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
LANCEOLATED WARBLER, Happy Island
2015-09-03 Brown Shrike juvenile, Happy Island
BROWN SHRIKE
2015-09-04 Grey Nightjar, Happy Island
GREY NIGHTJAR
2015-09-04 Cuckoo juvenile, Happy Island
COMMON CUCKOO juvenile
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
STEJNEGER’S SCOTER
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
http://www.nature.com  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

INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE

Château de Vidy

1007 Lausanne, Switzerland

Tel:  +41 (0)21 621 6000″

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

The 1st China International Birding Festival

The 1st China International Birding Festival will take place at the superb migration hotspot of Laotieshan, Liaoning Province on 25-27 September 2015.

The event, sponsored by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), China Birdwatching Society and the Dalian Wildlife Conservation Society, has been designed to promote birding and wildlife conservation in China.

The 3-day event will include a 24-hr ‘bird race’ and teams of up to 4 people from around the world are welcome to test their birding skills against the locals.  China birding legend, Paul Holt, will be one of the judges.

The generosity of the hosts means that accommodation will be provided but travel to and from Laotieshan is at the expense of the participants.

Readers of this website will know that Laotieshan is a special place.  You can read about it here.  The Festival has been timed to coincide with peak raptor migration and, in the right conditions, it’s possible to see more than 1,000 ORIENTAL HONEY BUZZARDS in a day, as well as many other species (we recorded more than 200 species during an autumn visit in 2013).  In the early morning passerine migration is impressive and, offshore, rafts of STREAKED SHEARWATERS will add to the mix.  I can’t wait!

More details, including an application form, can be found here.  Although the deadline on the flyer for entering teams is 8 August, this is flexible.  But hurry – it’s likely to be very popular!

More importantly, the Festival should serve as a boost to the fledgling (but growing fast) birding community in China.  Be there or be sqaure!

EDIT: As at 10 August more than 30 teams have entered! And, as the deadline for applications has been extended to 15 August, you still have time to get together that team to challenge for title!  Each team will be allocated an english-speaking member of the China Birdwatching Society to help with any logistical or language challenges over the course of the festival.  So there’s no excuse not to be there!  

Downloadable PDF guides to Beijing’s Birds Now Available!

One of Birding Beijing’s priorities is to provide helpful information about the birds of China’s capital for beginners and experienced birders alike.  It’s a delight, therefore, to announce that there are two new downloadable PDF guides available on this website.

The first – A Guide To Beijing’s Common Birds – is designed to help the beginner to identify some of the most frequently seen birds.  With photos and brief explanatory text – including English, scientific and Chinese names – it’s a handy guide to download onto a smartphone or to have printed on your desk!

The second – A Guide To Beijing’s Most Sought-after Birds – is designed to help visiting birders to connect with the “Top 10” special birds that can be found in China’s capital.  From range-restricted species such as the Grey-sided Thrush to the spectacular Przewalski’s Redstart, this guide should help to increase the chances of encountering these birds during a visit to Beijing.

Of course, bird distributions are not static and so these guides are works in progress, based on best-available information at this time.  If you spot any errors or omissions or have any information that will improve these guides, please contact me using the Contact form or through the Comments facility.

Exterminating Sparrows: A Lesson From History

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”– Aldous Huxley

So-called “propaganda posters” have been an important part of Chinese culture since the Mao Zedong era.  These often colourful and striking artworks were designed to sway public opinion in favour of its policies (a bit like News International does for right wing governments in the West today.. cough).  The posters have become collectible and several of my China-based friends spend large amounts of their spare time visiting flea markets to add to their collection.  It was one of these friends who introduced me to these posters and I soon became interested in how the environment was depicted.  Perhaps surprisingly to some, as far back as the 1950s posters promoted messages about the benefits of planting trees and “greening” the countryside.   The header image is from the early 1970s with the message “Start a new upsurge of the people’s duty of tree planting movement”.

However, there is one poster that jumped out at me.

Eliminating the last sparrow.  This poster, aimed at schools, was part of a 1959 series to support the  “4 pests campaign” to eradicate sparrows, rats, flies and mosquitoes.  The destruction of sparrows caused an ecological imbalance, resulting in heavy crop losses to insects due to the absence of one of their most effective natural predators.  Soon after, sparrows were protected and even imported from Russia to replenish the domestic population.
Eliminating the last sparrow. This poster, aimed at schools, was part of a series to support the “4 pests campaign” to eradicate sparrows, rats, flies and mosquitoes.

This poster is from 1959 and was part of a series to support Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign to eradicate rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows.  How this policy played out is an important lesson about the unintended consequences of altering the natural balance of ecosystems.  It won’t surprise many to hear that the campaign backfired spectacularly and it’s a lesson that ALL governments would do well to heed.

Mao Zedong initiated the “Four Pests” campaign in 1958 after concluding that several blights should be exterminated – namely mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. According to environmental activist Dai Qing, “Mao knew nothing about animals. He didn’t want to discuss his plan or listen to experts. He just decided that the ‘four pests’ should be killed.”

Mao was particularly annoyed by the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus, 树麻雀) part of the diet of which was grain. Chinese scientists had calculated that each sparrow consumed 4.5kg of grain each year — and that for every million sparrows killed, there would be food for 60,000 people.  Armed with these statistics, Mao launched the Great Sparrow Campaign to address the problem.  Millions of people were mobilised and the excitement was captured in this report from a Shanghai newspaper:

“On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began. In large and small streets, red flags were waving. On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People’s Liberation Army shouting their war cries.  In the Xincheng district, they produced more than 80,000 scarecrows and more than 100,000 colorful flags overnight. The residents of Xietu road, Xuhui distrct and Yangpu road Yulin district also produced a large number of motion scarecrows. In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labour force was mobilised into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. In the parks, cemeteries and hot houses where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques for shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows. By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.”

And there is a fascinating personal account by Han Yumin printed in The New Yorker in October 1959.

The effectiveness of the campaign was such that the Tree Sparrow population was decimated. And without the sparrows to curb the insect population, crops were being devastated in a way far worse than if birds had been spared.  At least partly as a result, agricultural yields that year were disastrously low.

The campaign against the sparrows was finally terminated in late 1959 when the Academy of Sciences leaders highlighted the findings of scientists such as Zhu Xi and Zheng Zuoxin. Zhu and Zheng had autopsied the digestive systems of sparrows and found that three-quarters of the contents were harmful insects and only one-quarter was human food. This showed that sparrows were beneficial for humans.

On this advice from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Mao declared a complete halt to the Great Sparrow Campaign, replacing sparrows with “bed bugs” in the “Four Pests” campaign.  Suddenly sparrows were not just protected but the domestic population was supplemented by imports of sparrows from Russia! Eventually, after several years of poor crop yields, the situation began to improve.  The number of people who starved in the 1958-1961 famine is disputed – and it’s impossible to say how much of the disaster was caused by the extermination of sparrows – but there can be no doubt that this episode is a stark lesson about the unintended consequences of human interference into natural ecosystems.  I hope it’s one lesson in history that is not forgotten by the current generation of leaders, not just in China but around the world.

References:

Chinese Posters: See www.chineseposters.net 

i09: See URL: http://io9.com/5927112/chinas-worst-self-inflicted-disaster-the-campaign-to-wipe-out-the-common-sparrow 

Zona Europa: See URL: http://www.zonaeuropa.com/20061130_1.htm