Academic journal article China Perspectives

Sentinels for the Environment: Birdwatchers in Taiwan and Hong Kong

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Sentinels for the Environment: Birdwatchers in Taiwan and Hong Kong

Article excerpt

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The development of birdwatching societies has received attention from social sciences and environmental humanities as a good example of a passion for nature turned into political commitment. However, this connexion between nature and politics is itself highly contextualised, and depends on cultural models of perception and action. Anthropologist Robert Weller showed that the development of birdwatching societies in Taiwan and China can be linked to the globalisation of the Western view of nature by the work of NGOs. "Bird watching," he writes, "was one of the first signs of a changing popular conception of nature both in China and Taiwan."(1)In particular, Weller shows how the Western view of nature carried by NGOs came into alliance or conflict with local attachment when fighting against construction projects. The involvement of birdwatchers in nature conservation is indeed an American model.(2) Launched after Audubon published his paintings of birds at the beginning of the nineteenth century, birdwatching societies developed in opposition to hunting societies, whose practices they tried to regulate. They also accompanied the enclosure of national parks where wilderness was preserved and biodiversity assessed. By refraining from hunting birds to observe them through the naked eye, binoculars, or cameras, birdwatchers introduce a concern for nature as an autonomous value. If watching birds has always been a form of human leisure and a collective practice, the organisation of preserved natural areas where lists of bird species can be assembled is an American invention of the nineteenth century that was "imported," says Weller, to Taiwan and China.(3)

Yet the idea that NGOs "imported" a Western concern for nature as a value is insufficient to describe the appropriation of birdwatching by Chinese citizens. The development of birdwatching was not only a detached contemplation of nature but also an imperial project to monitor and control territorial resources, as birds indicate the wealth of and threats toward a territory. There is clearly an ambivalence in the "passion for birds," which is also a passion for exhausting the world with lists of species.(4)To understand how a Chinese citizen shifts from a singular perception of birds to a collective protection of nature, it is necessary to describe how he/she deals with this ambivalence. An anthropology of globalisation must be completed by a sociology of critique to describe the various modes of engagement, from perception to mobilisation, through which birds become involved in critical collectives, and to show how these collectives can expand. (5)

This article will develop the concept of sentinel to describe the ambivalence between biodiversity and biosecurity as two Western values that become mixed in Chinese practices of birdwatching. The use of birds as sentinels of environmental threats is a major trend, as the beauty of a bird can become the consensual value around which different groups gather to protect a contested site. But if these "flagship" species bring the attention of tourists or politicians to a threatened environment, they can also reduce its environmental value to the defence of a single species.(6) By contrast, the notion of sentinel is also used for threats that affect humans and non-humans alike, such as infectious diseases or nuclear radiation.(7)Here, the concept of sentinel refers to the frontline of a military battle, where signs of threats are easier to perceive.

By comparing the development of birdwatching societies in Hong Kong and Taiwan, this article will explore this double meaning of sentinel. The emergence of a rich urban middle class that can afford the equipment to watch birds and take photographs leads to a reappraisal of natural areas and a criticism of development projects threatening bird species. Taiwan and Hong Kong are important feeding sites for birds that cross the South China Sea on the East Asian-Australasian flyway, which leads birdwatchers in these two areas to exchange observation techniques about the same protected species. …

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