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UC Berkeley group receives "Little Engine That Could" award for efforts to save endangered bird
03 January 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - A University of California, Berkeley-based group dedicated to helping save a bird from extinction has received the first-ever "Little Engine That Could" award from a campaign to recognize good deeds.

SAVE International - a small band of students, faculty and staff members from UC Berkeley and National Taiwan University - was chosen as one of 25 honorees for GoodThings, Inc.'s "Favorite GoodThings of 2001" for work on behalf of the world's approximately 800 remaining black-faced spoonbills. Selections resulted from reader nominations submitted to GoodThings, an online newsletter that focuses on positive and creative ideas.

"SAVE confirms late anthropologist Margaret Mead's prescient words: 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,'" the magazine said in its recognition.

SAVE, founded in 1997, has crusaded relentlessly to protect the odd yet elegant black-faced spoonbill from the projected harms of a petrochemical plant proposed near its wintering habitat of wetlands, ponds and mangrove forests in southwestern Taiwan. Plans call for constructing the Bin-nan plant a few kilometers from the spoonbills' roosting area, considered the most critical habitat for the bird's survival.

While GoodThings commended SAVE for stopping the development, group leader and UC Berkeley professor of landscape architecture Randy Hester humbly said that assessment might be premature.

"We have probably successfully delayed the plant for another six months or a year, and I'm extraordinarily optimistic," said Hester.

SAVE enlisted the assistance of students studying at UC Berkeley, as well as that of grassroots groups, fishermen, environmentalists and others in Taiwan, including a key Taiwanese legislator just elected a province magistrate in the spoonbill region.

The organization proposes setting aside much of the wetlands as a preserve and promoting ecotourism as an economic alternative to the Bin-nan project.

Hester said he is heartened by the enthusiastic response from fishermen and entrepreneurs in the region around the spoonbill's winter home. When SAVE began, he said, about a dozen birdwatchers could be found searching for the spoonbill on winter weekends. Last year, more than a million and a half people came to watch the bird during its stopover in Taiwan.

"It's become a major destination for day tourism," Hester said, adding that boat tours also take passengers out to look at crabs, explore salt mines, buy fresh fish and visit temples. "And it just happened overnight. Last year, the area was so crowded with tour buses, it was a little scary."

One sightseeing business created around the spoonbill is "The Hunting Territory," said Hester. "You hunt for the spoonbills to see them, not to shoot them," he said.

The Taiwanese have become so fond of the bird that its image is going to appear on the country's passports.

SAVE has offered its assistance in drawing up plans to implement its proposals to protect the spoonbill habitat, but Hester said he still worries because the Bin-nan project proposal has not been formally withdrawn.

In addition, a student at National Taiwan University surveyed residents for a thesis, reporting that most think ecotourism could coexist with Bin-nan. Many birdwatchers see the spoonbill in its relatively small daytime nesting area and don't appreciate the additional space the bird needs for its nocturnal foraging and feeding, Hester said. "They don't make the connection," he said.
So, while Hester is gratified by the "Little Engine That Could" award, he's nevertheless foresees a long, hard road for SAVE to travel before the spoonbill's future is secure.

"We could have generations of Berkeley students who can say, 'Oh, yeah, my grandfather worked to save the spoonbill, too,'" he said.