Thursday, January 27, 2011

What the cats of Houtong say about the population of Taiwan

Back in September at my blog, I linked to an interesting news story describing how the Taiwanese village of Houtong, located just outside the capital of Taipei, has managed to find new life after its coal mining economy went under thanks to its large feral cat community.


Visitors' raves on local blogs have helped draw cat lovers to fondle, frolic and photograph the 100 or so resident felines in Houtong, one of several industrial communities in decline since Taiwan's railroads electrified and oil grew as a power source.

Most towns have never recovered, but this tiny community of 200 is fast reinventing itself as a cat lover's paradise.

"It was more fun than I imagined," said 31-year-old administrative assistant Yu Li-hsin, who visited from Taipei. "The cats were clean and totally unafraid of people. I'll definitely return."

On a recent weekday afternoon, dozens of white, black, grey and calico-coloured cats wandered freely amid Houtong's craggy byways, while visitors captured the scene with cellphone cameras and tickled the creatures silly with feather-tipped sticks.

I'll happily admit the article caught my attention because it dealt with cats. Since I got my own cat, Shakespeare, a bit more than two years ago, I've paid a lot of attention to the species and the genus.

Shakespeare in front of the webcam

This isn't just a cat photopost, mind. The ohenomenon of the cats of Houtong actually helps illustrate any number of interesting things about Taiwanese--and world--demographics.

1. Houtong is a community that was a one-industry town, dependent on coal mining. That source of income has disappeared, as cheaper foreign imports and perhaps a move away from coal as an energy source led to the industry's complete disappearance from Taiwan in 2001. Houtong is a community ultimately undermined by globalization. With three-quarters of Taiwan's population fertility rates drop and foreign women immigrate to compensate for a male-biased sex ratio.

Indonesian-born Sumarni, 35, who married a local man six years ago, says she is grateful to the tourists for relieving the town's isolation.

"My three-year-old daughter gets to play with some children of her age when visitors bring their kids here," she said. "There is really not any playmate of her age in the community."

Sumarni has also benefited financially from the tourist influx, piggybacking it to set up a profitable food stall next to her modest home.

One major theme of my Taiwan posts here has been the very low fertility rate, for the main the standard combination of patriarchal cultural norms with the substantial emancipation of women. Another theme has been the sex ratio strongly biased towards men, producing a deficit of marriageable women. Just as in South Korea, this has led to substantial marriage-driven immigration to Taiwan, as Hsieh and Wang describe in their paper, with women from mainland China and Southeast Asia--particularly but certainly not only Vietnamese women--contributing a
notable, if declining number and proportion of newborns.

The number of newborns born to foreign brides in Taiwan plunged to a low of 17,038 in 2009, reaching only 56 percent of a peak of 30,428 recorded in 2003, according to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Health Promotion under the Cabinet-level Department of Health. Foreign brides mainly refer to women from mainland China and Southeast Asian countries who marry Taiwanese men.

The ratio of their babies to the total number of newborns in Taiwan hit a high of 13.51 percent in 2003, meaning that one out of every seven to eight babies were born to such brides.

The ratio fell under the 10 percent mark in 2008 and declined further to only 8.58 percent in 2009, indicating that one out every 11 to 12 babies was born to foreign brides.

The figures have clearly demonstrated that the number of newborns born to foreign brides has been trending downward at a rapid pace.

Observers attributed the decline in the number of babies which foreign brides have given birth to in the past few years mainly to the decrease in the number of foreign brides over the years.

Taiwanese men used to be a priority husband target for women from Southeast Asian countries during the years of Taiwan's economic prosperity. But their willingness to marry Taiwanese men has been undermined by Taiwan's economic shrinkage in recent years.

Statistics compiled by the Ministry of the Interior showed that the number of registered alien brides hit a high of 48,600 in 2003, and then declined steadily to a low of only 18,241 in 2009, accounting for only 38 percent of the 2003 level.

Houtong is a small rural community; given the tendency of immigrant women to marry relatively low-status and economically marginal men in rural areas, it wouldn't be surprising if a disportionate number of wives there, like Sumarni, might be of foreign background. As this Wall Street Journal article on Taiwanese immigrant wives and their children points out, the village with the highest proportion of immigrant-mother children--17.5%--is Shihding, like Houtong a coal-mining village in rural Taipei County.

3. On a related note, the immigrant-wife phenomenon illustrates the diversity of the Taiwanese population. This diversity doesn't include only the Taiwanese aborigines who form 2% of the Taiwanese population, but the mainlander tenth of the Taiwanese population disproportionately concentrated in Taipei, along with the Min Nan/Fujianese-speaking Hoklo who form 70% of the Taiwanese population and the Hakka who form nearly a fifth of the population, alongside non-Chinese immigrants.

4. Incidentally, Houtong has become a tourism destination for tourists across greater China, i.e. China and Hong Kong and Macao as well as Taiwan. This may indicate the growing integration of Taiwan's population into the population of Greater China, as demonstrated not only by the Chinese immigrants to Taiwan but by the growing Taiwanese migrant population in mainland China, for instance the tens of thousands in Shanghai. China's not going to be the only reference point, as the Southeast Asia immigrants indicate, but it'll be quite important, arguably most important.

5. Finally, the demographics of the cat species are the dismal demographics that once afflicted the human species. Cats have a spectacularly high birth rate, bearing multiple litters with multiple kittens for most of their lives; female cats can actually become pregnant too early. Why, then are there not more cats out there? A terribly high death rate: indoor cats live for decades, outdoor cats for years. (Shakespeare's an indoor cat, if you're wondering.)



Unknown said...

I wonder what the sex ratios at birth are for cats (feral and domestic)?
What are feral and domestic cat mortality causes?
Has there been any sort of epidemiological transition for cats?
Demographic transition for cats?

Unknown said...

A neat paper I found: "Use of matrix population models to estimate the efficacy of euthanasia versus trap-neuter-return for management of free-roaming cats":

And I didn't mention in my last comment: Thanks for the post!

Randy McDonald said...

While there's appparently substantial variation between mothers, overall cat sex ratios seem to be balanced. In particular circumstances involving sexual competition I imagine that male cats might practice infanticide selectively, but I've no grounds for that.

Mortality? So far as I know, the differences between the situations of outdoor and indoor cats are similar to the differences of pre-transition and transition/post-transition humans, with accident and food issues and infectious diseases predominating among outdoor cats (feral and otherwise), and illnesses driven by physical malfunction (heart issues, say) and--honestly--the metabolic syndrome (diabetes). Domestic cats have access to vaccines against FIV and feline leukemia, for instance, further diminishing death rates. Indoor cats do live substantially longer; 20 versus 2-5 years are figures I've seen quoted.

And not a problem! I figured a two-for-one post might be good. As a blogger, one must have fun!

Anonymous said...

While I like cats and what they say about population and the demographic transition for cats, it seems to me that the human community has got to quickly share a more adequate understanding of the ways a force to be reckoned with....7 billion people.... could be destabilizing the climate extirpating marine life, degrading the enviroment, dissipating natural resources, diminishing life as we know it and threatening the future of children everywhere.

Can a lot of confusion in our culture concerning human numbers can be traced to the Demographic Transition Theory? Is the theory fact or fiction? Science or preternatural thought? The way this question is 'answered' makes a big difference, I suppose.

Please see below the note from a friend on the widely shared and consensually validated Demographic Transition Theory regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation.

"I agree {with you, Steve} that the Theory of Demographic Transition is just that, a convenient theory that holds out the promise of lower fertility in nations in due time if they just hop on the capitalistic development bandwagon.

It's a non-threatening and positive theory and it's potentially good for business for the developed world.

All one need do is take a look at population growth statistics,
(2009 CIA table)

and per capita income statistics of countries,

and one can observe that a relatively wealthy country does not necessarily have a low population growth rate. Examples are US, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Kuwait, Bahrain and more. It can also be observed that many of the more developed and thus more wealthy and educated countries, mostly in Europe, have below replacement fertility (Italy, Germany, Japan). Many countries with a predominant religion furthering large family size have larger population growth rates like the Arab countries.

The following paper concludes that

"..that indicators of education, health, and family planning program effort have a significant independent effect on fertility" and that "No significant impact can be attributed to indicators of economic development once family planning efforts and social development indicators are held constant."

Yet the National Geographic January 2011 issue on "Population - 7 Billion" features the Demographic Transition Theory, though it does briefly admit that fertility in some countries has fallen dramatically without significant economic development. Bangladesh is a major example.

As I see it, in the absence of religious or social pressures, most people would prefer smaller families as they can better provide for them. Given the education and means to control their fertility they will readily try to do so.

In many developing countries, the ubiquitous radio is the major source of news and entertainment. The presence of only a few radio stations makes this an ideal medium for education and behavioral change. Organizations such as

Population Media Center and

Population Communications International

have been very effective on a per dollar basis in getting listeners to their culturally-sensitive soap operas educated on family planning advantages and seeking means to help them control their fertility."

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a comment from a good friend and outstanding scientist would be helpful now here.

"...... The perspective that human behavior is a a function of environmental contingencies is highly resisted in our culture, just as understanding that our genetic makeup is a function of environmental contingencies (natural selection) is highly resisted. Regarding human behavior, this resistance is behind psychologists not agreeing on the definition of their own subject matter. This resistance occurs in overt and covert ways, even among scientists.

The resistance to seeing human behavior, genetics and ecology as being a function of environmental contingencies is behind all of our current difficulties. For example, I think it outrages all of us that we have a culture of denial regarding peak oil. I think it amazes all of us that there is almost no general acknowledgment that we may very well be in a human species die-off, not in spite of our large numbers, but because of our large numbers. I think it astounds us that people deny the reality of climate change, or see it only as opening up new trade routes in the arctic. It baffles me, and precious few others, that we can fully comprehend that every other living species' population increases to the level of its carrying capacity, i.e., food supply, but that that this reality doesn't apply to the human species.

I hope we'll move beyond ourselves or our brains / minds as "the creators" of our behavior and, instead, focus on the independent variables that will lead to success and sustainability.


Wolfgang G. Gasser said...

A "sex ratio strongly biased towards men" at birth is a natural consequence of a "sex ratio strongly biased towards men" at death.

One must not confuse "missing girls" with "missing women", as missing girls generally correlate with missing old man.

What exactly is the sex ratio at death in Taiwan in the recent past?


Randy McDonald said...

The sex ratio at birth in Taiwan was 1.09 boys per girl, decidedly in excess of norms and consistent with reports of sex-selective abortion in Taiwan (and elsewhere). The sex ratio for over 65s is 0.95 men per woman, a decided shift from the 1.03:1 ratio of 2003.

Wolfgang G. Gasser said...

According to
the sex ratio of both the whole Taiwanese population, and the 15-64 age group, is around 1.02 men per woman. To the missing girls under 15 (1.08 male/female) corresponds roughly the same number of missing (old) men in the 65+ age group (0.92 male / female).

Even more evident is the fact of missing old men in Korea.

According to (Summary of Census Population), in the 65+ age group, only 66 men corresponded to 100 women around the year 2005.

Nevertheless, the number of girls and women was higher than the number of boys and men.

Cheers, Wolfgang