The Jacana Park in Taiwan was built literally from scratch by a group of bird-lovers. Today, the manmade wetland is a birder's paradise, finds Akila Kannadasan

One day, nearly ten years ago, bird-lovers in Taiwan realised they had only 50 Pheasant-tailed Jacanas in their country. In the past, the birds were found by the hundreds in the water-chestnut farms of Tainan city. What went wrong? The culprit, they realised, was the high-speed railway line. The construction cut through wetlands that were a haven for the birds and as a result, their numbers dropped. But the people wanted the Jacana back. Like-minded NGOs and birding clubs came up with an idea — why not create a wetland for the Jacana?

It was a mammoth task with the objective of attracting the bird to a manmade habitat. And there was no assurance that the Jacana would oblige them either. But the people decided to give it a shot.

On January 5, 2000, they took a 15 ha-sugarcane field for rent and set out to build the Jacana a new home. For weeks, volunteers young and old from groups such as Taiwan Wetlands, the Association of Kaoshiung Wild Birds, Tainan Wild Birds, Chiayi Wild Birds and Pingdong Wild Birds toiled under the harsh sun to convert a dry-land into a wetland for the sake of a bird they loved.

The area was dug-up and water from a near-by dam was flown into it using irrigation channels. They planted water-chestnut, water-lily and nymphoides in the area. Five months later, the restoration area blossomed under their watchful eyes. The Jacana’s home was ready, and the people waited. Will the birds come?

They did.

A Pheasant-tailed Jacana with its long, slender toes, golden hind-neck and elegant black tail, peeped into the wetland. More followed. Nests came up in the area, from which four chicks grew up to be healthy adults. The bird-lovers of Taiwan couldn’t have asked for more. Thus was born the Pheasant-tailed Jacana Eco-Educational Nature Park.

Today, the Taiwan High Speed Rail Company and the Forestry Bureau support the park financially; the Tainan Bird Society runs it with authorisation from the Tainan city government. The restoration is a success story that the Taiwanese are proud of. They use it as a tool to spread the word of conservation. I ask Goldin Quadros, senior scientist, Wetland Ecology, Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, why such attempts haven’t been made in India. “We need political will and people’s support,” he says. India, with its vast spread of water bodies, does not have a dearth of bird-lovers, activists and NGOs. “But we are not a united force,” he says. At Taian's Jacana Park, four staffers and a network of volunteers that includes teachers, students, homemakers, engineers, and businessmen work together to organise field trips and camps.

The park has a birding pavilion with spotting scopes through which we watch a Jacana — she steps on a floating leaf with her clawed feet, her deep eyes scanning the area. Females rule the roost in Jacana land. She mates, lays eggs and flies off to find another mate. It’s the male who incubates and raises the young. The female mates several times, with instances of a female having eight mates in one season! However, there’s one exercise the mother always does. Before flying off, she leaves food for her babies in the nest.

The manmade wetland attracts a variety of water-birds besides Jacanas. Huang explains that egrets visit them throughout the year. “Ducks such as Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teals and Garganeys and Herons come here during winter,” says Gillian Huang, a guide.

First recorded in Taiwan in the 19th century, the Jacana is lucky to have attracted so much attention, says Huang. The construction of the high-speed railway line triggered her people’s thought for the need to protect the environment. To Huang and the others “the birds are not visitors, but citizens.”

* The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on all days of the week except Mondays

* Entry is free

* It is located at Guantian Longtian, Tainan City 72099, Taiwan

* For details, email jacana.pjrc@msa.hinet.net.

(The writer was a guest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan)