Solution remains over clouded leopard, despite distrust

TAIPEI (CNA) – Recent sightings of the previously thought- to-be-extinct Formosan clouded leopard by indigenous people in southeastern Taiwan have caused disagreement between the tribe and the government over who should lead further investigations, but scholars have suggested that there are opportunities for cooperation.

Sightings of the animal in Taitung County during Paiwan forest patrols in January were revealed last week in an article in the Apple Daily by National Taitung University’s Department of Life Science professor Liu Chiung-hsi (劉炯錫).

Liu cited Kao Cheng-chi (高正治), a village chief of the Paiwan tribe, as saying that a two-man patrol and then a four-man patrol from Alangyi Village in Taitung spotted on separate occasions what they identified as the feline.

After a tribal meeting Jan. 20, the tribe decided to reveal the news to the public and conduct their own investigations, but is standing firm on prohibiting outsiders, namely the Forestry Bureau, from intervening, according to Liu.

“The government never respects the right of autonomy of indigenous people,” said Liu, who also attended the meeting.

Liu said the tribe has decided to conduct its own research into whether the leopard, an iconic Taiwanese animal and sacred in Paiwan culture, still exists.

The plan is that investigation will be led by the tribal-friendly Austronesian Community College in Taitung, Liu said, adding that fundraising for the research has so far generated NT$100,000 (US$3,245).

“The tribal people are definitely more capable than government officials in this matter,” Liu told CNA, blasting the bureau for not being as active as it had claimed in investigating the situation.

But Huang Chun-tse (黃群策), deputy director of the Taitung Forest District Office, said there has been a misunderstanding between the two sides.

“We hope we can arrange a day as soon as possible with tribal leaders for a follow-up and to provide the resources we have,” Huang told CNA, adding, however, that he has not heard back from the tribe.

The longstanding conflict between the tribe and the office over landownership reached its peak last March when the office began a forest-thinning project in the tribe’s autonomous area.

Huang said the office had apologized to the tribe, but Liu said the government had been brutal during the incident and had shown no real regret over its error.

Although many fear that the tension between the two sides might miss the point of wildlife conservation, Chiang Po-jen (姜博仁), founder of the Formosan Wild Sound Conservation Science Center, said there might be an answer.

Chiang, who has also been involved in the search for the leopard in recent years, said in an article responding to the recent sightings that Taiwan could learn from other countries to see how different groups holding differing positions can work together toward the same goal.

One of the best examples is the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty, which was signed between 11 U.S. tribes and the Canadian First Nations to establish intertribal alliances for cooperation in the restoration of American buffalo on land within the U.S. and Canada.

The 2014 treaty shows the possibility of joint efforts to protect the endangered buffalo, once numbering in the tens of millions at the time of westward expansion in the 1800s but going close to extinction in the late 19th century due to unregulated hunting, he said.

Thanks to continuous conservation efforts, the buffalo population had grown to around 12,000 in 2016, according to the IUCN Red List, the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of species.

That case also shows that tribe-initiated conservation efforts for wildlife can work effectively, Chiang said, encouraging the Paiwan people and the Forestry Bureau to cooperate in the greater cause of leopard study.

By Lee Hsin-Yin