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.
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.
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.
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.
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!