Formosan Landlocked Salmon
Bringing ‘Nbang' Home
The ancient wisdom of coexistence between land, salmon and man is being reinvigorated through the cooperative efforts of Shei-Pa National Park and a local elementary school, as sustainable environmental education takes root.
Bringing ‘Nbang' HomeBy Yu-Jung Peng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 450 )
May 22. Xueshan Mountain Range, altitude 3,000 meters.
It's the break of dawn and the day's first rays of sunshine bathe the face of Wuma Youmin as the fifth grader stands with community elders. She takes a deep breath of the bracing mountain air, closes her eyes and begins to speak in her native Atayal language:
"I'm so pleased to be here today along the beautiful upper reaches of Sijielan Stream to help Nbang return to its original spawning grounds. From here on out, the Atayal people will be united in their efforts to restock Nbang."
Nbang is the Atayal word for the Formosan landlocked salmon (a.k.a. the Taiwanese masu salmon of the Taiwanese trout).
On this day, about 40 kids from Ping-Deng Elementary School in Huanshan Village, a mountainous community in Taichung County's Heping Township, took a pledge delivered by Wuma formally establishing the "National Treasure Fish Conservation Junior Rangers." Shortly thereafter they hoisted backpacks to their shoulders and set out with the village elders, hiking through the mountains to release their cargo of fish fry in the stream's upper reaches and "bring Nbang home."
Sustainable Education beneath the ‘Holy Ridge'
It's all part of a local environmental education program begun this year in cooperation between Ping-Deng Elementary and Shei-Pa National Park Headquarters that hopes to teach local kids to tell their own stories and live in harmony with nature through activities like the restocking drive for the rare Formosan landlocked salmon and classes in Atayal culture.
"Aside from transmitting knowledge, it gives kids hands-on experience with things like breeding and restocking that are needed for sustainable environmental protection concepts to take root," Ping-Deng Elementary School principal Lin Yi-guang explains while walking along the streamside "Save the Fish Trail."
This year each of the school's upper-class students will be required to complete the full length of the symbolically significant "bring Nbang home" journey.
"During the Ice Age, fish that had migrated to this area were trapped by the land when the continental plate bulged upward," Huihuang, another fifth grader, intones, elaborating with a confidence instilled through a National Park training course for its junior rangers and the experience of watching the entire life cycle of the salmon from egg to breeding adulthood.
Huihuang and Wuma are standing astride the Taiwan Landlocked Salmon Ecological Center's specimen tanks, watching intently as Liao Lin-yen, a 10-year veteran of the rare species' restocking program known as "Papa Fish" and also director of Shei-Pa National Park's Wuling Park Management Station, meticulously scoops landlocked salmon fry from the tanks. As Lin painstakingly explains, the fry have been conditioned in facilities that mimic the rapid currents of wild streams. Two days prior to their release, workers deprive the little critters of food. On the day of transport, they place batches of 30 fry into bags containing 15 liters of oxygenated water, pack those bags in larger bags containing 500 grams of ice to keep the water temperature low, and put the bags into big backpacks. Following a prayer ritual with village elders, the kids hoist the backpacks and head off into the deep mountains with adults from the River Conservation Corps.
"Grade school is the age when we're most interested in nature, so it's the best time for environmental education to take root," Liao says.
Liao is keenly aware that conservation efforts must take root in villages and in the education system to be sustainable. For this reason, seven years ago he persuaded the Huanshan Village Community Development Association to set up the junior rangers program to restock the landlocked salmon in its historical breeding grounds. Two years ago he successfully lobbied to have eight hectares of farmland included within the protected area of the national park for reforesting to further protect the breeding grounds. This year he has entered into a cooperative effort with Wang Ching-ming, a professor at National Taiwan Normal University's Graduate Institute of Environmental Education, in promoting environmental education programs at Ping-Deng Elementary and other elementary schools in the surrounding Lishan and Nanshan areas.
Over the past decade, the numbers of Formosan landlocked salmon in the Cijiawan river basin have gone from near-extinction levels of just 200 to nearly 4,000 today. Liao's commitment to stream conservation has caused him to spend more time with the salmon than with his own family. Indeed, he has now been immortalized by a character based on him known as "Grandpa Salmon," who spends his days tending to the fish, in the CTS soap opera "Holy Ridge," set, of course, in Shei-Pa National Park.
The Wisdom of Coexistence among Land, People and Salmon
This expedition to "bring Nbang home" is a journey upstream to the landlocked salmon's historical breeding grounds, but it is also a trek along the pathways of the ancient Atayal, the ancestors of children such as Haotian. The fish and the Atayal culture of Huanshan Village have never been two separate things.
Haotian and his little brother recall stories from their grandfather of a time when the streams and rivers ran black with the fish, "so numerous they'd crash into your legs." Explaining that his native Atayal name Vahui means "typhoon," he also worries that torrential rains from this year's looming typhoon season will wash away all the young fish fry they have worked to release into the streams' upper reaches. In his young mind, the motivation for environmental protection and reducing the effects of global warming is quite simple: "If the Earth continues to warm, the water temperature of the streams will rise, and Nbang won't be able to survive."
Wu Chun-rong, who has been a natural sciences teacher at Ping-Deng Elementary School for four years, has found that despite having shown the Taiwanese documentary on climate change "Plus or Minus Two Degrees Celsius" in his classes, it is far less effective in its message than the immediate, specific perceptions generated by the struggle against extinction that "Nbang" faces.
Ping-Deng principal Lin and his faculty of 10 teachers devotedly pursue their mountaintop academic regimen of "10 days in class, four days rest." Now included in an already busy curriculum of Mandarin, English, math, reading, and native language studies is an incremental education program beginning in the earliest years right through to upper grade levels that includes lessons on the landlocked salmon, village industry and Atayal culture studies using specifically designed achievement benchmarks, so that when the children leave the gates of Ping-Deng Elementary to head out into the world, they will always remember from where they came.
After a thrilling traverse in a cable car and walking for another 30 minutes, Wuma and her classmates finally arrive at the upper reaches of Sijielan Stream, where the rare salmon species was discovered and revealed to the outside world during the Japanese colonial period. By the turn of the 1980s, however, Nbang, on the brink of extinction, was nowhere to be found. The kids carefully remove their precious cargo from their backpacks before gently opening the bags in the current of the stream and whispering faint farewells to the tiny fish as they swim away. Three thousand meters up with the peaks of the Xueshan Range towering overhead, there is an ancient wisdom in the coexistence of land, man and salmon, reintroducing us to our ancient heritage.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy