Sunday, 5 May 2013

Endangered Turtles At Feitsui Reservoir

"Domestic ecologists recently confirmed that over the last six years 3,636 endangered yellow-margined box turtles (食蛇龜) had been poached from their habitat in Taipei Feitsui Reservoir (翡翠水庫)."
From what I know about Chinese culture with regards to food/medicine, the obvious guess to make here is that the local Taiwanese are trying to make money by selling the turtles across the Taiwan Strait in China where they are likely consumed for their health benefits which supposedly include making middle-aged men more virile.

Although I have personally benefited from certain types of traditional Chinese massage (one time to treat shoulder tendonitis, and another time to treat several pulled muscles in my back), I generally give little to no credit to other aspects of Chinese medicine; this is either because I have tried them and found them to be a waste of time (e.g. cupping), or because their theoretical explanation relies on unfalsifiable claims and is therefore pseudoscientific. Because I generally disregard the claims of Chinese medicine, I am therefore predisposed to disregard the claims of Chinese food therapy.

However, it strikes me as likely that consumption of turtle meat does have nutritional benefits comparable to eating other types of meat. According to one popular source on health and nutrition, the nutritional value of soft-shell turtle meat is somewhat comparable to beef, albeit substantially lower in calorific value. Even so, the idea of eating turtle specifically to increase virility strikes me as nonsense and an obvious threat to endangered species of turtle.

Nonetheless there are two interesting questions here.

The first is why do Chinese people believe this nonsense about eating certain types of animals to achieve certain medicinal effects, even when there seems to be no evidence to support the conjecture? Since the belief seems to be irrational on the face of it, perhaps the rationality of such beliefs is to be found elsewhere, such as in the value to be gained from social conformity and conformity with old traditions. This is where I would look for the answer because the Chinese cultural reverance for older generations and old things generally, plus the aversion to loss of face might make the questioning and rejection of popular ideas comparatively difficult.

The second is why should anyone care about endangered species? The typical arguments I see for this tend to be vague and unsubstantiated, e.g. the claims that "all life is interdependent" and "the rate of extinction now exceeds the rate of speciation".  The problem with both of these claims it seems to me is simply insufficient evidence.

Yes different forms of life depend on one another, such as in predator-prey relations, but it seems to me difficult if not impossible to accurately assess the impact of the extinction of one particular species on other species throughout a vaguely defined "ecosystem". Sometimes the impact may be vast and we may anticipate logical reasons for this (e.g. the exinction of an "apex predator" which may lead to a temporary overpopulation of a former prey-species), but other times it may be negligble and the reasons for it may be poorly understood, if understood at all.

As for the rate of extinction versus the rate of speciation, is there actually any way to determine how good current data is for either of these phenomena? Given that observing and confirming the extinction of old species can apparently take over a decade, and given that new species are discovered by zoologists on a fairly regular basis, it would seem that current data on biodiversity is incomplete at best. That would surely constitute an impediment to accurately assessing either the current rate of speciation or the current rate of extinction.

If I were to argue in favour of some measures toward conserving a given species (e.g. the yellow-margined box turtle at Feitsui reservoir), I think I would try to do so using an argument based on aesthetics, though I'm not sure how I would do that. What would be better would be a property-rights argument though how this would fit to the case of Feitsui reservoir - a public works project - is not immediately obvious. I wonder if such an argument can be made...

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