Summit for the Flyways: Progress in China

As I write this, we’re beginning day two of the Summit for the Flyways in Abu Dhabi and, although there will be a formal outcome statement at the end of day three, I wanted to emphasise what, for me, was the highlight of day one – the outline of progress in China presented by Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University.

Readers of Birding Beijing will have heard about some of the recent progress, including the ban on land reclamation and the government reorganisation that puts all protected areas under one agency.  However, it’s one thing to hear about changes from an enthusiastic and optimistic foreigner but quite another to hear about it directly from a Chinese academic.

The key slide is below.

For clarity, the text reads:

National Policy Change
1. All Reclamation Projects Suspended
2. Zero Loss of Nature Wetlands
3. Wetland Conservation and Restoration Order
4. Leadership Accountability for Wetland Loss
5. Nomination of World Heritage Sites

New Ministry
Ministry of Natural Resources
State Administration for Forestry and Grassland
National Park Administration

It’s hard to overestimate the significance, and pace, of these changes, all aligned with Xi Jinping’s vision of “ecological civilisation” as set out in the manifesto for his second term presented last year.  And whilst implementation is, of course, the real test, putting in place the right policies is a fundamental first step.  With China hosting the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2020, the time when new targets for conserving and celebrating nature are due to be designed, this vast country with unique natural heritage is seemingly getting its house in order and setting an example.

 

Summit for the Flyways

I’m writing this from Abu Dhabi at the opening of BirdLife International “Summit for the Flyways” which, from 23-26 April, brings together some of the world’s greatest bird scientists, conservationists, communicators and policy influencers to address one question: how do we best tackle the threats facing migratory birds?

Migratory birds have a hard life. To get to where they need to be – to breed and find food and shelter – they must run the gauntlet of illegal hunting/killing, insensitively placed wind turbines, pollution and a panoply of other threats. And these threats are only increasing.

The Beijing Cuckoo undertakes a phenomenal migration, linking China’s capital with Mozambique and southeastern Africa, but is facing threats including habitat loss, changes in agricultural practices and climate change. 

To underpin the Summit, BirdLife International has released a key publication: The State of the World’s Birds 2018.  This important and comprehensive report provides a snapshot of the health of not only the world’s birds, but the ecosystems they represent.  It’s described as “taking the pulse of the planet”.

State of the World’s Birds shows that many of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in dire straits. At least 40% of these species are in decline, and one in eight bird species is globally threatened with extinction.  It’s a wake-up call.

2011-09-05 Far Eastern Curlew
The Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) is one of several shorebird species in danger of extinction.

Many bird species known for being widespread and common are now at risk of extinction; the Snowy Owl, Atlantic Puffin, Grey Parrot and European Turtle-dove are among the instantly recognisable bird species that are now threatened with extinction due to human-driven factors such as climate change, illegal hunting and overfishing.  Overall, agriculture (the loss of habitat from agricultural expansion, as well as agricultural intensification) is the greatest driver of bird extinction worldwide.

The continued deterioration of the world’s birds is a major concern for the health of our planet; birds provide a wide variety of ecosystem services, such as controlling insect pest populations, and dispersing plant seeds. Vultures, one of the most threatened bird groups, provide crucial sanitary services across South Asia and Africa through the disposal of animal carcasses.

Here are some more of the publication’s key findings:

The Yellow-breasted Bunting could become the next Passenger Pigeon

Many people are familiar with the cautionary tale of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, a bird that once numbered billions in North America, and that was driven to extinction by 1914 through excessive hunting and habitat destruction. Sadly, history appears to be repeating itself.

Until recently, the Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola was one of Eurasia’s most abundant bird species, breeding across the northern Palaearctic from Finland to Japan. However, since 1980, its population has declined by 90%, while its range has contracted by 5,000 km, and BirdLife has now assessed the species as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List – meaning that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction. Although now officially banned, large-scale hunting of this bird, particularly in China, continues – in 2001, an estimated one million buntings, known colloquially as ‘the rice bird’, were consumed in China’s Guangdong province alone and, in November 2017 they were found for sale on China’s online shopping website, Taobao.

The European Turtle-dove Streptopelia turtur was once a familiar migrant to Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East from the Sahel zone of Africa. Because of habitat loss and hunting, the species is now declining across its range, especially in Western Europe, and its conservation status has recently been re-classified as Vulnerable to extinction.

The Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus is surely one of the most widely recognised birds in the world. It is also widespread, occurring throughout the Arctic tundra of the Northern Hemisphere and, in Asia, wintering as far south as northern China. Yet, the species is experiencing a rapid decline, most likely connected to climate change: changes to snowmelt and snow cover can affect the availability and distribution of prey. The species has recently been categorised as Vulnerable.

In the marine realm, the depletion of fish populations through overfishing and climate change has caused rapid declines in widespread and much-loved seabirds such as Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica and Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla—both are now considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Overall threats to the world’s birds

Human actions are responsible for most threats to birds. Foremost among these threats are: agricultural expansion and intensification, which impacts 1,091 globally threatened birds (74%); logging, affecting 734 species (50%); invasive alien species, which threaten 578 (39%) species; and hunting and trapping, which put 517 (35%) species at risk. Climate change represents an emerging and increasingly serious threat—currently affecting 33% of globally threatened species—and one that often exacerbates existing threats.

A powerful example of unsustainable agricultural practices, neurotoxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids are proving highly detrimental to birds. One recent study from the USA found that migrating White-crowned Sparrows Zonotrichia leucophrys exposed to neonicotinoids lost a quarter of their body mass and fat stores. The neurotoxin also impaired the birds’ migratory orientation.

Importantly, as well as the wake-up call about the decline in many bird species, the report also provides a message of hope, showing that conservation works and can change the fortunes of species in trouble.

At least 25 bird species would have gone extinct without conservation action over recent decades. These include the Seychelles White-eye Zosterops modestus, the Echo Parakeet Psittacula eques and the Azores Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina – all species confined to oceanic islands.

These messages are providing the backdrop to the Summit for the Flyways and the challenge now is to design a coordinated response across the flyways including governments, international organisations, NGOs, civil society and business.

In that context, it’s heartening to see so many people representing countries along all the major flyways, from China, Mongolia and Australia in the East Asian Australasian Flyway to the Netherlands, UK, North Africa in the Eurasian-African Flyway and the Americas in the west.  From China specifically, Professor Lei Guangchun from Beijing Forestry University is here and will be speaking about the recent positive changes in policy in China.

It promises to be an inspirational few days and, I hope, a catalyst for scaling up both awareness and conservation action to protect these great avian travellers and the ecosystems to which they belong.

 

 

 

Reform of Environmental Governance in China Should Be Good News for Wildlife

Anyone who has worked in China will know that the bureaucracy can be stifling.  At a minimum it can lead to serious time delays to even the most straightforward tasks.  At its worst, it can prevent action altogether.  Part of the problem, on the environment at least, is that the responsibilities for various environmental issues have been fragmented across many different government departments.

One official remarked that it used to take 12 official stamps from different government authorities to enable a decision to be taken about policies related to pilot National Parks.  And often these multiple authorisations are handled in series, which can seem to take forever.

All that is set to change thanks to a sweeping reform of environmental governance that was proposed by the State Council (China’s Cabinet) and endorsed by the National People’s Congress (the country’s parliament) in March 2018.

Here are the key points you need to know:

  • On 17 March 2018, the National People’s Congress of China approved a State Council proposal to reorganise the way the environment is governed
  • Two new ‘super-ministries’ were created to consolidate the management of environmental issues – the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE)
  • The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) will be the ‘owner’ of China’s natural resources; it will replace the Ministry of Land & Resources, State Oceanic Administration (SOA) and the national surveying and mapping bureau, and will gain authority over urban and township planning, as well as management of water, grasslands, forests, wetlands, and maritime resources;
  • The new Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) will take on responsibility for the old Ministry of Environmental Protection’s portfolio as well as climate change and greenhouse emissions policies, which were previously under the National Development and Reform Commission, and anti-pollution tasks, previously the responsibility of the ministries of land and of water resources.
  • The reforms also expand the remit of the State Forestry Administration by creating a State Administration for Forestry and Grassland (SAFG), reporting to the MNR. As well as taking on the responsibilities of the old State Forestry Administration, the SAFG will gain some responsibilities that belonged to six former government departments, including management work on nature reserves, scenic spots and geological parks
  • The main responsibilities of the new SAFG will be overseeing and managing the development and protection of forests, grasslands, wetlands, deserts and wildlife, as well as organizing ecological protection and restoration, afforestation and the management of national parks.
  • In the process of reform, some existing government departments, such as the State Oceanic Administration, will be disbanded, while others, such as the Ministry of Water Resources will see their mandate reduced

A major positive is that the management of all protected areas will now be in one organisation (State Administration for Forestry and Grassland) with monitoring and evaluation by the MNR.  This should help to streamline decision-making and reduce the risk of cross-departmental in-fighting.

The reorganisation is the fourth time in three decades that China’s environmental agency (currently the Ministry of Environmental Protection) will see its remit expanded in a new department, highlighting the growing priority of  the environment in Chinese policy-making.

The changes are seen as a step forward towards implementing the much-quoted concept of “ecological civilisation”; the 2015 Master Plan for ecological civilisation argued that “natural resources should be properly valued,” and “holistically managed”. It also stipulated that economic activities should not result in ecological burdens that exceed the capacity of the environment to manage.  Under the Master Plan, the institutional processes to deliver “ecological civilisation” were due to be in place by 2020 and it seems this reform puts the Chinese government on track.

From conversations here with officials and academics it appears that there is overwhelming support for the changes and an expectation it will lead to better, more enlightened and faster policymaking on the environment.  A good early test of the new arrangements will be the anticipated publication of the revised list of specially protected species under the Environment Protection Law.  Despite years of review, agreement has not yet been reached among the different responsible departments.  Now, any (former cross-departmental) disagreements should be much easier to resolve.  As always, the proof is in the pudding, so we’ll be watching closely to see how the new arrangements work in practice.

 

This summary was compiled from discussions with officials and academics, media articles and from resources provided by China Dialogue.

 

April 2018 in the Valley of the Cats

I’m just back from my first visit of the year to the “Valley of the Cats”, near Yushu in Qinghai Province.  With winter loosening its grip and daytime temperatures reaching 15 degrees Celsius, it was a good time to visit.

The purpose of the trip was to conduct the second training session for the local families about wildlife watching tourism.  And immediately before the training, I took the opportunity to accompany two teachers – Wayne and Jenny Winkelman from the International School of Beijing (ISB) – for a visit to the Valley as tourists.

Wayne and Jenny with their host family in the Valley of the Cats.

As well as seeing a Snow Leopard on day one, Wayne and Jenny were fortunate to see seven Tibetan Wolves in a day and enjoyed some spectacular encounters with species such as White-lipped Deer, Blue Sheep, Alpine Musk Deer and birds such as Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Babax and Lammergeier.

As well as the wildlife, they soaked up the culture with a hike to a 800-year old local temple and Jenny spent a day as a yak herder, helping to round up the yak and milking them in the morning..  Listen below to the wonderful sound of a yak grunting as it’s being milked..

After Wayne and Jenny’s experience, we’re hoping to set up a partnership between ShanShui and ISB with ISB sponsoring some camera traps in the Valley, the photos from which will be shared with the students.

Working with ShanShui Conservation Center and the local government, we conducted three days of training involving one day of ‘classroom-based’ activities followed by two days of field training.  As usual, the local families were a joy to work with and we learned as much from them as they did from us.

Day One: identifying the best sites for wildlife watching

This time, our training was focused on guiding.  We identified the best sites for wildlife watching and, splitting into two groups, visited each in turn.  Special wildlife recording sheets – in Tibetan, Chinese and English – were created and each family will now record all wildlife sightings including date, time, location, species, behaviour and any other useful information.  The data will be reported to a community focal point to help build up a picture of the wildlife in the Valley and to identify trends.  Importantly, when there are visitors in the Valley, the families will report any sightings via the walkie-talkie network, enabling the information to be passed to the host family and thus increase the chances of wildlife-watching tourists being able to enjoy the best possible experience.

The yak herders took us to some wonderful sites from where to watch the local wildlife

We were fortunate to be in the Valley at the same time as the Snow Leopard scientists from ShanShui and, with them accompanying us on the field visits, we were all educated in how to identify and collect mammal faeces.. especially Snow Leopard.  This is part of an ongoing study into the diet and behaviour of these special cats.

Snow Leopard scat on a prominent trail at an elevation of c4,700m.
An overnight dusting of snow on day two made it easy to spot mammal tracks – these were left by a pack of five Tibetan Wolves.

One of the priorities has been to try to secure some optics for the local guides..  and I am delighted to say that we are now in the advanced stages of negotiations with an optics manufacturer to provide 15 pairs of binoculars – one for each family.  Alongside a field guide to the nature of Sanjiangyuan, we’re beginning to build up the capacity of the families in the valley to be able to provide good quality guiding.

The Valley of the Cats is open to visitors, provided they obtain the necessary permits.  Look out for a dedicated website to be launched soon.  In the meantime, if you are interested in visiting, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I can help facilitate the arrangements.

Huge thanks to Li Yuhan and the team from ShanShui Conservation Center, to Wayne and Jenny Winkelman for being such great travel companions and to the local families for being such a joy to work with and for teaching us so much about their environment and culture.  I am looking forward to my return.

Below some more photos from the most recent visit, including some recent camera trap photos of Snow Leopard, Leopard and Pallas’s Cat, courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center.

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A Guide to the Reptiles of Beijing

Following the recent publication of  “A Guide to the Amphibians of Beijing”, Birding Beijing is now pleased to be able to offer a downloadable PDF Guide to the Reptiles of Beijing.

There are few English-language resources available about reptiles in Beijing, so I very much hope this can fill a gap.  I am indebted to Zhang Junduo and Ben Wielstra for compiling this guide and to all the photographers who offered photos to illustrate the species listed.

As with the other guides, I appreciate that it is far from comprehensive, so if readers have anything to add or improve the guide, please contact Birding Beijing on the email address given in the guide.

Thank you!

A Guide to the Amphibians of Beijing

As part of the ongoing effort to provide English-language resources about wildlife in China’s capital city, Birding Beijing is pleased to be able to offer a downloadable PDF about the amphibians that can be found in the city.  This guide has been compiled by R. Nicolas LOU, ZHANG Junduo and Ben WIELSTRA, to whom Birding Beijing owes great thanks.

As with the other guides in the series, we acknowledge that this document is not perfect and the authors welcome any information and photographs that will improve the guide.   Please send via email to the address provided in the guide.  Thank you!

A Guide to the Amphibians of Beijing

 

Header photo: Dark-spotted Frog by Zhang Junduo

Baer’s Pochard: The Hengshui Declaration

Good news on conservation seems to be coming thick and fast from China.  With the recent ban on land reclamation along China’s coast – a massive boost to the tens of millions of migratory shorebirds that rely on the food-rich intertidal mudflats to fuel their marathon journeys – and the listing of a series of coastal sites on the tentative list for World Heritage Site status, there has been significant progress in the last 12 months for migratory shorebirds.

And this week there was major progress for the ‘Critically Endangered’ Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri).  From 19-21 March I participated in a workshop at Hengshui Hu, around 300km south of Beijing.  Convened by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP)’s Baer’s Pochard Task Force, an international coalition of partner organisations dedicated to saving this endangered duck, the workshop was designed to promote its conservation.  And Hengshui Hu was a fitting location – as an important stopover site, a breeding site and with a handful spending the winter, this lake is the most important known location for this species in the world.

WWT’s Richard Hearn addresses the opening session at Hengshu Hu. With their outstanding experience with waterbirds, WWT is a key partner in the effort to save Baer’s Pochard from extinction.

The workshop, hosted by Beijing Forestry University and Hengshui Municipal Government and organised by Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve, the School of Nature Conservation at Beijing Forestry University and Hengshui University, was opened by the Deputy Mayor of Hengshui and included participants from ten countries – Bangladesh, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Japan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, Russia and Thailand.  

Delegates from Mongolia and Russia formed part of the international delegation to Hengshui Hu.

It’s fair to say the workshop was nothing short of inspirational.  The huge sense of local pride in Hengshui about being the most important (known) place in the world for this species was palpable and the research presented by Chinese academics, including Dr Wu Lan and a team of volunteers from across the Provinces (part of which showcased the results of a 2017/2018 winter survey with more than 800 birds counted) – was impressive.

In the opening session, the State Forestry Administration announced that Baer’s Pochard has been recommended to be added to the list of species with “Class 1 protection” in China, meaning that anyone killing or endangering it will face severe penalties.  And, together with the contributions from all the range countries in east and south Asia, the workshop was a major step forward in consolidating knowledge, identifying research gaps and priority actions as well as significantly raising the profile of Baer’s Pochard locally and nationally.  Huge kudos to the organisers, especially Professor Ding Changqing and his team from Beijing Forestry University, Dr Wu Dayong and his team from Hengshui University, the Hengshui Municipal Government, Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve, EAAFP and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.  It was a privilege to be there.

The delegates agreed “The Hengshui Declaration“.

For me, the two most notable outcomes were:

  • First, as stated above, the State Forestry Administration announced that they have recommended BAER’S POCHARD be added to the list of species with special (Class 1) protection in China.  This is significant as, if approved, it would mean severe penalties for anyone killing or endangering this species or its habitats.  That is a serious deterrent to any would-be poachers and egg collectors.
  • Second, Hengshui Hu was urged to apply for status as a wetland of international significance under the Ramsar Convention and, importantly for building local pride, Hengshu Hu was designated as “The Home of Baer’s Pochard”.
EAAFP’s Hyeseon Do presents Mr Bo Yuan, the Director of Hengshui Lakeside New City Area, with a plaque to commemorate the workshop.

As well as the formal outcomes detailed in the Declaration, local officials committed to strengthening enforcement of laws and regulations about illegal fishing, egg collecting and habitat disturbance.  Having seen many examples of electric fishing (illegal in all of China, not only in nature reserves), reed cutting and egg collection during my many visits to Hengshui Hu over the past few years, this is heartening to hear and I very much hope these wonderful words will be backed up by action on the ground.  Our field visit to the site on the second day of the workshop has given me optimism – it was clear that nearly all of the fishing nets have been removed and, according to the local officials, more than 200 boats have been confiscated.  Powerful stuff.

Delegates enjoyed good views of BAER’S POCHARD during the field visit to Hengshui on the second day.

One outcome not recorded in the official Declaration but nevertheless will be welcomed by many, I am sure, is the idea that the local beer will be re-branded as “Baer’s Pochard beer” with a percentage of sales going to Baer’s Pochard conservation.  If any locals needed an incentive to drink more beer, this must surely be it!

It’s striking how much progress has been made in the last five years.  It was only in 2012 that there were very few sightings of Baer’s Pochard anywhere in the world and in February of that year a British birder famously travelled to Japan from the UK just for the weekend to see one. The fact that he was prepared to fly half way around the world to see a single overwintering drake a few hours from Tokyo was testament not only to the rarity of this once abundant duck from eastern Asia but also that, at the time, there were no reliable sites to see it in the wild anywhere on Earth and it was thought to be on the verge of slipping away.  Later that year, Chinese birders reported up to four breeding pairs of Baer’s Pochard at Hengshui Hu and, since then, this site has become THE place to see this species.  More than 300 were counted there in March 2017 during spring migration.

On Wednesday evening I returned to Beijing with many of the delegates and the atmosphere among the group was joyous, so much so that even a 20-minute detention at a police checkpoint failed to dampen the spirits.

Lining up at the Hebei-Beijing border check whilst waiting for our passports to be checked.

Whilst Baer’s Pochard is a species that remains at serious risk of extinction in the wild, the prognosis today is such a contrast to 2012.  Along with the announcement of the ban on land reclamation, it’s been a dream-like beginning to 2018 for conservationists in China.  I could get used to this feeling!

 

Header photo: a drake BAER’S POCHARD by Luo Jianhong.

 

Background about the Baer’s Pochard 

In the early 1900s Baer’s Pochard was described by La Touche as “extremely abundant” in eastern China during spring and autumn migration as it made its way to and from its breeding grounds in northeast China and southeast Russia.  Some notes from formerly Beijing-based Jesper Hornskov described a flock of 114 on the lake at the Summer Palace as recently as March 1989.  Many birders who visited the Chinese east coast migration hotspot of Beidaihe in the 1980s and 1990s probably saw reasonable numbers, too.  Historically, it was reliable in winter at Poyang Hu in Jiangxi Province, with flocks numbering 100s of birds being reported there as recently as the 1990s and 2000s.

However, its decline since then has been dramatic and near catastrophic.  In 2012 a (partial) summer survey of what was thought to be its breeding stronghold – Lake Khanka on the China-Russian border – produced not a single confirmed sighting during the core breeding season, although two were seen in August.  Similarly, a 2012/2013 survey of its known core wintering grounds, coordinated by WWT and WWF China, produced just 45 individuals thinly spread across the Provinces of Anhui, Henan, Hubei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Sichuan and Hong Kong, an apparently calamitous drop in numbers that explains why the status of Baer’s Pochard was upgraded to “Critically Endangered” by BirdLife International.

The reasons for the dramatic decline are not well understood but are likely to include habitat destruction and degradation (partly natural, caused by a long-term drought in northeast China, but predominantly human-related), and hunting pressure at stopover sites and on the wintering grounds.  However, it is an interesting contrast that the Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca), a species with which Baer’s Pochard often associates and that shares similar habitat preferences, appears to be increasing in numbers and spreading north and east.

In fact, the expansion of the range of Ferruginous Duck could be an additional threat to an already vulnerable Baer’s Pochard due to the spectre of hybridisation.  I have personally seen drake Baer’s Pochards displaying to female (and male!) Ferruginous Ducks in Beijing and at Hengshui Hu, and several birds during our field trip on Tuesday 20 March 2018 showed characteristics of both species.

The most recent winter survey in China produced a relatively high total of a little over 800 birds and I think it’s fair to say that probably constitutes the majority of the global population.  With the location of only a handful of breeding pairs known, there’s still so much to learn about the breeding areas, distribution and ecology of Baer’s Pochard.