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June 24, 2017

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See it before it's gone: Yunlin's Youcinggu

One of the delights of living in Taiwan is that, even after years of traveling within the island whenever I get the chance, there still seem to be plenty of interesting places I've not yet visited. One of the most depressing aspects of being here, however, is seeing so many beautiful spots despoiled by humanity or under threat.

An example of both is Youcinggu (幽情谷) in Yunlin County (雲林縣). I'd not heard of this gorge until a few months ago, and only at the beginning of February was I able to visit the area.

During the dry months of winter, it's possible to hike a considerable distance up this narrow and very scenic defile. Unfortunately, in a few years this may not be possible. The controversial Hushan Dam (湖山水庫) threatens to submerge both the gorge and more than 400 hectares of mixed forest and bamboo.

To those who know what to look for, the ecological diversity of the area is obvious well before you reach the gorge itself. Stopping at the point on the road where the barrage will cut across the valley, the following bird species were pointed out to me: the Crested Goshawk, the Bamboo Partridge, the White-rumped Munia, the Lesser Coucal, and the White-bellied Green-Pigeon.

Crested Serpent Eagles, which are fairly common in the foothills of Taiwan, circled high above. Had we come in late spring or summer, we would have had a good chance of seeing the region's most celebrated avian, the Fairy Pitta. The Chinese name of this creature (八色鳥 , "eight-color bird") describes the creature's plumage — white, green, yellow, red (on the underside), shiny blue (on the wings), two shades of brown, and black.

Nearby Huben Village (湖本村) has so successfully promoted itself as the breeding ground of the Fairy Pitta that some now think the hordes of sightseers and photographers each spring are an intrusive nuisance for the birds during critical breeding times.

The Fairy Pitta is a migrant that appears in several East Asian countries. The species is vulnerable; there may not be more than a few thousand left in the world. The flooding of Youcinggu would, in the words of Yunlin-based bird enthusiast Mark Wilkie, "tear the heart out" of the species' most important breeding area.

It's not the only creature threatened by the dam project. According to the website of the Wild At Heart Legal Defense Association ( — a not-for-profit group that campaigns against the dam project, and which organized my visit — 21 of Taiwan's 31 frog species have been spotted in the area. My companions pointed out rare plants that cling to cool, shaded spots on the gorge's sides and told me that freshwater crabs can be found hereabouts.

As we followed the creek — which in many places was no more than a meter wide and just a few centimeters deep — I noticed rust stains, caused by iron ore seeping out of the bedrock. During the Japanese colonial era, prospectors came here to see if there were any deposits worth exploiting. Fortunately for the wildlife, there weren't. But the threat from the dam remains.

Getting there:

Hushan is around 10 kilometers southeast of downtown Douliu (斗六). As you enter the village, you'll cross a river and see a large temple. Turn left at the temple, and follow the road that's being widened. Keep going to the very end; park and follow the trail down to the creek.

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