Readers of Birding Beijing will know about the unfortunate Chinese practice of using mist nets to address the (serious) risk of bird strikes at airports. Some background is here. In short, the blanket measure used at the now more than 300 Chinese airports, is to line the runways with kilometres of mist nets. This lethal method is effective only with small birds, the vast majority of which represent a negligible risk to aircraft. The nets do nothing to address the risk associated with larger birds such as waterbirds and birds of prey.
The international recommended best practice is for each airport to undertake a risk assessment to identify the specific risks faced by that facility and then to implement measures to manage that risk. It goes without saying that a coastal airport on a major migratory flyway will face very different risks to an airport in the middle of the Inner Mongolian desert. Currently, the two are treated the same.
A little over two years ago, I co-authored a report with Zhu Lei, commissioned by the Global Environment Facility, about the methods used to address the risk of bird strikes at Chinese airports, setting out international best practice and making recommendations for a review of the policy used in China. The report, in both Chinese and English, was circulated to Chinese organisations. Frustratingly, it was hard to find out just who was responsible for the policy, let alone to reach them. Time and again we were told it was “too difficult” or that we were “wasting our time”.
John MacKinnon, who has helped to champion efforts to change the policy of using mist nets, used every opportunity he had to raise the issue in interactions with Chinese officials and media and we both sent the report to multiple officials and academics in the hope that someone would be able to help.
Persistence is key and sometimes opportunities present themselves in unexpected ways.
Last year, John and I were invited to survey the birds around a luxury ecotourism resort in Gaoligiong, Yunnan Province. The CEO is well-connected and when she heard about the issue, she offered to help. She is a family friend of Mu Hong, the Minister at the powerful planning ministry – the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Executive Deputy Director of the Office of Deepening Reform.
Last week, she spent half an hour with the minister discussing the issue and handed him a hard copy of our report on bird strikes and mist nets. He was apparently engaged on the issue, especially in the context of China hosting the major UN Conference on Biological Diversity in 2020. It would not look good if the world’s most influential environmental journalists arrive in China to be greeted by dead birds dangling in nets alongside the airport. The Minister promised to look into the policy. Although he is not directly responsible for aviation security, his seniority is such that if he suggests a policy review, it is likely to happen.
Whilst we are a long way from a change of policy, this is a major breakthrough after a frustrating couple of years of trying to reach senior policymakers and it gives us hope that the policy responsible for unnecessarily killing millions of small birds each year could yet be changed.