Illegal hunting is a major threat to wild birds in most parts of the world. Even in so-called advanced countries, the problem persists. My home country – the UK – is certainly not immune with the continued illegal persecution of raptors to protect commercial shooting interests.
In China, trapping birds both for the cage-bird trade and for food is an activity that, despite tougher laws and greater enforcement, remains a problem. However, increasingly, people – especially young people – are standing up for wildlife. For example, in Beijing during spring and autumn – peak times for bird migration – groups of volunteers go out every day looking for illegal nets and, through liaison with the local police and direct action, are working hard to accelerate the demise of illegal hunting in China’s capital city. A few weeks ago I met with Beijing’s most active anti-poacher – Gu Xuan. Through crowdsourcing he receives a small – and increasingly unsustainable – income that just about allows him to be a full-time bird protector. Before our meeting, I thought I had a reasonably good understanding of poaching in Beijing but what he told me – both the scale of the illegal activity and the prices of some cage birds – shocked me. He agreed to answer a few questions and, with his permission, I have reproduced his answers below.
Although the scale of the problem and the way many migratory birds suffer, may be heartbreaking, it is heartening to hear about the dedication of young people such as Xuan and the progress he and his fellow volunteers are making against incredible odds. They deserve the respect and support of wildlife lovers the world over.
Beijing may be just one battleground in the war against illegal hunting in China but I strongly believe that if attitudes can be changed here, it will have a knock-on effect across the whole country.
Interview with Gu Xuan
1. Please tell me about yourself – how old are you? Where are you from? What is your background?
My name is Gu Xuan. I also have a Spanish name – Silva. I was born into a normal family in a small village called Bakou in the northwest of Beijing. I am 29 years old.
Before I began to protect wild birds, I used to teach life skills to orphaned children, for example, showing them how to take care of themselves and teaching blind children how to use a cane to navigate.
2. For how long have you been tackling poaching of wild birds in Beijing?
I began this work in December 2015, so it’s now three years.
3. What motivates you to do this work?
Ever since I was a little boy, I have had a desire to be with mother nature and the animals, to watch them and spend time with them. One day I took home a stray dog; I could feel the energy, the connection between us and with mother nature, and this experience showed me my future. When I was offered the chance to work on this bird protection project, I knew 100% for sure this was my duty and my dream to fight for nature. I don’t think I need any other motivation. This is the way I see and feel the world.
4. What is the scale of poaching in Beijing? E.g how many birds do you think are caught each year? Is it getting better or worse?
When I began three years ago, it was a very bad situation. Even though this is the capital of my country, the need to do this work is very pressing.
Due to old traditions, there are a lot of local people who like to cage birds to watch them and listen to their sound. So, in order to satisfy this demand, many people set nets during the migration season to catch wild birds. We find very large numbers of illegal nets in the Beijing area. And it is not only for the cage-bird trade. We have often found people catching birds for food.
Nowadays, three years on, the areas where I patrol are a little better but we can always find new places with illegal nets. The overall situation is out of my control and I cant tell the full scale, but i think it’s bad.
5. Who are the poachers? What’s their profile? Are they old or young, men or women?
The majority of poachers are unemployed men between 40-60 years old. However, we do find a few young people and women.
6. Why are they catching wild birds? For the cagebird trade or for food or both? These aren’t hungry people, right? Not for survival?
Some are rich and some poor but they all have a good life and do not need to eat wildlife to live.
7. Who are the buyers of the birds for the cagebird trade?
At the market, many local people from many different backgrounds buy the wild birds.
8. Which species are the poachers particularly targeting and why?
The most popular cage birds are the Bluethroat, Siberian Rubythroat, Eurasian Siskin, Yellow-bellied, Marsh and Coal Tits, Yellow-breasted Bunting, white-eyes and larks. A pristine male Siberian Rubythroat can sell for as much as 200,000 CNY (GBP 22,000) but most will change hands for a few hundred or few thousand CNY, depending on species and condition.
9. What if they catch other species such as buntings, shrikes, pipits?
If they catch birds not on their target list, for example a Brown Shrike, an Olive-backed Pipit or a warbler, some poachers will release them but others will take them for food.
10. Which areas are the worst in Beijing?
Some places are particularly bad, such as Tongzhou, Chaoyang, Mentougou, Haidian and Fengtai.
11. What is the attitude of the police?
At the very beginning, the police did not care too much. They would not allow us to see their work and they were afraid that someone will blame them. However, in the last three years, I can see a real change in their attitude and action. Now they respond quickly and efficiently when we report illegal nets and will do their best to catch the poachers.
12. What are the penalties if the police catch poachers?
We have the Wildlife Protection Law, and poachers will be punished according to the law. Usually a fine or, if the offence is serious involving a large number of birds, they may receive a custodial sentence.
13. What do you think needs to be done to bring an end to the poaching?
I think if we want to end poaching, there are a number of things that must happen:
- Police must strictly implement the law
- We, as volunteers, must patrol frequently
- We must raise awareness among the local population about the amazing birds we have in Beijing, the effect of poaching on these wild birds and how people can help through discouraging the keeping of cage birds and discouraging eating wild birds
We need to work together and we need more volunteers!
14. What can people do to help?
Obviously, we need money to carry on our frontline action. We need to be able to support full-time volunteers. I have many ideas to protect the birds but I can’t end poaching by myself. I hope people will join us if they have time and chance. Anyone who comes out with us will feel the energy on the front line. Then, spread this energy to your family, your friends and your social media (Wechat) groups. We need your help!
15. Anything else you want to say?
The persecution of wild birds is like other wild animals. In order to satisfy their own needs, in order to satisfy a moment of happiness, in order to make more money, some people harm animals and destroy them. The habitat that protects this magical life also protects ourselves because we live together on this beautiful planet. Everyone has a responsibility!
I was struck by Xuan’s passion and dedication for saving wild birds. He told me that, in peak migration season, he rises around 3 or 4am every day in order to be on site at dawn when the poachers are most active. He invited me to join him for a day next spring, an invitation I was only too pleased to accept. I very much hope others will join him to accelerate the demise of illegal poaching in Beijing.
EDIT: Gu Xuan’s story has since been covered by Reuters and The Guardian, helping to spread the word about his heroic efforts in Beijing.