Last week, together with Tom Beeke in Dalian and Tian Yang (Leyton), a Dalian-based birding friend, I received an invitation to participate in the International Siberian Crane Festival in Faku County, near Shenyang in Liaoning Province. The invitation came from Professor Zhou from Shenyang University who we had both met last autumn whilst watching waders along the Liaoning coast. Apparently my sighting of 3 Siberian Cranes in Beijing in March (the second record for the capital) qualified me as a Siberian Crane expert….
By juggling work commitments we were both able to participate and we enjoyed one of those special Chinese experiences…
Faku County hosts a network of 16 freshwater lakes which, together, form a very important stopover site for a host of wildfowl and, in particular, the ‘critically endangered’ Siberian Crane. The world population of this species is thought to be around 3,000 individuals and declining. About ten days ago, 2,000 were counted at this important site. The day before our visit on Tuesday, 821 were seen. Clearly, this is a hugely important site for the Siberian Crane but it is not currently included in the list of priority sites for this species in China (so far, five wetland sites have been identified as critical, including the Poyang Lake Basin, where up to 98% of the world’s population of Siberian Cranes over-winter; the other four sites are national level nature reserves – Zhalong, Xianghai, Keerqin, and Momoge Nature Reserves – that protect important migratory habitat used by the Siberian Crane in northeastern China).
As is often the case in rapidly developing China, the site is under threat. To help raise awareness, Professor Zhou set up an International Siberian Crane Festival and invited the most important local politicians, decision-makers and local people to attend. The deputy Mayor of Shenyang, the Party Secretary of Faku County and his deputy all participated. Professor Zhou also invited a panel of experts from Beijing including the China head of Wetlands International and a Deputy Director from the Forestry Ministry. Tom and I were invited to provide an international perspective.
Our day began at 0500 with a visit to the site to do a spot of birdwatching before the official proceedings began. Unfortunately, due to a delay in leaving the hotel (too much baijio for some?) we missed the main crane post-roost flight but, luckily (for Tom at least as he had never seen Siberian Crane!), a couple of stragglers remained and we were able to watch them feed, albeit at distance. We also saw good numbers of Greater White-fronted Geese, some Swan Geese, Bean Geese, Baikal Teal and Grey-headed Lapwing. After a tour of the main reservoir we were driven to a raised viewing area which was being prepared for the festival.
The festival began at 0930 with a formal opening ceremony at the wetland itself which, despite the weather (strong winds and dust storms) saw a hugely impressive local turnout. It appeared to be the biggest event to happen in this community for a long time with hundreds of local people present. The police were there in numbers to coordinate the crowds.
After the formal opening ceremony, during which Tom and I were asked to stand on the stage (!) while 4 dignitaries spoke, we were driven to the local government offices where we participated in a roundtable workshop with the Party chiefs, local residents and media. The workshop began with presentations by Wetlands International, the Forestry Ministry and Professor Zhou, all aimed at explaining the significance of this site and the potential for the local area to achieve provincial, national and international recognition (via Ramsar status) and to secure associated financing. Tom and I were then invited to provide international perspectives and we both spoke about the potential economic value of eco-tourism, the importance of valuing natural capital in economic decision-making, including the ecosystem services provided by wetlands, and the experience of our respective countries in terms of wildlife tourism. It was heartening to hear the Party Secretary (the top official in Faku County) promise, at the end of the event, to review the County’s development strategy on the basis of what he had heard and he even invited us to be formal advisers to his County (one for the CV!). After some interviews with the media (including Liaoning TV and Radio, CCTV, Tianjin News and others), we were provided with an official lunch with the obligatory toasts of the local baijio before heading back home. Tom and I were both very grateful for the warmth of the welcome we received and the memory of this event, and our visit to Faku, will stay with us for a very long time. A big thank you to Leyton for his interpretation service.
Professor Zhou is to be congratulated: he is clearly working extremely hard to try to protect this area and is making every effort to persuade the local Party chiefs that it is in their long term interest to secure the future of these wetlands and the birds that depend on them. I would like to wish him every success and, in my new capacity as environmental advisor to Faku County, I stand ready to assist in any way I can!
By the way, did you know that the oldest documented crane that ever lived was a Siberian Crane named “Wolf”, who died at the age of 83? Amazing!