It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom that seems to be prevalent right now. But every now and then, something happens that provides a shot in the arm.. an event or moment that inspires and provides hope.
16 September at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing was one of those moments. Clare Fearnley, the brilliant New Zealand Ambassador to China, hosted the inaugural ‘Friends of the Flyway’ to celebrate the migratory birds of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, bringing together ambassadors and senior diplomats from the 22 countries that make up the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, the secretariat of the EAAFP, senior Chinese government officials, including the Deputy Administrator of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Deputy Mayor of Dandong (stewards of Yalu Jiang, dubbed a “five-star” service station on the shorebird expressway), academics and ‘friends’.
Not only did the event provide an opportunity to celebrate and raise awareness of the flyway among ambassadors and senior diplomats, elevating migratory birds as a foreign policy issue, but it also stimulated ideas and discussions, resulting in a few potential new initiatives, such as managing embassy grounds as ‘wildlife areas’ with embassies signing up to commitments to monitor birds and other wildlife, and to make changes to management practices to improve the habitat for resident and migratory birds. A birding trip to the coast next May, for Ambassadors to experience the spring migration, is on the cards, and ‘bird-friendly’ glass, painted with ultraviolet patterns, was showcased by local artists as part of the solution to bird collisions (thought to cause the deaths of up to a billion birds in North America annually, with a new research project now starting in China to assess the scale of the issue here).
In her opening, Clare told the story of the ‘Kuaka’, the Māori name for the Bar-tailed Godwit, that has such a special place in their culture. The Kuaka is considered to be the link between the northern and southern hemispheres, a carrier of knowledge and the bringer of positive messages. For Māoris they were birds of mystery, (‘Kua kite te kohanga kuaka? Who has seen the nest of the kuaka?’).
Nearly all New Zealand Bar-tailed Godwits are from the baueri subspecies and breed in western Alaska. Their incredible migration forms a triangle. Following the breeding season, these birds make an almost incomprehensible non-stop eight or nine day flight of more than 11,000km to New Zealand, only recently discovered through the tracking of “E7” in 2007. After spending the non-breeding season in New Zealand, they begin their northern migration from early March, heading for refuelling sites around the Yellow Sea, many to the Yalu Jiang in Dandong, where they fatten up at this five-star service station for the last leg of the journey to Alaska.
Migratory birds do not respect international borders and, over a calendar year, many will visit multiple countries as they move from breeding grounds to non-breeding grounds via stopover sites. It follows, therefore, that no single country can secure the future of these birds on its own. With shared natural heritage comes a shared responsibility and, as we are in the midst of one of the greatest extinction events on Earth, and the first to be driven by humans, it is vital that the international response must go beyond national actions to protect key habitats and species, important though these actions are, to involve sustained and coordinated international cooperation.
The East Asian-Australasian Flyway is a bird ‘superhighway’ for more than 50 million waterbirds, including 35 globally threatened species, many of which commute between breeding grounds in the far north, some inside the Arctic Circle, and non-breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere. Many travel as far as Australia and New Zealand. However, it is not only the ‘ends of the flyway’ – the breeding grounds in Artic Russia and the non-breeding grounds in Australia and New Zealand that are important. The commute relies on stopover sites, particularly those in the Yellow Sea.
That is why this initiative – bringing together ambassadors from flyway countries with senior Chinese government officials – was so important. It is now hoped (expected?) that ambassadors from other Flyway countries will host similar events, celebrating particular aspects of the Flyway or specific species and sites, whilst helping to nurture and strengthen international cooperation along this important route for migratory birds.
Huge kudos to Clare and her team, especially Svar Barrington and Hayley Anderson, for initiating this event and for the New Zealand embassy’s ongoing leadership in putting biodiversity high up on the agenda for foreign policy and diplomacy.
Header photo: Clare Fearnley, New Zealand Ambassador to China, welcoming Tan Guangming, Deputy Director of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.