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Students Stage Last-Ditch Effort to Save Spoonbills

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
Posted September 29, 1999


Berkeley students are part of an international effort to save the endangered black-faced spoonbills from an industrial project in their migratory home.

It's the anxious home stretch for Berkeley students, who for three years have been fighting to save an endangered bird in Taiwan -- the black-faced spoonbill.

A multi-billion dollar industrial complex is being considered for Taiwan's Tsengen wetlands, the spoonbills' migratory home. Approval of the Bin-nan petrochemical refinery, steel plant and port would move the birds, which now number no more than 650, into an "extinction vortex," said Barbara Butler, a graduate student in landscape architecture.

"We don't think there are very many other places for them to go," she said of the birds, whose protection is being sought by not only Berkeley students, but by numerous conservation groups in the United States and Taiwan.

On Tuesday, Oct. 5, the students -- many of them from the College of Environmental Design -- will display on campus more than 100 life-sized replicas of the spoonbill that they have made by hand. Later, they will ship the models to Taiwan for exhibition. A protest is also being discussed.

Butler said the rare glimpse she got last spring in Taiwan of some 200 of the large, black-and-white birds with spoon-shaped bills "was really inspiring and helps push you forward when you need to, at times like this."

Recently, news surfaced in Taiwan that the industrial complex had won approval. This prompted Spoonbill Voluntary Action Echo, or SAVE, an international Berkeley-based group, to launch a major, last-ditch lobbying and letter-writing campaign to increase international pressure on Taiwan. The group also is assembling an extensive scientific information packet to ship to a Taiwanese environmental review panel. It will detail SAVE's analysis of the project impacts and propose eco-tourism and green industry.

In the United States, SAVE is chaired by Sierra Club founder David Brower, now with the Earth Island Institute; and Nobel Laureate Y.T. Lee, a Berkeley chemistry professor and member of a Taiwanese think tank.

Taiwanese officials appear to be negotiating with project developers and show interest in setting up a spoonbill preserve.

"I think we're down to the home stretch," said Randy Hester Jr., professor and former chairman of the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning and a key leader in the spoonbill crusade. "It will be an extraordinarily important decision in the history of Taiwan and certainly in the history of this bird."

Hester warned that while officials in Taiwan seem to care about the birds, their idea of a preserve doesn't take into account the spoonbills' foraging habits, which take them far beyond daytime roosting grounds.

The professor works closely with SAVE, teaching Berkeley students about the spoonbill. He also collaborates with other authorities to devise alternatives to the industrial project and with Taiwan University Professor John Liu on preservation efforts.

Hester's students have explored environmental questions related to the proposed industrial complex; Liu's have worked on alternatives to the facility. The students' collective work was examined during a 1997 conference in Taiwan.

A year later, SAVE was created as a result of this international interaction and out of a common concern for the spoonbill.

Berkeley is a natural hub for spoonbill preservation efforts, said Hester, because of its activist history and the relatively large number of Taiwanese or Taiwanese-American students in the College of Environmental Design.

"There are probably more students from Taipei," said Hester, "than from Modesto."

Sheng Lin Chang, a Taiwanese Ph.D. student in the college said she was drawn to SAVE because of her love for her homeland.

"Every year, we pray for more birds to come earlier and stay longer," she said. "The bird itself is beautiful. Everybody loves it."

In Taiwan, said Hester, protests over the proposed industrial complex are likely. The spoonbills' plight is taught in classrooms there, and thousands of families visit viewing platforms to watch the bird. Its image is printed on colorful bus passes sold throughout the country.

Seeing the bird up close, as many SAVE members have -- only fuels resolve to preserve the spoonbill.

"A small flock of spoonbills in flight offers up enough inspiration to last a lifetime," Hester wrote in a letter to "Birding," the magazine of the American Bird Association.

But it's also Berkeley's activist tradition that also explains campus efforts to save the spoonbill.

"Students at Berkeley come here expecting to change the world," said Hester. "The faculty, the staff, every one of us....believe we're going to make the world better. It's sort of the Berkeley spirit."



September 29 - October 5, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 8)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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