawu's sign knocked to the ground; two Chinese-language signs nearby were also run over.
the windows as I walked up to the front entrance, it seemed as though the station had been abandoned. Inside, one officer, dozing off, manned a single table containing nothing but his hat.
I asked for the permit, and he groggily replied that none were needed anymore. I wasn't sure if should be happy about the convenience (not that obtaining one was a very complex process before) or concerned. The derelict aspect of the 'station' had me leaning toward the latter.
The guard station at the entrance to the park was boarded up, mothballed, and after driving in on the rugged (and dangerous, due to rock fall) cliff-like road for a couple of kilometers, I soon found that 4X4s had leveled the signs indicating the area as a nature preserve. Indeed, the only thing standing in the way of the ecologically-damaging jeeps
and the inner sanctum of the preserve was a pathetic 6-inch high strip of small stones that someone had used to try and barricade the 'preserve' from free-wheeling off-road vehicles that have no business being anywhere near this place.
I followed in as far as my scooter could take me without getting a flat. I realize
on the way out
the prospect of falling rocks -and pulverized boulders littered the path for about 2Km, rattled my nerves
that driving a scooter in was also unhelpful to Tawu's environment, but these jeep trails had already been well-blazed and the weight and noise of my 2-wheeled vehicle was, I think, inconsequential in comparison compared with what roared through here on what seemed like a regular basis. I drove across streams, through pond-like puddles, slowly through swarms of butterflies, but finally the going got a bit too rough for a street motorbike and I abandoned my search for the clouded leopard, and, after frying in the sun and suffering countless rock jolts to my scooter's chassis, I made a new mission -to find a Taiwan Beer.
I was really hoping to find a little B&B somewhere near the 'preserve' and post up for the night, launching a second assault in the morning, perhaps with the help of an eco-guide, but I didn't see anything like I had in mind nearby. I guess Taiwan is years behind the likes of Thailand and Indonesia and Malaysia in this respect...
Once back out on Taiwan's east coast, which faces the Pacific Ocean, I drove until I found a little seafood restaurant that overlooked the Taimali Beach. I had a beer and
now that's the Pacific
Taimali Beach, Taitung County
then wandered down to the shore but didn't wade into the baby blue waves, as most people advised against it. Afterward, I drove back to Taitung City and got a hotel, found more beers, then crashed out at 5pm, awaking at 3 am. I started out at sunrise for the Chihben (Jihben) River Gorge, famous for hot springs but more famous for -for those in the know, that is- for a mythical gorge that, till this day, must look very similar to the way it did 600-800 years ago. Soon after entering the gorge proper, beginning my ascent, I espied a large Taiwanese Macaque (monkey) resting atop the guardrail by the river. I stopped my scooter and he jumped down into the trees. Never before had a seen a monkey at this low elevation and in plain sight in a busy area (and I have visited this area somewhere between 12-15 times now). Then I took a look around and noticed that the streets were empty, and that the hotels seemed almost closed. Was it the global financial crisis allowing nature to reclaim the area, or was the absence of people due to the 'genius' of choosing the weekend between
...but don't venture in there
January 1st and Chinese New Year to come here?
I also stopped off at the Chihben National Forest and saw many more macaques and a waterfall I not bothered visiting before. On the way out of the valley, I explored a road leading up into the eastern flank of the valley and came upon Bei-Ya Waterfall, which is supposedly stupendous during the rainy season (mediocre today). Monkeys literally swarmed on the road leading up here; I even found them running around on the road itself, which made me feel like I was back in Ubud's Sacred Monkey Forest in Bali, Indonesia last summer.
Despite finding Tawu Mountain Nature Preserve in tatters, I left Taitung in good spirits, because the remote county always has that effect on me -sparsely populated, lulled by the Pacific, charmed by monkeys, and steeped in mystique with the possibility that clouded leopards might (probably!) still hunt in its jungle canopy.
The Rabinowitz report on Tawu can be found here
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