Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics: Reply From IOC

Yesterday I received a reply from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to my correspondence outlining concerns about the proposed venue for the downhill ski slope for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.  Their letter can be seen here.  The background can be found here.

The IOC’s reply is, predictably, disappointing.  It repeats the claim that the location of the alpine skiing events will be “adjacent” to the national nature reserve.  This is true but only after the Chinese government has “adjusted” the boundaries!

The letter goes on to say that the Host City Contract, signed by Beijing, includes a section dedicated to protected natural areas which reads as follows:

“If a Bid City/ Host City/ OCOG proposes locating a venue, a facility, and/or infrastructure in or in close proximity to a protected natural and/or heritage area, a detailed assessment of environmental (flora, fauna, soil and water) and/or cultural heritage (landscape, amenity, built heritage, archaeology) constraints, potential impacts, risks and mitigation requirements must be undertaken.”

There is no evidence that any of this has happened.  And, even if it had, the IOC’s contract essentially gives license to cause damage to protected areas as long as “mitigation requirements” are undertaken.

The reply raises two questions.  First, what if the host city does not fulfil their obligations (as they clearly haven’t done in this case) and is therefore in breach of contract?

And second, is there any assessment, independent or otherwise, of the so-called “mitigation requirements” to assess their suitability and effectiveness?

Sadly, it looks as if the environmental concerns raised about the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are not unique.  The 2018 Winter Games will take place in South Korea and a “virgin 500-year old forest” has been felled to accommodate a ski slope, despite an online petition attracting more than 1.1 million signatures.  In the South Korean case, the organising committee says it plans to replace more than 1,000 trees after the Games and restore the natural habitat to its former state – a promise that forest experts say is practically impossible to keep.

In Beijing the government has promised to plant some trees to “offset” those felled to make way for the ski slope.  That may sound reasonable to Joe Public but conservationists and experts will know that cutting down a several hundred-year old tree and planting a new sapling is not a “like for like” replacement, especially when the former is part of a complex and biodiverse ecosystem.

In an age when we are losing our biodiversity at an alarming rate (some estimates suggest we have lost more than 50% of the world’s biodiversity in the last 50 years) it seems to me unforgivable to sacrifice highly biodiverse areas for the sake of a few days of sporting events.

If the IOC doesn’t take its environmental responsibilities and commitments seriously, I hope that the sponsors (many of whom are likely to be large international companies with reputations to protect) will insist on much stricter environmental criteria as a pre-requisite to supporting the Olympics.

In any case, isn’t it time for the IOC to begin to re-use facilities rather than look for a new host country every 4 years?

Battle Of Shunyi: Police Arrest Two Poachers!

After an evening of drama, tonight the Beijing police arrested two poachers on my local patch.  Returning home at about 5pm I decided to go to the roof of my apartment block to scan for illegal mist nets.  To my surprise there were two guys putting up nets in the same area as on Friday!  It was just a few days after I discovered, and took down, some illegal mist nets and told the poacher that if I saw him again I would send his photo to the police.  And yet here he was again, with a friend, in exactly the same spot.  He can’t say he wasn’t warned!

After a quick phonecall the police were on their way and, this time, they would catch the poachers red-handed.  One had a Japanese Sparrowhawk and, as I led the police to the spot, the poacher inadvertently walked straight towards us with his illegally caught bird of prey on his wrist.  He was so shocked to see us that he froze, allowing one of the officers to grab him by the scruff of the neck.  After a few choice words the poacher led the police to the mist nets and it was here that they apprehended, after a brief attempt to flea, the second poacher.  After taking photos for evidence and then taking down the nets, the police escorted the poachers to the local police station for questioning.  I don’t know what the outcome will be but being in possession of a bird of prey, a state protected species, is a serious offence.

And so, after several days of battling these poachers, it was gratifying to finally catch them.  I cannot praise the Shunyi State Forestry Police high enough.  They responded quickly, with enthusiasm, and effectively apprehended the poachers.  I am sure these guys will refrain from trapping wild birds for the foreseeable future.. and I hope their arrest will act as a deterrent for others, too.

The Beijing State Forestry Police apprehending one of the poachers.
The Beijing State Forestry Police apprehending one of the poachers.
Beijing police taking down the illegal mist nets.
Beijing police taking down the illegal mist nets.


Finding a first, whether it’s for the local patch or the country, is a magical feeling.  Last Friday Dutch birder, Ben Wielstra, found a small female flycatcher in the grounds of Tsinghua University, Beijing.  After recording the call, taking extensive notes and managing to grab a couple of photographs, it was identified as Beijing’s first SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER!  A brilliant find.  Here’s Ben’s story:

“On Friday 11 September 2015 I took what was supposed to be a brief stroll after lunch on the Tsinghua University Campus. Although there were not particularly many birds around, I had a good start with short but reasonable views of a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus tenellipes) foraging on the ground in ‘patch 2’. As ‘patch 3’ (next to my office) was not very birdy I decided to give ‘patch 7’ a try.

Not much appeared to be going on here as well, until I heard a call unfamiliar to me (which is in itself not exceptional, given my limited experience with the many (potential) Tsinghua species). The call stood out (I was still about 30 meters away) and was persistent. It was clear that it belonged to a chat-like bird given the high-pitched, ventriloquist ‘sjeee’ notes similar to e.g. Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros. These notes were followed by a series of harsh ‘tek’ sounds. The call came from a small patch of bamboo. I first took a quick recording and then started pishing to coax the bird into view.

The bird obliged and although it was quite ‘busy’ and mostly stayed hidden in the vegetation I managed to get my first views almost directly.

I had the interesting experience of having no clue what I was looking at. I did not bring my field guide and had no clear idea which species could potentially be encountered in Beijing. The bird had no obvious identifying features except that the colour was strikingly rufous and it appeared quite long tailed. It was soon clear that I was dealing with a small Ficedula flycatcher. The bird was notably smaller and more delicate than the Taiga Flycatchers F. albicilla, regular at Tsinghua this period. Size, colour and plainness also directly excluded the other migrant Ficedulas: Yellow-rumped F. zanthopygia, Chinese F. elisae and Mugimaki F. mugimaki (in the city, the latter two are rare and very rare respectively). I knew that Slaty-backed Flycatcher F. hodgsonii was on the Beijing list but I had no idea about its status except that it must be a very good record in the lowlands. At least I knew that females are drab so I tentatively pinned this ID on the bird. Although I got momentarily side-tracked by a cracking male Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope foraging in the same bamboo patch, I managed to get some decent views of the flycatcher. The bird was clearly not going anywhere so I decided to go back to the office (just a few minutes away) and check pictures and sound recordings on the internet to see if I could figure out what it was by myself.

Browsing Oriental Bird Images for Slaty-backed Flycatcher female/juvenile did not provide an obvious match (with birds showing an obvious pale wing bar). However, with Google I found some pictures that got pretty close. The calls available on Xeno-Canto did not match however. As I did not manage to reach a confident ID I called Terry Townshend. He confirmed that Slaty-backed is rare in Beijing (with only two records from the mountains, where it actually might breed). He suggested that another mega, female Narcissus Flycatcher F. narcissina, might show rufous tones, but no, that wasn’t it. This bird was too small.  I pulled my sound recordings from my recording device and sent them to Terry and Paul Holt. I could not reach Paul by phone. I put the news out on the Birding Beijing WeChat group that I had a weird flycatcher that ‘must be Slaty-backed’.  I also sent a message with more specific information to two Tsinghua University birders with whom I got in contact via the WeChat group: Huang Hanchen and Zhao Xiangyu.

Considering the obvious rarity of the mystery flycatcher I decided to give up on work for the day and head back to ‘patch 7’. When I reached the spot again the bird was still present (easily located based on call). The bird mostly sneaked around and could ‘disappear’ in the bamboo for quite some time (when it was silent). Terry suggested me to try and get a couple of photos. Although I am not a photographer (at all!), luckily I did carry a simple camera. Photographing a hyperactive little brown job fluttering around in dense undergrowth with a simple camera is not easy. Several times I managed to get a good view of the bird though. Only around 17:30 o’clock the bird took a brief excursion outside of the bamboo and sat in some (relatively) open vegetation, low in the crowns of some small trees. Here I finally managed to take a picture.

SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER, Tsinghua University Campus, 11 September 2015 (Ben Wielstra)

Soon after Hanchen and later Xiangyu arrived (I had no internet on my phone so did not know whether they would manage to come and help). Although I had lost the bird we soon heard it calling from the bamboo again. We got some good views again.  Hanchen and Xiangyu agreed that this was something weird, it was not just me!  Hanchen managed to take some pictures of the bird with a better camera, but because the bird was obscured they were not so sharp.

SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER, Tsinghua University Campus, 11 September 2015 (Huang Hanchen)
SLATY-BLUE FLYCATCHER, Tsinghua University Campus, 11 September 2015 (Huang Hanchen)

Around 18:00 the bird left the bamboo again and this time we lost it a while longer. We heard it calling from close-by in the park and, while we got distracted by a Thick-billed Warbler, the bird managed to slip into the bamboo again unseen. It was slowly getting dark so we decided the leave the bird be, hoping that it would still be there tomorrow.

Back in the office I could check my email and saw that Paul replied. The only quick message at that stage was that he was not sure of the ID yet and would get back to me. He did mention Slaty-blue Flycatcher F. tricolor as confusion species though. This was a species that I did not consider at all at this point. I searched Oriental Bird Images and BANG!, that was the bird! Next up was Xeno-Canto and BANG! again, that was the bird! Not only was it nice to finally ID the bird properly, Slaty-blue Flycatcher was an entirely new bird for Beijing! As Terry said, this species was not on the radar! It breeds a long way away from Beijing, with the closest subspecies diversa breeding in central China and wintering in south China and further south. Paul did manage to dig up two spring records from the coast, from Beidahe (9-12 May 1996) and from Happy Island (20 May 2003), so these flycatchers do get lost sometimes. Next morning several Tsinghua birders came to try and twitch the bird. Although this provided a nice opportunity to meet some people, unfortunately the bird itself was nowhere to be found.


The following description is based on what I saw in the field. I managed to take a single picture and Hanchen also got a few.

Size and Structure

A small flycatcher, smaller and more delicate than Taiga Flycatcher Ficedula albicilla. Small and fine bill. Long-tailed. Short primary projection (roundish wings).


Quite a featureless bird. Open face with pale eye ring and lores. Light, buffy throat (reminiscent of a young Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus). Rufous tone on upperparts, especially rump/tail. Rufous wingbar (edge of secondaries). Underparts lighter, more buffy than upperparts.

Naked parts

Legs flesh-coloured. Bill black. Eyes dark.


I have no idea how to age Slaty-blue Flycatcher. Perhaps a first year male would already have hints of blue in the plumage? The wingbar was (although only when I could see the bird well) pronounced (broad), perhaps this indicates a first year bird? The overall rich tones might suggest a young bird as well? I doubt there is any literature out there.


I have no literature at hand and do not know how many subspecies are recognized and how they are distributed. I base the following on Oriental Bird Images. Male plumages of the different subspecies look quite different (tricolor/minuta vs. diversa/cerviniventris). Time for a split? It seems to me that female-type birds also show differences. Subspecies tricolor and minuta seems colder and darker and the legs seem also darker. I don’t know how consistent this is. The warm/buffy appearance of the Tsinghua birds fits pictures of ssp. diversa, which is probably the most likely taxon to end up here anyway.


The bird generally stuck to a patch of bamboo. It mostly foraged low down (< 1m) and I even saw it hopping on the ground like a robin. It displayed the typical flycatcher behaviour of sitting still and dive-bombing unfortunate insects. In the dense undergrowth that made quite some noise. In the late afternoon, around 17:30 and 18:00 o’clock it moved out out of the bamboo and foraged a bit higher up (c. 2,5 m) in the lower crown of small trees, but both times it quickly returned to the bamboo. The bird could be coaxed out and enticed to call by pishing, but seemed to loose interest soon. When it was outside of the bamboo it perched on bare branches and was not particularly shy, it just didn’t seem to stay in the same place for long. The bird was tail-pumping but did this slowly. Once the birds came to check me out and sat at a height of about 2 m while preening.


The sound that initially attracted me to the bird was a number of typical chat ‘sjeee’ sounds followed by a series of ‘tek’ notes. In response to my pishing the bird called excitedly, but only made the ‘tek’ notes, not the ‘sjwee’ notes. The bird sometimes made a single or only several ‘tek’ notes. I made a couple of recordings which manage to capture the variation of the sounds produced.”

Ben Wielstra

Thanks to Huang Hanchen for the kind permission to use his photograph of the Slaty-blue Flycatcher.

The Battle of Shunyi: Local Police Act Fast To Tackle Wildlife Crime!

With autumn migration in full swing, poachers are out in force trying to trap species such as the Siberian Rubythroat or Bluethroat for the cage bird trade.  Encouragingly, the local police are acting fast and doing what they can to stop them!

When I moved to the Shunyi District of Beijing this Spring, I was lucky enough to find, very close to my apartment block, an area of scrub.  Scrub, as any birder will tell you, attracts birds and, during spring and autumn migration in Beijing, a LOT of birds.  Since early May I have recorded exactly 70 species in this little wild patch on the outskirts of one of the most populous capital cities in the world.  Right now it hosts Siberian Rubythroats, Thick-billed, Lanceolated, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Dusky and Yellow-browed Warblers, Stonechats and Brown Shrikes.

It is perhaps not a surprise that the area has also attracted the attention of poachers who illegally trap birds for the cage bird trade.  The last few days – peak migration season for some of the most sought-after species, such as Siberian Rubythroat and Bluethroat – has seen the beginning of a battle…  between me, the birder (and good guy, obviously), and the poachers (the bad guys).

Here are the events of the last few days:

First, three days ago, I discovered about 150m of mist nets with a MP3 player blaring out the song of Siberian Rubythroat.  In fact it was the song – which I assumed was coming from a wild bird, unusually singing in autumn – that first drew me to the precise spot.  As I climbed over a heavily weeded mound, there they were – mist nets, very carefully and professionally set up.

2015-09-09 Illegal nets in Shunyi
The poachers place their illegal mist nets along lines of cleared scrub, catching birds as they fly from one side of the clearing to the other.

At this point I couldn’t see anyone, although I suspected the poacher was nearby.  Without thinking, I immediately started to dismantle the nets, ripping them so they would be rendered useless and snapping the bamboo poles and chords..  After a few minutes the poacher appeared and shouted at me to leave the nets and to go.  I think he knew by the look in my eye and the expression on my face, that wasn’t going to happen.  I grabbed my camera and, despite him becoming incredibly camera-shy, I took a photo of him before continuing to dismantle the nets.  I told him that he was breaking the law and that I would call the police.  He suddenly became very cooperative, offered me a cigarette (refused) and even started to help me take down the nets.  After about 10-15 minutes I had destroyed all of the nets and poles.  I made it clear that if I saw him again, I would send his photo to the police.

2015-09-07 Illegal nets in Shunyi dismantled
Dismantled mist nets. These will never be used again to catch wild birds.
2015-09-07 poacher in shunyi
The camera-shy poacher in Shunyi.
2015-09-10 Siberian Rubythroat in illegal mist net
A SIBERIAN RUBYTHROAT trapped in an illegal net. This one was lucky – after release, it flew off strongly.

The next morning, I was on site at first light to check the area.  There were no nets and no poacher.  I began to check the vicinity and immediately found a mist net, not far from the scene of the encounter the day before and, I suspect, abandoned by the same poacher.  There were 6 birds caught up, their struggles to free themselves only causing them to become more entangled.  There were 2 Siberian Rubythroats, a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, 2 Stonechats and a Richard’s Pipit.  My first priority was to release the birds and it took me 30 minutes of careful and concentrated effort to free them all.  One of the Rubythroats was particularly weak but, after resting on the ground for a few minutes, managed to fly into the scrub.  One of the Stonechats had a wounded leg but nevertheless was able to fly strongly.  The Richard’s Pipit flew up high, uttering it’s familiar “shreep” call before heading strongly southeast – a wonderful sight to see.  The Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, as anyone who has seen one will be familiar with, darted into deep cover never to be seen again.  After dismantling the net and breaking the poles and chords, I searched the rest of the area before heading home for breakfast.

Fast forward to this morning.  I was due to have a Chinese lesson at 0900, which would mean leaving my apartment at around 0800.  Before heading out, I decided to spend an hour or so on the roof of my apartment block to see whether there was any visible migration after the overnight rain.  With a few Richard’s Pipits and Yellow Wagtails moving, there were enough birds to hold my interest but nothing spectacular.  After about half an hour I realised that the height of the roof provided a great vantage point from which to scan the whole area for mist nets.  It wasn’t long before I could see about 300m of mist nets with four guys standing around and occasionally retrieving unfortunate birds as they flew into the invisible traps.  My heart sank.  A friend had provided me with the number of the local police and, after calling them, I was surprised and delighted with their response – they would come immediately!  My directions were not perfect (my Chinese is still not of a sufficient standard) so they asked me to meet them there to show them the spot.  I cycled and waited by the roadside, the poachers and nets out of sight the other side of a wall adjacent to the road.  It wasn’t long before one of the poachers appeared from behind the wall to fetch some water from his car.. As he walked past me, he looked at me suspiciously as I desperately tried to pretend (unsuccessfully, I think!) that the reason for me being there was that I had a problem with my bike..!  A few minutes later, two of the poachers emerged and drove away…  I suspected that they realised something was afoot.  Just a few seconds later the police arrived… but on climbing through the hole in the wall, the poachers were now nowhere to be seen – they had almost certainly been spooked and, as two of the poachers drove their cars to the other side of the scrubby area, another had taken out all of the birds and the poachers’ belongings via another entrance (the movement of cars seemed to suggest this).  Nevertheless, the police and I took down and destroyed all of the nets and the police took copies of the photos of the poachers’ vehicles I had taken with my iPhone.  Although the police must catch the poachers red-handed if they are to secure a prosecution, the evidence helps to build up a supporting case.

2015-09-11 Police examining nets in Shunyi
Shunyi Police were quickly on the scene and destroyed the nets.

So, although the poachers got away this morning, I feel hugely encouraged.  The Shunyi police were superb.  They responded quickly (on site within half an hour), they were supportive and the chief officer even gave me his personal mobile phone number and said to call him straight away if I find more nets or poachers.  I suspect the poachers were given a good scare, too, and I would be surprised if they returned to this area.  This was a model response by the police and they should be congratulated for taking wildlife crime seriously.  I will certainly be saying lots of good things about them on Chinese social media.

If further motivation was needed to stamp out this cruel practice, I was shocked to find the head of a Dusky Warbler underneath one of the nets.  The Dusky Warbler is insectivorous and is not a beautiful singer.  It is “by-catch” for the poachers who are targeting Siberian Rubythroats and Bluethroats. To see the way they trapped, killed and discarded this tiny bird, on its already hazardous migration from Siberia to southern China, was heartbreaking.  However, it makes me more determined to stand up for wild birds.

Tragic: The head of a Dusky Warbler. For the poachers, it's worthless and is simply discarded.
Tragic: The head of a Dusky Warbler. For the poachers, it’s worthless and is simply discarded.

The Battle of Shunyi rages but, with the police onside and the poachers on the run, it’s only a matter of time before the good guys win!

Happy Island In Early September?

It’s a big wrench for me to leave Beijing in migration season!  However, last week I was fortunate enough to spend 4 days on Happy Island (菩提岛 in Chinese) in the company of British birder, Nicholas Green.  Most birders – and tour companies – visit this legendary island off the coast of Hebei Province in May when birds are singing and in breeding plumage.  It is much less visited in the autumn, particularly in early autumn.

I made my first visit to Happy Island in late September 2010, shortly after arriving in Beijing, and boy has it changed.  The first thing I noticed on this visit was that it is no longer an island; a new causeway now links this birding mecca to the mainland.  Second, the “island”, has grown in size due to land reclamation.  Third, the accommodation is excellent – comfortable modern chalets with air conditioning, WiFi and hot water 24 hours per day.  Finally, there are some huge new buildings being erected with a new, much larger, temple and a massive building (for what purpose I am unsure) in the shape of a lotus leaf.

These changes might sound like a disaster but, actually, most of the good habitat remains, including the wood around the temple, now complete with wooden boardwalks.

A big target of mine was the now ultra-rare STREAKED REED WARBLER (细纹苇莺), which historically “swarmed” in the millet fields in late August and early September.  Sadly, despite scrutinising every ‘acro‘ I came across, I drew a blank.  However, it was a ‘birdy’ few days and we racked up a total of 125 species.  The full list can be downloaded here but highlights included:

– a flock of more than 50 DAURIAN STARLINGS (北椋鸟)
– three SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS (紫背苇鳽)
– a single drake STEJNEGER’S SCOTER (斑脸海番鸭)
– a single PECHORA PIPIT (北鹨)
– both LANCEOLATED (矛斑蝗莺) and PALLAS’S GRASSHOPPER WARBLERS (小蝗莺) posing for photographs
– 5 DOLLARBIRDS (三宝鸟) on the last full day; and
– a single LONG-TAILED SHRIKE (棕背伯劳), continuing the consolidation of this species’ northerly march
It was astonishing to think that we were the only birders on the island and there must be a possibility that there will be no more visiting until May next year!  I shudder to think what birds pass through unseen…
Here are a few photos from the visit.  Certainly whets the appetite for this autumn’s migration.
2015-09-05 Lanceolated Warbler, Happy Island
2015-09-03 Brown Shrike juvenile, Happy Island
2015-09-04 Grey Nightjar, Happy Island
2015-09-04 Cuckoo juvenile, Happy Island
2015-09-04 Schrenck's Bittern, Happy Island
SCHRENCK’S BITTERN in the ditch in Temple Wood.
2015-09-04 Stejneger's Scoter, Happy Island
And here are two videos – of one of the SCHRENCK’S BITTERNS (紫背苇鳽) and a GREY NIGHTJAR (普通夜鹰).  I love the SCHRENCK’S appearing to test the temperature of the water with his toes before taking a drink…

Yellow-breasted Bunting bucks the trend in Beijing!

If you care about birds and conservation, you will be used to bad news.  As a wise man once said, “environmental victories are temporary and the losses are permanent“.   We are losing our biodiversity at a lightning speed with some estimates putting the extinction rate at around 10,000 times the natural rate.  And it was in June this year that a scientific paper was published about the dramatic decline of up to 95% in the once super-abundant Yellow-breasted Bunting.

This quote is from the BirdLife article published at the time:

“The magnitude and speed of the decline is unprecedented among birds distributed over such a large area, with the exception of the Passenger Pigeon, which went extinct in 1914 due to industrial-scale hunting”, said Dr Johannes Kamp from the University of Münster, the lead author of the paper.

Although there is a lack of hard data about the population of Yellow-breasted Bunting, there is much anecdotal evidence of its decline, as outlined in the paper, and there can be no doubt that the contraction in its range and the reduction in numbers recorded at communal wintering sites are very real.

And it was in September 2013 that we found a bird trapper at Nanpu, on the Hebei coast, using a caged Yellow-breasted Bunting as a lure alongside some mist-nets.

2013-09-07 YBBunting and mist nets

The trapper was surprisingly cooperative as we dismantled the nets and freed the trapped birds.
The trapper was surprisingly cooperative as we dismantled the nets and freed the trapped birds.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.

So it has been with some surprise and delight that, this autumn, there have been record numbers of Yellow-breasted Buntings seen in Beijing. Definitely something to celebrate!

Here are a few recent counts:

44 on 26 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Paul Holt and Terry Townshend).  Exactly double the previous Beijing record count!

14 on 29 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Jan-Erik Nilsen)

29 on 30 August 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Paul Holt and Terry Townshend)

15 on 1 September 2015 at Miyun Reservoir (Terry Townshend and Jeff Hollobaugh)

Although data are sparse, the records we have from Birdtalker (the Chinese bird record database) show no change in the species’ status in Beijing in last 10 years.   The important caveat here is that there has been much more observer coverage of good habitat this year, especially in late August (the peak period for autumn migration of this species).

Whatever the reason, we are very happy to see good numbers of this most beautiful of buntings.

Here is a photo from this autumn in Beijing and two short videos – the first of adult male singing on the breeding grounds (in Mongolia) and the second of autumn birds in Beijing.

2015-09-01 Yellow-breasted Bunting, Miyun3

Thanks to Paul Holt and Jan-Erik Nilsen for sharing thoughts and sightings of Yellow-breasted Bunting via the Birding Beijing WeChat group which contributed to this article.

2022 Beijing Winter Olympics: Biodiversity On A Slippery Slope?

On 31 July there were celebrations in Beijing when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that China’s capital city would host the 2022 Winter Olympics.  After the hugely successful 2008 Summer Games, the decision meant that Beijing would become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.  That is most certainly something of which Beijingers should be proud.

However, it soon became apparent that the proposed downhill ski site falls within one of only two national nature reserves in Beijing – Songshan.  The Songshan reserve comprises two peaks – Da (Big) Haituo and Xiao (Little) Haituo, and official bid documents show that one of the slopes below the 2,198-metre high Xiao Haituo is the preferred site for the downhill skiing event.

The slopes below this peak contain many rare species, including Beijing’s only Shanxi orchids (Cypripedium shanxiense), not to mention the breeding habitat of several endangered and range restricted birds including Grey-sided Thrush (Turdus feae), Chinese (Green-backed) Flycatcher (Ficedula elisae), Chinese Thrush (Turdus mupinensis) and “Gansu” Red-flanked Bluetail (Tarsiger cyanurus).  And it was in late May this year that I enjoyed a fantastic afternoon’s birding at this site with visiting Dick Newell, Rob Joliffe and Lyndon and Hilde Kearsley (here for the Swift project), during which time we encountered 7 species of phylloscopus warbler – Chinese Leaf, Claudia’s Leaf, Eastern Crowned, Hume’s Leaf, Pallas’s Leaf, Yellow-browed and Yellow-streaked as well as brief views of Grey-sided Thrush and ‘heard only’ Slaty-backed Flycatcher and White-throated Rock Thrush.

Source: Wang Xi/Songshan Natl Nature Reserve/2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games Committee  Source: Wang Xi/Songshan Natl Nature Reserve/2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games Committee

After the announcement, online protests began with opposition being voiced on hugely popular social media sites such as WeChat and Weibo (“Chinese Twitter”).

And it soon attracted the attention of specialist media.  According to an online article on the Nature website:

“On 1 August Wang Xi, who recently received his PhD and works at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, overlaid maps from the International Olympic Committee’s evaluation report with those from the reserve’s website and posted the result on his Weibo account: both the start and end of the alpine runs fall within the reserve, he found.

Xi told Nature’s news team that his main motivation was to spread news of the possible ecological impact on plants there, including three orchid species that are classified at the highest protection level under Beijing’s conservation system. “It’s a chance for the government to connect with the people and talk to each other to solve this problem,” he says. “I am not against the Olympic Games, but they should be carried out in an environmentally friendly way.”

Chinese (Green-backed) Flycatcher, one of the species that could be adversely affected by the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Chinese (Green-backed) Flycatcher, one of the species that could be adversely affected by the 2022 Winter Olympics.

The response by government officials has been to declare that, under the current plans, the boundaries of the national nature reserve at Songshan will be “adjusted” and that the “new” reserve will be 30% larger than the area currently under protection.

Conservationists were quick to point out that, despite being larger, the proposed new reserve will lose arguably its most biodiverse part.  More importantly, the proposed site would violate environmental protection laws recently lauded by the government and could create a dangerous precedent that could give license to local governments to adjust the boundaries of other nature reserves, hampering already strenuous efforts to conserve other, in many cases more significant, sites.

According to 2013 government regulations, those who wish to change nature-reserve boundaries must submit an application that includes a public comment, an ecological assessment and four other documents. There is no evidence that this has happened.  And it was only in 2013 that President Xi Jinping said:

“We are going to punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy ecology or environment, with no exceptions.”

Indeed, the International Olympic Committee has its own rules.  Its “factsheet” on environment and sustainable development (updated in 2014) says:

“Recognising its responsibility to promote sustainable development, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) considers the environment as an integral dimension of Olympism, alongside sport and culture. The IOC ensures that the Olympic Games take place in conditions that take into account the environment in a responsible way, and collaborates with the relevant public or private authorities, with the aim of placing sport at the service of humanity, thus contributing to achieving UN Millennium Development Goal 7”

What is Millennium Development Goal 7?  To “Ensure Environmental Sustainability”.  This goal has 4 targets, including:

  1.  Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources
  2.  Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss

It is very difficult to see how the “adjustment” of nature reserve boundaries, sacrificing some of the most biodiverse parts, is consistent with these commitments.

Perhaps significantly, the posts by concerned citizens on social media are no longer visible or accessible.

In an exchange on Twitter, Birding Beijing raised the issue with the official Twitter account of Beijing2022 (@GoBeijing2022).  Birding Beijing was told that:

“boundary shift in the interests of region’s ‘sustainable dev.’ & ‘ecological preservation’, making protected area 1/3 bigger”

When challenged that the size was less important than the contents, the same Twitter feed said that plans were not final and that there would be further consultations.  And when asked about how people could contribute to the consultations, Birding Beijing was told that “affected local villagers” could make their views known via their local Peoples Congress.

It remains to be seen whether the views of biologists and conservationists (most of whom don’t live in the immediate vicinity) will be taken into account in the final decision on the location of the downhill ski slope.  I hope they are.  Failure to do so could be hugely damaging for Beijing’s incredibly rich, but threatened, biodiversity, paving the way for local governments in other parts of the country to adjust the boundaries of their own reserves in the name of “development”.  And it makes something of a mockery of the IOC’s environmental principles.

However, if the government listens to the conservationists and adjust its plans, it would be a hugely positive signal about the status of national nature reserves and the decision would, rightly, be lauded by conservationists both within and outside China, strengthening China’s international reputation and providing substance to underpin the high-level rhetoric about the need to protect the environment.

I think every reasonable person recognises that there will be some impact on biodiversity as countries seek to develop and increase the prosperity of its citizens.  However, with the growing stresses faced by our natural environment, we desperately need enlightened decision-making so that, where possible and at reasonably low cost, development takes place whilst minimising the impact on the environment.  With several less biodiverse mountains close by that could host the downhill ski slope, the decision should be straightforward.

UPDATE: On Friday 21 August the IOC responded to my email about the environmental concerns:

“Dear Terry,

Many thanks for your email. We have taken note of your concerns and we will follow up with the relevant people.

Please take note that our teams are currently travelling, but we will do our best to get back to you as soon as possible.

Best regards,

IOC Media Relations Team


Château de Vidy

1007 Lausanne, Switzerland

Tel:  +41 (0)21 621 6000″

Looking forward to the response from “the relevant people”…