As in most countries, with rising disposable income and better, and cheaper, equipment entering the market every year, bird photography is becoming more and more popular in China. This should be welcomed – after all, anything that connects people with nature and broadens the appreciation for the natural world must be good for conservation. China has rich birdlife and many species have been caught on camera for the first time only recently thanks to the growing army of photographers. Not to mention that most of the recent additions to the list of bird species recorded in Beijing have been found by photographers.
However, as in every country, there is a minority that acts irresponsibly, putting the image ahead of the welfare of the bird. There are some horrific stories of photographers taking young Asian Paradise Flycatchers from the nest and lining them up on an open perch in order to get frame-filling shots of the parents feeding them without any annoying twigs or branches in the way. And deliberate flushing of cranes in order to secure flight images. There was even a story of one photographer, after having secured superb images of (Endangered) Scaly-sided Merganser, throwing fireworks into the river to make them fly away so that no other photographer could obtain better images. Then, of course, there was the image below that went viral on social media outraging tens of thousands of people.
In many countries where bird photography is well-established, guidelines or codes of conduct have been developed. For example, in the United States, Audubon has a set of guidelines for ethical bird photography. British Birds magazine has a ‘code of practice‘ and BirdLife Australia has Ethical Guidelines for Birding which include photography. In most cases the guidelines or codes of conduct are common sense. They address issues such as use of playback, the need to steer clear of breeding birds, avoiding deliberate flushing and habitat modification and condemning the use of live animals to attract birds of prey.
Of course, although in some countries there are laws and regulations that prohibit some of the more intrusive bird photography, particularly at the nest, most of these guidelines and codes of conduct have no legal basis. To be effective, they require photographers willingly to respect the guidelines and for others to challenge bad behaviour when they see it. It is only through self-policing that a code of conduct can be truly effective.
That is why it was heartening to see some of China’s top birding and conservation organisations, led by China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), come together to develop their own code of conduct for bird photography in China (Chinese only). The authors have sensibly drawn on the codes of conduct in the US, Europe and elsewhere to put together a comprehensive set of guidelines that cover all of the most important issues – putting the welfare of the bird first, avoiding birds at the nest, no deliberate flushing, judicious use of playback and condemning the use of live animals as bait.
A code of conduct won’t change bad behaviour overnight and, as we see in the West, even with codes of conduct in place for several years, there will always be a minority of irresponsible people willing to ride roughshod over the rules to obtain an image that is better than their peers.
However, this is another step forward for the conservation of wild birds in China and the organisations should be congratulated for putting together such a sound set of guidelines. CWCA has 31 provincial level branches across China with more than 260 prefecture or county level organisations and the Code has already been circulated far and wide on social media and in bird photography, and birding, chat groups.
Bird photographers do a great deal of good to promote the wonder of wild birds and bring them closer to the public; hopefully these guidelines will help keep bird photography in the headlines for the right reasons and images such as the ‘man’ with the Great Crested Grebe above will be few and far between.
Title image: bird photographers waiting for a Japanese Robin in a Beijing park, November 2012.
When I was back in Norfolk, UK, for Christmas and New Year I was delighted to meet Duncan Macdonald of Wildsounds, an independent Norfolk-based supplier of wildlife books, audio, multimedia guides and audio equipment. As well as being great company, Duncan was extremely generous in offering some Asia-focused field guides for me to take back to Beijing to give to Chinese birders.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and, after a competition via the Birding Beijing WeChat group, I spent a day whizzing around Beijing to deliver the books to the lucky winners. Here are a few of the winners receiving their books:
There is no doubt that these books will further enthuse the lucky recipients about birds and that can only be good for the future of birding and conservation in China. A big thank you to Duncan!
Every year millions of shorebirds migrate from the southern hemisphere, many from as far as Australia and New Zealand, to the Arctic to breed and back again. Nearly all are dependent on the food-rich intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion (the east coast of China and the west coasts of North and South Korea) as stopover sites during these epic journeys, as can be seen in this visualisation of migration patterns.
It’s worth taking a moment to try to comprehend the endurance and resilience required by these birds, many of which are small enough to fit in the palm of a human hand. One population of BAR-TAILED GODWIT (Limosa lapponica) winters in New Zealand and flies, via the Yellow Sea, to Alaska and then, after raising its young, makes an 11,000 km nonstop return journey. The energy requirement for this flight is equivalent to that of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more than seven days. Along the way, these birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain before they set off, and they even shrink their digestive organs.
Sadly, the number of Bar-tailed Godwits successfully reaching New Zealand each autumn has more than halved, from around 155,000 in the mid-1990s to just 70,000 today. The Bar-tailed Godwit is just one of more than 30 species of shorebird that relies on the tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion. The populations of most are in sharp decline, none more so than the charismatic but ‘Critically Endangered’ SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER (Calidris pygmaea).
So, what is the reason for the decline? Scientists, including Prof Theunis Piersma and his team, have uncovered evidence for what many birders and conservationists have long suspected – that a major cause of the decline is the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea. They’ve shown that birds using the Yellow Sea twice per year – for their spring and autumn migrations – are declining at a faster rate than those using the Yellow Sea only once. It’s a ‘smoking gun’.
Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat. If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.
However, in January, the Chinese government announced that it will halt all ‘business-related’ land reclamation along its coast. This is a massive boost to the tens of millions of migratory shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway (EAAF) that depend on the intertidal mudflats of China’s east coast, including species on the brink of extinction, such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea) and the ‘Endangered’ Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris).
Two English-language articles reporting the change in policy were published in the Chinese media – one on Xinhua, China’s largest news agency, and one in The China Daily. Significantly, the latter was posted on the website of the State Council, China’s ‘Cabinet’, indicating the high level of support for the new policy.
The articles reported on a 17 January 2018 press conference held by Lin Shanqing, Deputy Director of the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). Lin outlined several elements of the new policy:
First, the government plans to “nationalise reclaimed land with no structures built on it and will halt reclamation projects that have yet to be opened and are against national policies.”
Second, all structures built on illegally reclaimed land and that have “seriously damaged the marine environment” will be demolished.
Third, “the central government will stop approving property development plans based on land reclamation and will prohibit all reclamation activities unless they pertain to national key infrastructure, public welfare or national defence”.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly in terms of the future of China’s east coast, “local authorities will no longer have the power to approve reclamation projects”.
Gu Wu, head of SOA’s National Marine Inspection Office, said that
“in the past, land reclamation, to a certain extent, helped to boost economic development by mitigating the land shortage in coastal regions and providing space for public infrastructure and industry parks. However, illegal and irregular reclamation activities caused a number of problems to marine ecosystems and lawful businesses”and that“those effects have become a major public concern, so the administration decided that reclamation would be closely looked at in its annual inspection last year.”
The press conference on January 17th was preceded by two media articles criticising coastal provinces for their mismanagement of land reclamation projects, revealed by SOA’s 2017 inspections. Hebei Province (home to well-known birding sites such as Beidaihe, Nanpu and Happy Island) was admonished because “tourism, aquaculture and shipbuilding had all been allowed in a national nature reserve in Changli County.”
And Jiangsu (home to Rudong and Taozini) and Liaoning (home to Dandong and Dalian) were subject to finger-pointing in this article.
In Jiangsu Province:
“a total of 14 projects, involving 81.29 hectares of reclaimed land”, had been wrongly approved since 2012;
A large amount of reclaimed land remain deserted, with only 21.28 percent of reclaimed land actually developed;
Developers of 184 land reclamation projects had not obtained government approval before they started building their projects; and
The province was failing to effectively protect nature reserves. Fish farming had been operating in about 9,955 hectares of sea waters around a national wetland reserve in Jiangsu, where such commercial operations should have been banned.
And in Liaoning Province, the SOA found that:
The provincial government was failing to effectively supervise land reclamation projects and control pollutants from being discharged into the sea;
Although the provincial government fined polluters and violators of reclamation regulations, more than half of the fines had not been collected;
Among 211 waste water drains into the sea registered by the provincial environment authorities, 68 were not approved through legal procedure and some of the drains have not been carefully monitored.
SOA’s announcement of the new policy on land reclamation came as something of a (very welcome) surprise to the conservation community. However, those with experience of working in China will know that policy development often works in this way.. the process of policy formulation is opaque and when a new policy is announced it is not uncommon for the announcement to be the first information to emerge from the government that a policy review is taking place.
Of course, announcing a new policy is one thing; implementation is another. China’s record on implementing environmental regulations is not the best, as can be seen in the violations of existing regulations in Hebei, Liaoning and Jiangsu. It remains to be seen whether this policy will be enforced with the rigour required to ensure the integrity of the remaining intertidal mudflats. Nevertheless, at this stage, there is no reason to think that implementation will not happen. In fact, I am optimistic; the new policy is consistent with President Xi’s focus on building an ecological civilisation, as he emphasised at the 19th Communist Party Congress and it is in line with the recent strengthening of environmental regulations, including the Environmental Protection Law.
Halting land reclamation along China’s coast is a necessary but not sufficient step to slow the decline in populations of shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway. The priority will now be to ensure protection for, and effective management of, the key sites for migratory shorebirds. This is what organisations such as the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute and local NGOs will be focusing on over the next months and years.
Transforming the fortunes of the world’s most threatened flyway will only be possible if there is cooperation between all of the countries along the route – from Russia in the north to Australia and New Zealand in the south. China’s role in the East Asian Australasian Flyway is key and could set an example for countries hosting the world’s other major flyways, including the Atlantic and Pacific Flyways which also face threats, such as pollution and habitat loss associated with the drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
While there is a huge amount still to do to ensure the future of migratory shorebirds in East Asia, China’s announcement could be the turning point for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the many other species dependent on the intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea coast. At this stage, it would be churlish to say anything other than “Well done, China”!
Note: This article was edited on 23 January 2018 and 9 February 2018 to add further information.
2017 was another year of exciting avian discoveries in Beijing.
There was a little snow at the turn of the year and it didn’t take long for the first new Beijing record to be found; on 7 January local photographer Qu Lijun snapped some photos of Beijing’s first SNOW BUNTINGS (Calcarius nivalis, 雪鹀) – a flock of at least ten – at Bulaotun, near Miyun Reservoir.
February began with a LESSER WHITETHROAT (Sylvia curruca, 白喉林莺) photographed by Jiang Xiaobo (per Yang Yuejiang) on 6 February in the Olympic Forest Park. This bird was reported on and off for around two months and was last seen on 3 April by Yang Yuejiang. On 10th February, news broke of a HARLEQUIN (Histrionicus histrionicus, 丑鸭) at the most unlikely urban setting of Anzhenmen, close to Beijing’s 2nd ring road. According to locals it had been present for “at least 20 days” and remained on site well into March, delighting a string of visiting birders from all over the country.
There were two notable records in March. First, on 10th, Li Boyang and Liu Ziang photographed a CRESTED GOSHAWK (Accipiter trivirgatus, 凤头鹰) close to Wangjinglou. With a distribution in China limited to the south, this species is a rare, but possibly overlooked, vagrant to Beijing. Second, for the second consecutive winter, the presence of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTINGS (Emberiza jankowskii, 栗斑腹鹀) was confirmed with a count of at least eight birds on 25th at Miyun Reservoir, the same site as the discovery of a small flock by Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao in winter 2015/2016. Note Miyun Reservoir remains out of bounds to the public; this record was possible due to special permission given to a group from China Birdwatching Society to undertake their annual waterbird survey.
April began with a first-winter BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE (Rissa tridactyla, 三趾鸥) at Ma Chang (Terry Townshend and Richard Fuller). Then, on 5th, came the biggest surprise of the month with a SULPHUR-BREASTED WARBLER (Phylloscopus ricketti, 黑眉柳莺) photographed at the Deer Park, Nanhaizi (南海子麋鹿苑), by Mr Guo Geng, the Vice Director of the Park. Although there are two previous reports of this species from the Temple of Heaven Park (per Li Zhaonan), Mr. Guo’s is the first documented record in Beijing.
Further good finds in the month saw an ORIENTAL STORK (Ciconia boyciana, 东方白鹳) at Yeyahu on 8th during a bird-race and a remarkable occurrence of 14 GREAT BUSTARDS (Otis tarda, 大鸨) migrating over Shisanling on 15th, needless to say found by committed patchworker, Colm Moore.
A EURASIAN BULLFINCH (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, 红腹灰雀) was reported from the Olympic Forest Park on 19th by visiting birder, Andrew Thornton (there are only two documented records of this species in Beijing – in December 2012 in the Botanical Gardens and November 2013 in the Temple of Heaven Park). A GREY-BACKED THRUSH (Turdus hortulorum, 灰背鸫), very scarce in Beijing, was in the grounds of Peking University on 27th and a single NORTHERN HOUSE MARTIN (Delichon urbicum, 毛脚燕), a scarce migrant in Beijing,wasfound by Colm Moore at Shisanling on 28th. On the same day, Beijing’s 4th LESSER FRIGATEBIRD (Fregata ariel, 白斑军舰鸟) was photographed by Mr Nan Hai (南海) at Shahe Reservoir. Unfortunately, this rarity was flushed by local Grey Herons just five minutes after its arrival and it wasn’t seen again.
As expected, May hosted some interesting records including Beijing’s first CHESTNUT-CROWNED WARBLER (Seicercus castaniceps, 栗头鹟莺), photographed at the Temple of Heaven Park on 6th by Youjiduiyuan (online nick name). See photo here. A COTTON PYGMY GOOSE (Nettapus coromandelianus, 棉凫) was at the Summer Palace on 16th (Zhang Yu), a singing SIBERIAN THRUSH (Zoothera sibirica, 白眉地鸫) on Terry’s local patch in Shunyi District on 18th and at least 3 singing male GREY-WINGED BLACKBIRDS (Turdus boulboul, 灰翅鸫) were back at Lingshan on 27th (this likely breeding population was first discovered in 2016), with a MANCHURIAN REED WARBLER (Acrocephalus tangorum, 远东苇莺) at Shisanling on the same date (Colm Moore). A single DOLLARBIRD (Eurystomus orientalis, 三宝鸟) at Yeyahu on 30th was a nice end to the month.
June saw a handful of reports of ASIAN KOEL (Eudynamys scolopacea, 噪鹃), a bird that, until very recently, was rare in Beijing. Now it’s annual in small numbers and there was a singing bird at Yeyahu on 3rd. Also on 3rd, two LESSER COUCALs (Centropus bengalensis, 小鸦鹃) were found by Beijing-based Jan-Erik Nilsen at Lingshan. On 11th June a BLACK-FACED SPOONBILL (Platalea minor, 黑脸琵鹭) was photographed by Zhang Weimin at Miyun Reservoir, apparently present since 7 May. This represents the first documented record of this endangered species in Beijing.
On 27th a pair of breeding SWINHOE’S MINIVETS (Pericrocotus cantonensis, 小灰山椒鸟) was found at Huairou Reservoir by Paul Holt, only the fourth record for the capital and the first breeding record.
Although not in Beijing, July is worthy of mention for the presence of Hebei Province’s second and China’s fourth LESSER CRESTED TERN (Thalasseus bengalis, 小凤头燕鸥) found by Que Pinjia and Wang Yuqi on 26th at Jingtanggang, close to Happy Island. Fortunately for the few hardcore China listers, it lingered until 5 August at least, occasionally coming to bathe in what can best be described as a fresh water puddle!
August was relatively quiet with no unusual records. However, it didn’t take long for September to score when, on 2nd, a MARSH HARRIER sp was photographed by Jing Xin at Bulaotun. With the lack of pale on the leading edge of the wing, dark rump, lack of significant pale bases to the underside of the primaries and the absence of a pale breastband, the photographs look very good for WESTERN MARSH HARRIER (Circus aeruginosus, 白头鹞), a rare bird in east Asia. The question is – can Eastern Marsh Harrier (Circus spilonotus, 白腹鹞) ever look like this? Answers on a postcard, please…
On 20th, the second COTTON PYGMY GOOSE (Nettapus coromandelianus, 棉凫) of the year, and Beijing’s first autumn record, was found at Yuanmingyuan and remained until 24th at least.
October saw Beijing’s first autumn record of MEADOW PIPIT (Anthus pratensis, 草地鹨) amongst a large flock of BUFF-BELLIED PIPITS (Anthus rubescens japonicus, 黄腹鹨) at Ma Chang on 7th and a MONGOLIAN FINCH (Eremopsaltria mongolica, 蒙古沙雀), the first modern day record, was photographed at Baiwangshan by Ding Deyong. A male ORANGE-HEADED THRUSH (Zoothera citrina, 橙头地鸫), of unknown origin, was photographed in the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park on 13th and, if a genuine vagrant, will be the second record for the capital of this very attractive species, following one in the Temple of Heaven Park on 27 May 2012 (Qinghua Shoucang).
November saw an unusually urban EURASIANEAGLEOWL (Bubo bubo, 雕鸮), photographed in the grounds of Peking University on 10th, with another on 21st near the Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution (Tom Stidham). On 19th there was a new species for Beijing in the form of a CHESTNUT THRUSH (Turdus rubrocanus, 灰头鸫), photographed in the Olympic Forest Park by Xi Yanghong.
A small influx of BROWN-EARED BULBULS (Microscelis amaurotis, 栗耳短脚鹎) was recorded from 22nd with birds in Beihai Park and the Olympic Forest Park. The photo below by Zhang Xiaoling.
And modest numbers of JAPANESE WAXWINGS (Bombycilla japonica, 小太平鸟) arrived in the month with small flocks at the Botanical Gardens, Tsinghua University and the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park with the birds at the latter two sites remaining into 2018.
December is not a month that usually produces first records but Guan Xiangyu and friends found Beijing’s first FIELDFARE (Turdus pilaris, 田鸫) at Lingshan on 10 December, a superb find.
A male JAPANESE THRUSH (Turdus cardis, 乌灰鸫) first seen on 24 December and remaining into 2018 at the Agricultural Exhibition Centre Park is likely of suspect origin and the year ended with an unseasonal WHITE-BREASTED WATERHEN (Amaurornis phoenicurus, 白胸苦恶鸟) in the grounds of Peking University on 28th.
And that was 2017… ! Another brilliant year of birding in Beijing.
A big thank you to all the birders, resident and visitors, who have contributed bird sightings throughout 2017 and a special thanks to XiaoPT for assisting with this summary.
*The 2017 summary has been collated with the best available information at the time. If you spot any errors or omissions, please post a comment below or contact Birding Beijing via the Latest Sightings page. Thank you.
2017 has been quite a year. Politically, one can feel the tectonic plates shifting with the turmoil in the West contrasting with the increasing power, and confidence, of a resurgent China. It’s a fascinating time to live in the capital city of the world’s largest economy in waiting.
But hang on, why do I begin the Birding Beijing review of 2017 by writing about politics? The reason is that, if you care about birds or conservation, politics matters. And, with Xi Jinping beginning his second five-year term as President, the direction in which he is taking China is becoming clearer and that has implications for birds and wildlife. In October 2017, at the 19th Communist Party Congress, President Xi delivered the ‘manifesto’ for his second term, a three-and-a-half-hour speech, catchily entitled “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” The speech touched on everything from reform of State-owned Enterprises to the Digital Economy. And at every meeting I have attended with government since, officials have quoted from the speech. Given the top-down nature of China’s government, what Xi says is that important.
From my conversations with Chinese friends in government and outside, I am convinced that President Xi is personally committed to protecting China’s environment and there are sections of his speech from which conservationists should take heart. For example:
“We must pursue a model of sustainable development featuring increased production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems. We must continue the Beautiful China initiative to create good working and living environments for our people and play our part in ensuring global ecological security.”
“We will establish an environmental governance system in which government takes the lead, enterprises assume main responsibility, and social organizations and the public participate.”
“We will take tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.”
Xi has also committed to create a system of National Parks and launched the overarching policy in September 2017. According to the associated press release, China “has set up ten pilot programs for the national park system, covering areas including Sanjiangyuan (the source of China’s three major rivers), Giant Panda habitats and the Great Wall” and “ordered all its provinces and regions to establish an ecological “red line” that will declare designated regions under mandatory and rigorous protection.”
These are positive steps and the relevant government departments and local officials will be using these statements and policies as their guiding light for the next five years.
And in case you might think that words are hollow, there has been some tangible progress this year that will give conservationists cause for optimism.
For example, in April the Chinese government announced that 14 sites along the Yellow Sea coast and Bohai Bay – critical to millions of migratory shorebirds, including the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper – had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination. Although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the government. And, should these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.
At a more micro level, under the terms of the revised Environment Protection Law, ‘public interest’ lawsuits have been pursued against local governments that violate environmental regulations. For example, the government in Henan Province was fined around USD 555,000 for destroying Jujube trees, some of which were up to 500 years old, as part of a land reclamation project. At the end of its verdict announcement, the court said it would continue to improve its handling of environmental cases, in accordance with the “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” policy laid out by President Xi Jinping during the Party’s 19th National Congress in October, illustrating the power of President Xi’s speech.
At the same time, 2017 has seen significant growth in philanthropy from China’s wealthy elite and public charitable giving. And, as Chinese companies seek lucrative public listings on stock exchanges and a greater role overseas, there is a growing emphasis on their image and, with that, comes greater investment in Corporate and Social Responsibility through the creation of charitable foundations or individual projects. A reasonable chunk of that spending is going into, primarily domestic-focused, conservation.
All of this should improve the prospects for China’s biodiversity.
So what of the birds in 2017? Well, it’s heartening to be able to report some good news here too.
First, after great work by Han Zheng and his team from Northeast Normal University in Changchun in discovering some previously unknown breeding sites, the estimated population of the “Endangered” JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING (Emberiza jankowski) could be as high as 9,800-12,500, a massive increase on the previous estimate of fewer than 1,000 individuals. The new sites enjoy no official protection so work is already underway to engage the local government to see what can be done to ensure as many of these important news sites as possible are protected.
Second, in March 2017, a site record 308 BAER’S POCHARDS (Aythya baeri) were counted at Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province, illustrating just how important the site is for this now “Critically Endangered” Aythya. The good news was tempered by a very poor breeding season at Hengshui Hu, caused by a combination of rising water levels and illegal egg collection, with no confirmed successful fledging of young in 2017.
Third, after the success of the Beijing Swift Project, which resulted in the discovery of the wintering grounds and migration route of the pekinensisCommon Swift, several schools in the capital are developing projects to manufacture and erect artificial nest boxes with a view to attracting birds to their schools campuses. With a falling Swift population in Beijing due to the demolition of traditional old buildings with nooks and crannies for nest sites, this is a welcome initiative that will hopefully begin to slow and, ultimately reverse, the decline.
Fourth, the explosion of birding festivals across China, run by local birding and conservation organisations, is an excellent sign that birding, and conservation, are attracting a growing band of young people all over the country. From Liaoning in the northeast to Guangxi and Yunnan in the south-west and from Qinghai to Qingdao, local groups – powered by enthusiastic young people – are organising events to celebrate China’s birds and biodiversity. That is a fantastic sign for the future.
And fifth, there has been some progress with tackling the trade in illegally caught wild birds online. Taobao, often described as the equivalent of the West’s eBay or Amazon, is a platform on which one can buy almost anything from military tanks to Boeing 747s and even mini nuclear fusion reactors. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that wild birds are often offered for sale. After the outrage expressed when “Critically Endangered” Yellow-breasted Buntings were found for sale, Alibaba (Taobao’s parent company) has reacted by taking down the offending posts and made a commitment to review their practices with a view to stopping the sale of wild birds. We’re now in a dialogue with Alibaba and hope to be able to report more good news soon.
Of course it’s not all a bed of roses and, on the negative side, the news about the perilous state of Rufous-headed Robin and no reports at all of Streaked Reed Warbler are sobering reminders that around 10% of bird species are threatened with extinction. And there remain huge challenges with poaching and illegal trapping.
However, with Xi’s speech, strengthened environment protection laws and a growing awareness among the general public, especially young people, about the environment, it appears that things are moving in the right direction. And with the emergence and growth of local environmental organisations, there is now an army of young people across the country working hard to raise awareness of China’s unique biodiversity, connect people to nature and protect important species and habitats. That is a big change from when I arrived in this vast country seven years ago and it gives me great optimism for the future. I hope that, in 2018, Birding Beijing can play a small role in encouraging, supporting and promoting the work of those who are championing China’s biodiversity.
After the outcry from birders, conservationists and members of the public about the illegal sale of ‘critically endangered’ YELLOW-BREASTED BUNTINGS on Taobao (Alibaba’s online sales platform), it was good to receive a call from Alibaba on Friday. The official was ‘horrified’ to see the social media posts, confirmed the link had already been taken down and that a review of procedures was underway.
We discussed the scale of wild birds and poaching equipment for sale on Taobao and the fact that it was illegal to trap ANY wild bird in China without a license. I was invited to send any links of concern and the company would ensure they were investigated.
After some fast work by some Beijing birders, I sent to the company more than 100 links, almost certainly the tip of the iceberg, where sellers were offering wild birds, traps or mist nets. I await their response.
Alibaba now has a chance to show that they genuinely care about stopping the illegal wildlife trade and to demonstrate the company’s policy is consistent with the public statements by their Chairman, Jack Ma, President Xi Jinping’s vision of a “Beautiful China” and, most importantly, the law.
On the latter point, whilst selling wild birds is clearly illegal, the sale of mist nets and traps to catch birds appears to be a grey area. Nevertheless, it seems to me the reputational benefit of banning the sale of these items on their platform will significantly outweigh any negligible loss of revenue.
Rest assured Beijing birders will be checking regularly to see whether the links provided to Alibaba have been removed and we’ll report on progress – good or bad – via this website. In the meantime, if you find any links of sellers offering wild birds or trapping equipment on Taobao, please contact me and I’ll ensure they are passed on to the company.
Title image: a caged Yellow-breasted Bunting being used as a lure.
First, this beautiful songbird, once super-abundant across its range from northern Europe in the west to Japan in the east, has been classified as “Critically Endangered” on the 2017 IUCN Red List. This is the most endangered category and means that Yellow-breasted Bunting is just one step away from extinction.
The first piece of news is desperately sad, if not unexpected. The plight of the Yellow-breasted Bunting has been well-documented (for example, here and here) in conservation circles. In short, over the last two to three decades, the population has suffered a catastrophic decline of up to 95 per cent, with the main cause thought to be illegal trapping for food in China. Parallels have been drawn with the extinction of the once abundant Passenger Pigeon in North America, the last of which died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 after the wild population was driven to extinction by a combination of hunting and habitat loss.
Conservationists in Asia, led by Hong Kong Birdwatching Society and supported by BirdLife International, are doing their best to help this ailing species through a combination of scientific studies and awareness campaigns, including distribution of the poster below and the production of ‘Yellow-breasted Bunting-friendly’ rice in Hong Kong’s Long Valley, a wintering site for the species.
It’s the second piece of news that is shocking and disgusting.
Yellow-breasted Bunting is not easily bred in captivity and the birds for sale are almost certainly of wild origin. In China it is illegal to trap any wild bird without a license, only issued for scientific purposes. It is extremely unlikely the sellers have trapped these birds legally and, in the unlikely event they have a licence, the sellers are clearly abusing the terms under which that license was issued.
Taobao, often described as China’s Ebay or Amazon, is part of the Alibaba Group founded by Ma Yun (known as Jack Ma). He is one of China’s richest men, in fact one of the wealthiest people in Asia. According to Bloomberg, he has a net worth of USD 44.9 billion as of December 2017.
What makes the sale of almost extinct wildlife on his platform all the more galling is that Jack Ma has made many public statements and commitments about not selling wildlife products. In 2014, after bowing to public pressure, Alibaba made a commitment to “abide by national laws and regulations to remove all illegal wildlife information from our platform“. And The China Daily reported that Alibaba, together with other online sales platforms “..vowed to enable no advertising or trade in illegal wildlife and its products on their platforms and said they would voluntarily accept supervision from the society and government.”
On top of that Jack Ma has, not surprisingly given his wealth, been courted by the big conservation NGOs. In 2009 he became a trustee of The Nature Conservancy’s China program and, in April 2010, joined its global board of directors. In 2013, he became chairman of the board for The Nature Conservancy’s China Program. It surely undermines TNC’s reputation and credibility on wildlife conservation if members of their board facilitate the sale of critically endangered wildlife.
I am of the belief that, when discovering issues such as this, it is better to engage privately at first, highlighting the problem and allowing the company, which may not be aware of the illegal nature of the sales, to have a chance to fix it before going public. Of course it must be extremely difficult to monitor everything for sale on a large online platform such as Taobao. To do so needs capacity and specialist knowledge; these things take time to develop and, given the rapid growth of the business, it’s not surprising that oversight capacity has been slow to keep up.
However, it is now several years since Alibaba first courted controversy for selling illegal wildlife products and sadly it appears that “voluntarily accepting supervision from society and government”, as committed by Alibaba in 2014, are hollow words.
Back in December 2015 Birding Beijing alerted Alibaba to several sellers offering migrant birds for sale including Mongolian and Black Larks. After an acknowledgement of our correspondence, we subsequently received a reply to say that, as we could not prove these birds were captured in the wild, it was not illegal to sell them. So, according to Alibaba, there was no onus on them to ensure the products sold on their platform are legal. A disappointing response.
On hearing about sellers offering Yellow-breasted Buntings for sale, we once again contacted Alibaba to inform them of this illegal activity on their site. This time we received no reply at all after 10 days.
It is therefore with reluctance that I am writing this article to publicise the fact that Alibaba is selling almost extinct wildlife on its platform and doesn’t appear to care.
What is even more shocking about this latest episode is that it flies in the face of President Xi Jinping’s vision of a “Beautiful China”. The speech President Xi delivered to the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017 is widely seen as the guiding light for government and society in China and is quoted in almost all meetings with government officials. Some relevant extracts from the speech are below:
“We must pursue a model of sustainable development featuring increased production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems. We must continue the Beautiful China initiative to create good working and living environments for our people and play our part in ensuring global ecological security.”
“We will establish an environmental governance system in which government takes the lead, enterprises assume main responsibility, and social organizations and the public also participate.”
“We will take tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.”
Alibaba’s facilitation of the illegal wildlife trade is clearly inconsistent with all three of these statements.
The amount of money Taobao makes from selling items such as this must be tiny in the context of their overall business. Wouldn’t it make sense, for the sake of their reputation, to ban the sales of any wildlife, whether it’s clearly illegal or if there is any doubt? The cost would be negligible and the benefits to their image considerable.
Only then will they be able to claim that they care about wildlife and only then will their business be consistent with Xi Jinping’s vision for a modern “Beautiful China”. If Alibaba’s leader is going to make big commitments, it is wise to ensure he or she can live up to them. I hope someone from Alibaba can comment.
The Yellow-breasted Bunting is one of the most beautiful songbirds in China; it’s a feature of spring and autumn in Beijing and as recently as September, I was fortunate to see one on the patch of scrub close to my apartment in Shunyi. It’s decline towards extinction may yet be irreversible. However, with the efforts of conservationists in China and other parts of east Asia, supported by people from all over the world, it has a chance. It would be tragic if these efforts are undermined by the selfish and irresponsible attitude of Alibaba.
UPDATE: on the morning of 8 December we received a call from a representative of Alibaba. The representative said Taobao was ‘horrified’ to see the social media posts about Yellow-breasted Buntings for sale and, in response to the article, removed the seller’s page and other similar posts. The representative also said the company was reviewing its procedures to try to improve their success rate at spotting sellers offering wild birds. They would be happy to receive links of any posts of concern and would deal with them appropriately. Additionally, they committed to passing on the details of sellers of wild birds to the police. Comment: This is a positive response but, of course, the proof is in the pudding. We have a long list of links showing wild birds for sale and we’ll be regularly monitoring Taobao to ensure there is an improvement.
Title image: screenshot of the page on Taobao selling Yellow-breasted Buntings (taken 7 December 2017).