[ 遇見稀世珍鳥] – 鳳凰, 台灣帝雉, 藍馥鷴, 綠孔雀.. 等
This was the second time I went to the museum of the pheasants. To call it a museum, is rather inappropriate because most of the birds in exhibit are still alive and living. The place is located deep in the mountain of Suao (蘇澳), a not very well advertised place. But if you hear someone ask you, have you ever see a real phoenix (鳳凰)? Most people would be surprised that such thing even existed! But here in Taiwan, you will not only be able to see the phoenix but also hear this one man’s stories on the rescue of these endangered birds: he dedicated all he has in his life to the work of taking care of these rare species without support from governmental agencies (which is a real challenge for these kinds of organizations). The operation of such place has always run into trouble with…
endangered species law in Taiwan (forbids breeding of endangered species by non-governmental groups), various animal rights groups, lack of financial support, and people who could careless about the birds of this place.
When you’re at this museum of the pheasants, you might think these are just birds, so what? But the truth is that you need to have the phesant expert who founded the place to tell you the stories behind each and everyone of these indigenous or exotic bird. That, can take an afternoon, or a day. You’d be so fascinated by it that you wouldn’t even know time is passing.
碧涵軒帝雉生態館 Bihanxuan Museum of Pheasants
No. 12-1, Hu’nan Street, Suao, I-Lan County
Open hours: all year around: 9-5pm
Reservation for guided tour is required.
Quest for the Legendary Pheasants
Text by: perladipace
* Two years in the Himalayas, 30 years of passion for the most precious pheasants and birds and countless hours spent on maneuvering his way out of the bureaucracy of reality. He, an ordinary man, is determined to accomplish the unordinary things.
Have you seen a phoenix before? I mean a living one?
Until then, I was convinced “phoenix” is only a legendary creature that embodies mystical power and is often embedded on Chinese empress’ imperial treasures. But if I were to tell you, “phoenix” exists and there is now less than a hundred of it in the world, and five out of the number, you can see it at one place in Taiwan, I think I have a story that you would like to hear.
On a rather gloomy rainy afternoon, we ventured into a “museum” of pheasants in a mountainous valley in Suao (蘇澳), a coastal town in the eastern part of Taiwan.
* The Beginning
An elder in the village asked the boy, “Do you know what the most beautiful bird in the world is?” The boy, like many of us who know not many things about birds, said peacock was the most beautiful bird. The elder shook her head and said, “No. It is the Monal”.
No one has heard of this kind of bird. Monal was forgotten for some years.
The boy went to military service in the Kinmen Island off the shore of Taiwan. There, an elder once again spoke about the legendary Monal. “Where can I find these birds?” the boy inquired.
So the story began with the boy’s quest to search for the most beautiful bird, unseen and vague in imagination, in the Himalayas, 20 some years ago. The boy could’ve made a decent living with a job at a bank or governmental agencies. But he wanted to do what others could not do, even though that meant he had to work extra shifts, work as a construction site worker or take on many jobs at one time to generate income to support his ideal.
* Two years in the Himalayas
The bird that lingered in the boy’s childhood memory is the Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impeyanus). It inhabits about 2,500 to 6,000 above sea level in the mountains of the Tibet, northern India, Napel, Afghanistan and Pakistan. When the boy had saved enough money, he disembarked to the land where he believed he could see these birds. At that time, going to the Himalayas from China was not possible. He attempted to get in from various places and finally got in from Afghanistan. The Himalayan Mountains were covered by snow. He and his counterparts had no snow gears like what we have today. Every step up the mountain meant more than just danger; it could mean death.
He saw the black belly of a large bird hovered over him. His local guide told him it was the Monal that he had been searching. He was disappointed by how dull this bird looked and was ready to head home when, a few hundred meters down, the big birds appeared again. But this time, he saw the feathers on the back of the bird reflecting more colors than the rainbow under the sunlight. He was mesmerized and finally understood what the elders meant. He went further up the
mountain to search for more of these birds. When he reached 6,000 meters above sea level, he met a few indigenous people hunting these Monals. He only knew that he wanted to save these beautiful birds. These indigenous people laughed at this outsider’s seemingly foolish act and were indifferent as long as they received some compensation for trading the birds.
Monal is a bird that lives at high altitude and cannot descend from high altitude to low altitude too rapidly or else it will not be able to withstand the pressure drop. He had to also account the injuries that the birds are suffering from the hunt and had to treat them with medication and necessary medical procedures to save their withering life. To bring these injured birds to safe grounds, he had to rest 10 days for every 100 meter of descend down the mountain for the birds to get used to the lower altitude. 6,000 meters above sea level, it took him almost two years to get back to his land.
When the indigenous people handed over the birds, they laughed off at the idea of the boy saving the Monal and they said, “There’s one kind of bird that you should really rescue.” They pointed south.
* Rescue of Crested Argus in Vietnam
As we went in to the Museum of Pheasants, we had to wear masks and turn our cell on vibrate and couldn’t take photos. For people like me who likes to take photos of almost everything is quite distressing. But as we learnt later, there’s a reason larger than life behind it. These particular birds often will exhibit suicidal behavior after they have been photographed. No one really understood why but people speculated that because they might have felt they were being followed and hunted down. A photograph of such bird, could mean the last photo of that bird you will ever take.
To call this place a museum is somewhat inadequate as many of the exotic and endangered birds are still living here. Many wondered how the owner was able to collect all these species and kept them alive. The owner said most of them were the offspring of the generation that he rescued from the hands of ignorance and thirst for hunting for a living or necessity.
The phoenixes at the place are the offspring of a generation that was saved from the rural area of northern Vietnam. A few years after the Himalayan adventure, the boy who was then a man went to search for the precious bird in the others’ words. He went through the dangerous forests and lands of battle and wars and was disappointed by not seeing traces of the bird he came to look for. At the same time, they had to run for their life so they took a boat downstream to their exit from the war zone. It was then they were less intense and were able to look around at the stands and crowds by the river trading half-living things in the cages.
It was in those cage where he found the bird he came to look for – Crested Argus, or the so-called “phoenix”. The locals had no appetite to appreciate the fine birds as they had their daily life to cover in a time of chaos and instability. They offered the birds, asking for some payment in exchange. If they think the price is acceptable, they’ll cut the throat of the bird, throw it into a boiler and make some local chicken cuisine.
These large birds have tail feathers that can be as long as 2.5 meters. But here they were, in such a piteous state, with their long tail feather cut off, their skins peeled off, wings broken, legs injured or cut. The man wanted to buy all the still-breathing phoenix and bring them back to Taiwan. Sensing they could make a large fortune on this man, the sellers jacked up the price. The man had to get a loan from his friend, whom he is still paying the interest for today, to buy these birds. On his journey back to Taiwan with commercial fishing boats, the normal 2-week journey took an extra week due to typhoon. By the time they arrived at Taiwan, 19 out of the 23 phoenix he had brought with him were dead. What was left was 3 inquired male phoenix and 1 weak and pregnant female phoenix.
* Back in Taiwan
回到台灣, 是家, 還是另一個戰場?
Most of the birds he rescued from the other places prior the imposition of the endangered species regulations, he took them to his place in the Suao area. The park is open to the public by appointment and the hall of feathers is open all-year-round. Setting up the place has met various challenges. Firstly, although these are endangered species, he is unable to legally breed them to preserve the genes, as this is up to the related governmental agency. Even if he breeds them, the gene pool is too small and the eventual offspring will have lots of problems as the genes do not have enough variation.
Secondly, there is the conflict with animal rights group from time to time as many believe that keeping these wild birds in cages is against animal’s rights. On the other side of the coin, imagine one were to release these birds into the wild, one would not think there’s the right habitat for them anymore and no one can really ensure their safety and continuation, especially when these endangered animals are much more sensitive to the mildest unfamiliar human presence.
If they give or sell them to the zoo, would that be any better? He does not think so. Zoo is only another cage. Will the personnel in there to know enough about these particular birds to keep them alive? Sometimes that comes into question. He said that is also why when other organizations and institutions from abroad came to him to negotiate the terms of getting these birds from him, he decided against it, de
spite the lure of high monetary reward.
* Do we see what we have in our hands?
Among all the conflicts that goes against his passion for rescuing wild precious birds, what disheartens him the most is the bureaucratic attitude of many, especially those in the world of politics. So they said, when Taiwan received the two pandas from China, China wanted to get the pure breed of the Taiwanese breed of Mikado pheasant (Syrmaticus Mikado; 帝雉) from him for exchange. That did not happen in the end as the conflict between him and the Taiwan governmental group grew. One of the triggers dated back to the drawing of the Mikado pheasant on the back of the 1,000 New Taiwanese Dollar (NTD) bill. When the new bill came out, he gathered the force of media to voice the inaccuracy of the drawing of the Mikado pheasant on the bill. What was (and still is) on the bill now is the Japanese breed and it does not have the very characteristic heart shape on its wings that is particular to the Taiwanese breed, not to mention the sizes and shape of the pheasant are also off. Faced with immense pressure from the public, the governmental official responsible for this immediately paid a visit to him, discussed what went wrong and acted with good will. The news came out in the media next day surprisingly stated that the governmental official had paid a visit to the expert , verified and confirmed that the drawing on the current bill was correct.
When one sees a treasure, one should know it. But when people do not even understand what a treasure is, how do you go from there?
Seldom would we go to a museum or a conservation centre and the first words we heard from the founder was how disappointed he was by how foreigners value species that are unique and can only be found in Taiwan much more than the local governmental agencies or organizations do. When political or financial interests come into the spotlight, people start seeing the value of these species but think they are trading something less for something much greater and better. Few years back, there were the Australian koalas. Now, there are Chinese pandas. What is next? How often do we hear about the koalas now? How often will we hear about the pandas in the next few years? Would one be able to bring a guest to a place and tell them, there is one thing you won’t find anywhere else in the world, it is right here and it is our national treasure?
We were the only visitors to the garden in that afternoon. We sat there for the whole afternoon, listening to his adventures through the strange lands, things he learnt along the way and challenges he faced and difficulties that he is still dealing everyday with the operation of the place. In his bird feather hall, he said he could’ve told us all the stories about each and one of the feathers, eggs, or photos on the wall for hours and hours. All of these came from this one man’s passion for birds and over decades of dedication to his ideal. The future, however seems rather dim for a place that hosts some of the most precious remaining endangered species in the world as he, being a person of some character, does not want to sell or give away what he treasures to someone or place he cannot ensure their survival just for monetary rewards.
Coming out of the garden felt like being out of a trance, dreamscape or storyscape. I am not a bird watcher nor am I particularly interested in birds. But when you come here, you will understand why one cannot help but be fascinated and moved by the will of a person who dared to pursue his passion and what he believed in to the very end.
If you ever come to the eastern part of Taiwan, perhaps you should plan an afternoon of outing to visit the storyteller and the home to many of the exotic birds that you might not see anywhere else in the world.