In the last few days, there has been significant media coverage, including this article in The Guardian, about the removal of pangolin scales from the approved list of ingredients for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The news of the delisting from the TCM pharmacopoeia comes hot on the heels of an announcement last week by the State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA) that the protected status of pangolins had been raised to the highest level, with immediate effect.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, China announced an immediate ban on the wildlife trade for consumption but the wildlife trade for TCM was unaffected. These new announcements about the pangolin, the world’s most heavily trafficked animal, represent a major step forward.
Before the recent announcement, there was a legal, but regulated, trade in pangolin scales, ostensibly from government stockpiles, for TCM in China. However, transparency, awareness and enforcement was poor. One study found around 30% of 134 pharmaceutical shops were selling pangolin scale medicine and illegal pangolin products were even found in some of the hospitals authorised to sell pangolin scales. Yet, alarmingly, the doctors and practitioners involved were unaware that their behaviour was illegal.
So, although laws are necessary, they are not sufficient. As Yifu says, awareness among the public and TCM practitioners and enforcement by authorities, have equally significant roles to play in reducing the demand for, and supply of, pangolin scales.
TCM is being heavily promoted by the Chinese government internationally, including through its flagship “Belt and Road” initiative to revitalise old trading routes into Central Asia and Africa. The TCM industry is worth around USD 60 billion a year, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) Bulletin, and growing at around 11 percent annually. Even though wildlife parts represent only a small fraction of TCM ingredients, under its current trajectory and with existing approved ingredients, TCM will have an increasing negative impact on wildlife, including many endangered species. In a recent report, ADM Capital Foundation said that the TCM industry accounted for more than three-quarters of the trade in endangered wildlife products in Hong Kong over the past 5 years.
If TCM is serious about wanting to be accepted more widely, there is a growing responsibility to reduce its impact on wildlife and, ultimately, that means delisting ALL wildlife ingredients.
In the meantime, let’s hope these announcements are not too late for the beleaguered pangolin.
Title image: Pangolins of the world (IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group)
Back in 2018 I reported on the discovery by ShanShui Conservation Center of an active den of the Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) on the Tibetan Plateau. This felid, endemic to China, is one of the most poorly known in the world. Based on fieldwork over the following months and with the help of infra-red cameras, researchers captured hours of footage of a mother and her two young kittens. In total, five breeding dens were discovered, and 33 sightings were recorded.
Now, after painstaking analysis of the footage (more than 7,500 images and 3,000 video clips), much previously unknown information concerning this cat species and its ecology has been revealed and the findings have been published in an article in Zoological Research and can be read and downloaded in PDF format here.
With the kind permission of Han Xuesong, the lead author, I am including below a short video compilation of the mother and kittens that were studied in autumn and winter 2018. It includes the cats emerging from a den, playing, the mother bringing back food and interactions with two potential threats – an Upland Buzzard and a Tibetan Fox.
With a limited distribution on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Chinese Mountain Cat is among the most elusive and vulnerable of the world’s cats and this data will be vital to help better understand, and therefore protect, this beautiful cat.
Big congratulations to Han Xuesong and the ShanShui team, especially the local rangers, Jihti, Tserdo, and Lulu, for their discovery and the subsequent publication of this article.
Title image: Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (ShanShui Conservation Center)
It is with a heavy heart that I must report the loss of Баян (BAYAN), one of the Mongolian Cuckoos.
The last signals received from his tag were at 1035 local time on 12 May 2020 and showed him almost exactly 100km north of Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province. Since then, there has been radio silence. The following analysis of the data from BAYAN’s tag was provided by Dr Chris Hewson of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) who fitted the tag to BAYAN in Mongolia in June 2019:
“…there were some slightly unusually high temps around 1000 local time on 9/5 – reaching 40-41 C on the scale of the PTTs, compared to a normal max in the high c 35 C even in Africa (it does rise to around 37-38 C on occasion though). The tag temperature was also pretty cool the next morning, probably cooler than it should be – down to about 26 C, which is probably indicative of lack of regulation of tag temp due to behaviour / absence of body temp buffering of temp. My best guess, all things considered, is that Bayan died between 1000 8/5 and 1000 9/5. The circumstances of disappearance are similar to Flappy who died in Myanmar on spring migration. These birds are really racing on spring migration, which might leave them vulnerable to not finding good stopovers / predation etc.”
In the small hope that the tag’s temperature sensor was malfunctioning or there was an alternative explanation, we waited a few days for further signals. None were forthcoming, strongly suggesting that BAYAN had indeed died on 8 or 9 May 2020.
It is always sad when we lose a tracked bird but we should celebrate his life and the impact he has had on people around the world.
After crossing the Arabian Sea to India, hot on the heels of ONON, he captivated a country with an incredible surge of interest among people in India, most of whom were previously unaware of the distances travelled by some of the most familiar migratory birds. Below are just a few of the reactions to BAYAN’s crossing of the Arabian Sea:
BAYAN is almost going in same path as ONON, we are waiting to welcome BAYAN in India🇮🇳
One of the main purposes of the project was to reach and inspire more people about the wonders of bird migration. Judging from the reaction on social media, BAYAN certainly did that.
Being able to follow the incredible journeys of these cuckoos opens our eyes to the phenomenal endurance of these birds and the mind-boggling distances they travel. It also reminds us that migratory birds live life on the edge with little margin for error.
If there is one message BAYAN, whose name translates as “prosper”, could carry with him, I am sure it would be something like this:
“Migratory birds like me don’t recognise human borders. We travel around the Earth, crossing oceans and deserts, powered sustainably by caterpillars, just to survive and breed. As humans, you are changing the planet in profound ways. Please ensure there are places for us to rest and refuel along the way so that we all may prosper.”
The fact that we last heard from BAYAN close to Kunming, Yunnan Province in China is fitting. Next year, this city is due to host the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, at which governments are due to agree a “new deal for nature” including targets to slow and reverse the loss of biodiversity. In many ways it is the most important meeting ever on nature.
Wouldn’t it be good to think that BAYAN’s legacy is to send his message to delegates to the UN meeting in Kunming?
Thank you to everyone who has supported, followed and engaged with Баян (BAYAN) and the other Mongolian Cuckoos during this project. You have all helped to raise awareness about migratory birds and the places they need.
BAYAN’s journey at a glance:
7 June 2019: fitted with a tag (number 170437) at Khurkh in northern Mongolia.
11 June 2019: named by schoolchildren at Khurkh Village School
7 June 2019 to 9 May 2020: Mongolia – China – Myanmar – India – Bangladesh – India – Oman – Saudi Arabia – Yemen – Saudi Arabia – Eritrea – Ethiopia – South Sudan – Kenya – Uganda – Kenya – Tanzania – Mozambique – Malawi – Mozambique – Malawi – Mozambique – Zambia – Malawi – Tanzania – Kenya – Somalia – India – Bangladesh – India – Myanmar – China (31 border crossings involving 18 countries)
I first met Chen Yanzhi (Ariel) in March 2017 when, with Luo Peng, I helped lead a birding trip for students and families as part of EcoAction’s environmental education programme in Beijing. I was immediately impressed by Ariel – she was inquisitive, intelligent, fascinated by the natural world and clearly had the respect of her peers. Last year I was delighted when she agreed to become one of the student “Swift Ambassadors” as part of the SOHO China Swift Project, presenting the story of the Beijing Swift to Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China and one of the most famous entrepreneurs in China. Since then she has set up a school birding club and her own WeChat channel (China’s equivalent of Facebook/WhatsApp), writing regularly on all things nature and conservation. At 15 years old, she is already an accomplished writer, in both English and Mandarin, and is building a large following. I am delighted Ariel has allowed me to reproduce her most recent article here on Birding Beijing. It’s a joy to read. As one of a growing band of young people engaged in wildlife conservation across China, she is part of a new generation giving hope for the environment of this biodiversity-rich country.
This article is written by Chen Yanzhi (Ariel Chen)
The temperature was not warm on that day in June, but sweat still came off my back. In the open-air meeting room, suited men and women flowed into the space, and media reporters, with their giant black cameras, slowly positioned themselves at the back.
It was 27 June, 2019 when the Beijing SOHO Swift Project was officially launched on the rooftop of Qianmen SOHO. In the next few months, several buildings under SOHO China would erect artificial nest boxes for the Beijing Swift (the pekinensis subspecies of the Common Swift Apus apus), to provide a breeding ground for those little creatures that lost their homes in the waves of urbanisation. As one of the “Swift Ambassadors,” I was invited to share my thoughts on protecting these birds. In front of those entrepreneurs, I began: “The swifts stay all summer in Beijing. But where will they go for the rest of the year?”
Although I was extremely nervous during the meeting, I was thankful of this opportunity to spread the story of the Beijing swifts and rally support from people to find a new habitat for these unique birds.
A Journey Started in Africa
I have always been fascinated by different animals, although my story with the birds started in Africa just recently. I could read all day, repetitively flipping through the few pages in a book, looking at the pictures of animals. And when I was eight, I went hiking in Yunnan and fell in love with the rays of sun beaming through forest leaves, and the sage-coloured mosses creeping on the rocks. I longed for the place and even cried after returning.
But I rarely noticed the birds back then.
In 2017, our family traveled to Tanzania. And I only realised later that this was a life-changing journey. Like most travellers in Tanzania, our goal was to see the “big animals”: lions, giraffes, and elephants. Yet, by the middle of the trip, staring at sleepy lions and uniformed herbivores, we felt a little bored already. Under the scorching sun, I felt trapped in the perfectly still air.
And one of our group members, a birder, changed the story. In the hottest noon, she led us, a group of restless kids, to find the little creatures that lived around our camp. She led us to the sunbirds resting on the trees, the secretary birds roaming on the savannah, and the Egyptian geese wandering in the lakes. I saw, at that time, how so many different kinds of interesting birds were there, hidden in the least noticeable corners.
By accidentally peeking from this newly opened window, my birdwatching journey began. And I have never turned back.
A “Birding Fanatic” Left Alone in the Forest
Since that trip to Africa, I’ve started a mode of birding-around-the-world. From around Beijing to as far as South America, I’ve seen over 1,500 species of birds and become quite literally a “birding fanatic” and have had fun memories.
I’ve been to Yunnan, a magical land where two-thirds of all the birds in China fly high, numerous times. On most occasions, we would birdwatch in some remote villages that tourists wouldn’t even bother knowing. My most unforgettable memory happened in Pudacuo National Park, a traveling destination packed with tourists.
As we walked along the trail, we found many more birds than I previously expected. Novel bird chirps and mysterious noises in the undergrowth attracted our attention, and we would stop every few meters, sometimes even going into the forest. We would end up spending seven hours straight on a three-kilometer trail that would be hiked for more or less one hour. When we reached the bus stop at the end of the trail, the sky is already darkening.
Any outside automobiles are banned in the National Park, so we had to wait for the buses that navigate between locations.
10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes… time slowly ticked by, but no cars nor even a living human, were there. Under the slate grey sky, the tourist centre laid dead silent and the giant and unmoving spruce trees seemed to emanate an ominous shade. Our confusion continued and we were even more shocked when we looked at the notice board: “What? The National Park closes up at 6 p.m.? The bus stations close at 5 p.m.?” That meant the buses had already stopped coming for 2 hours! “Are we going to spend the night in the forest, where anything can happen?” We were worried and anxious, like someone trapped in a maze.
Eventually, we saw on the notice board the telephone number of the Public Security Bureau of Forestry. A few minutes later, two cops arrived in front of us, with their mobile car siren screaming.
“What is the matter? How long have you stayed? Why haven’t you left already?” Just as we were getting on the patrol mobile, the police fired the questions at us. We had to tell them how we missed the clear-out because we were too engrossed by birdwatching, and how we never noticed that the rest of the tourists already left, and how we spent seven hours on the three-kilometer trail.
Obvious enough, the police did not believe what we said and queried us back and forth before driving us back to the hotel. As I sat on the back row of the cop, with metal railings on both sides, I felt like an escapee caught by the police.
As I reflected while on my way back, I thought it was quite terrifying being in the mountains alone, much more being rescued by police. It was an unusual episode in my birdwatching journey. When we were anxiously waiting for the bus, the forest was still alive: the goldcrest jumped around from tree to tree, showing off its fire-colored crest, and the Eurasian wren wagged its tail by the trail. The adventurous excitements, free-flying birds, and the power of lives in nature charmed up this unique experience and only led me to liking birdwatching even more.
Spreading the Love
My skills have gradually improved after countless birdwatching trips. From a know-nothing novice who can only follow others and ask “Where is the bird?” I can confidently say I can now find and identify birds swiftly.
One day, a thought flashed through my mind: “Why don’t I spread such a remarkable activity to more people?” As a result, I launched the Birding Club in my school, Keystone Academy.
I have absolutely no experience initiating and leading a club. During our first meeting, I couldn’t even face the members! I couldn’t believe that all those people signed up to the club, and I couldn’t think that I would, soon, talk to all of them for the next 40 minutes. Before my class, I squat at the corner of the classroom, unready to speak. I asked myself: “Is there something missing in your mind? How could I ever imagine that I could teach them about birds!”
But I couldn’t squat there all day. Eventually, I stood up, with my palm sweating profusely, and started the first Birding Club lesson. My talking speed was so rapid that I finished the lesson within 20 minutes when it was originally planned for double that time. I had to find something for the members to watch to pass the next 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the documentary did not play. Either my laptop hung or the file needed VIP access to view. Minutes ticked by, and there was still nothing to show the students. In the end, I found one documentary and played it for two minutes before the class finished.
Although the first lesson was a near disaster, over time, I became more confident, more experienced, and my lessons were more interesting. In the one-and-a-half years that have gone by, I’ve performed nearly 30 mini-lessons, hosted six outside-campus birding trips, and organised two lectures with experts. But the thing that has rewarded me the most is how the students slowly begin to like these “feathered wings,” and will sometimes show me the birds that they photographed when traveling.
I’ve also created my own official WeChat account and written around 40 original articles to raise awareness of birds and other wildlife. From recording my traveling experiences at first, to writing about specific animals (for example, a disclosure on the wing structure of the club-winged manakins) and debating topics like “Why we shall protect animals,” the interactions of people and animals in Tibet, and the conflicts between animal welfare and nature conservation, I went from simply “liking animals” to digging deep into the topics of nature conservation.
Voicing out for those who cannot speak
An encounter in Yunnan in December 2018 strengthened my dream to participate in nature conservation in the future. In a national park in the city of Pu’er, I sneaked into the “No Tourists” area while no one was around. The midday sun warmed my back, and the air smelled tropical, but I still felt cold on the inside. Following the clamour of animals, I found what I was searching for: a line of cages, with some irritated macaques and stressed eagle owls. I started to record videos with my camera and my shaking hands. Because I was way too nervous, there were several lapses in my footage so I had to redo the filming. After finishing the record, I scrambled out of the place, not even daring to look back.
Here you might be wondering, what was I doing in a no-tourist area?
A few days before the filming, I came to this national park with the idea of viewing wildlife. This place was advocated as the “heaven for interacting with animals,” and indeed, the animals seemed to be roaming free, ready for the tourists to see at a close distance. However, I soon realised that something was amiss: elementary feathers are necessary for a bird to fly, yet they were gone on the owls here; when the tourists come close, these owls could only stumble away. Nocturnal animals should appear only at night, but here, they stayed on the treetops in broad daylight. To discover what was happening, I launched a “personal investigation” and eventually found these cages that backed up my assumption: the park caged the animals every night in a confined little space and released them in the day, to conjure up a scene of “animals peacefully interacting with humans.”
But how could no one notice that these were against an animal’s natural behaviours? How could anyone miss such blatant deceits and leave this park satisfied, thinking that “this is how we interact with wildlife”? I realised that, at least in China, public education on nature conservation still has a long way to go. Still, many people assume that wildlife conservation is to confine the animals while feeding them well; still, many people believe that wildlife is a tool to play with.
When I wrote my observations, I realised how I could use my power to inform other people, and perhaps change their behaviour, when a stranger who read the article told me, “I will never go there again.” Yes, I am going to tell people how conservation isn’t “saving” the animals and keep them in a sanctuary, nor is it as simple as “putting them into a nature reserve.” It is using scientific methods to enable an increase in the population of animal species and it is considering the need for animals and people, to fully realise a strong correlation.
When I first tried birdwatching two years ago, I never considered it as my lifelong goal. But now, through finding these feathered heralds, preparing the lessons in the Birding Club, and organising more birdwatching trips, I have established my future goal.
When I was young, hearing stories about burned and chopped rainforest always made me feel helpless and sad. But now I realised, although coming to the Anthropocene is unavoidable, we can still change our attitudes towards nature and wildlife. Birdwatching, for me, is not merely an interest, but also a way to view the world, and a forever lighthouse to light up my future path towards nature conservation.
There will always be dark corners in the world, but that is why we endeavour to fight: to make our earth a better, and better home.
Photos: Animal pictures taken by Ariel Chen
Featured Image: Chen Yanzhi (Ariel) taking field notes in Yunnan Province, China.
Thanks to modern technology, we are beginning to unlock the secrets of our migratory birds. And, although removing some of the mystery, gaining knowledge of these journeys in no way diminishes our awe at what these birds achieve in terms of endurance and navigation. Every year, a new generation of birds following in their predecessors wing-flaps, inspires a new group of people.
When it all began in June 2019, one of the aims of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project was to engage the public about migratory birds and the places they need. Knowledge and experience are the first steps towards falling in love with nature and, as Baba Dioum, the Senegalese conservationist famously said:
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Thus, connecting more people to nature is crucial if conservationists are to build support for more, and better, protection of species and the wild places they need. With biodiversity in crisis (according to The Living Planet Index, compiled by several leading wildlife science organisations, the populations of vertebrates have fallen, on average, by around 60% since 1970), there can be no more important task.
That is why the engagement inspired by ONON and BAYAN, two Common Cuckoos fitted with transmitters in Mongolia in June 2019, has been so up-lifting. Over the last seven days these cuckoos, named by schoolchildren in northern Mongolia, have crossed the Arabian Sea from Africa (Kenya and Somalia, respectively). As I write, ONON is in Bangladesh and BAYAN just 30km northwest of Kolkata in West Bengal, India. That means that, since 29 April, ONON has flown >6,300km, and BAYAN >5,800km in just under seven days.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, each step of the journey has been published in near real time, allowing followers to track the progress of the birds as they headed out over the open ocean towards India. And, as they did so, interest in India soared… With huge thanks to Parveen Kaswan of the Indian Forest Service, ONON and BAYAN now have thousands of new followers in India. Parveen has more than 130,000 followers on Twitter and, when he sent out a message about ONON making landfall in India, interest exploded.
He is Onon a Cuckoo. This bird was in Kenya on 29th April. Today he is in Madhya Pradesh. He has completed his crossing of the Arabian Sea to India and, for good measure, flown another 600 km inland also. It is 5000 Kms flying in a week. Feel that amazing feat. @BirdingBeijingpic.twitter.com/SGfuGO3MkS
Many people were stunned that a cuckoo could make such a flight and asked questions, which I did my best to answer! See the end of this post for a selection. Parveen’s tweet also inspired an article in the Bangla version of the Indian Times, under the title “Migrants from Kenya to Madhya Pradesh in a Week”.
One follower, Rajesh Ghotikar, who lives close to Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh, even went out to check on ONON’s location, taking precautions and respecting local rules on mask wearing and social distancing as he did so.
I’ve been so impressed by the interest and, most of all, by the warmth, politeness and friendly nature of the Indian people who have engaged with these birds. It is moments like this that make the project so worthwhile. Having never had the pleasure to visit the country, I am beginning to see why it is known as Incredible India.
Once again, huge thanks to the Mongolian Cuckoo Project team, especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, Batmunkh Davaasuren, to Chris Hewson from BTO and to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley. And big thanks, too, to the Oriental Bird Club for generously sponsoring the project.
You can follow the exploits of ONON and BAYAN as they continue their journeys to Mongolia on Twitter (@birdingbeijing) or at this dedicated webpage.
Title image: map showing the positions of ONON (red) and BAYAN (green) over the last seven days. As of 7 May 2020, ONON is in Bangladesh and BAYAN is in West Bengal, India.
A selection of reactions from India on social media to ONON’s and BAYAN’s astonishing journeys:
The software draws straight lines between two data points. The actual trajectory is unlikely to be perfectly straight – deviations may occur due to wind and navigational adjustments.
As the passage of White Wagtails begins to slow, the passage of the closely related Citrine Wagtail is hitting its peak in the capital. One silver lining to the ongoing restrictions on leisure activities in Beijing is that places that would usually be busy with tourists are currently much quieter. One such place is Ma Chang, on the margins of Guanting Reservoir in Yanqing District. At this time of year, especially at weekends, this area of land would, in normal times, be busy with horse riders and motorised buggy drivers, meaning that from around 0730 many of the migrant birds that had stopped at this site would be pushed off.
This spring, with the absence of human activity beyond a handful of local fishermen, the site is a paradise for migrant birds, attracting large numbers of many different species. On Sunday, perhaps the biggest highlight, among many, was the large flocks of Citrine Wagtail feeding along the edge of the reservoir. The short video below shows a fraction of the 250+ birds on site.
Wagtails are busy birds, pursuing insects as they fatten up for the next leg of their journey to breeding grounds further north, and in perfectly still and sunny conditions, it was quite a sight to behold.
How to describe this group of bright yellow birds? “A bunch of agitated Lemons” was what we came up with…
April is THE month for seeing White Wagtails in Beijing and, with six of the nine recognised subspecies recorded in the capital, Beijing has a strong claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”.
The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) is a familiar bird across Eurasia. Most authorities recognise nine subspecies from the dark and distinctive Motacilla alba yarrelli in the western part of its range in the UK, to Motacilla alba lugens in Japan in the east. See map below to see the breeding ranges of the nine currently recognised subspecies.
Growing up on the east coast of the UK, I was familiar with the yarrelli ssp, a common breeder, and was excited to see a few of the continental subspecies M.a.alba in early Spring, often associating with flocks of Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava). Since moving to Beijing, it’s been a joy to become familiar with a few more subspecies. Here, in order of abundance, are the subspecies that have been recorded in Beijing:
1 – “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba leucopsis)
On arrival in Beijing I soon became familiar with the local breeder known as “Amur Wagtail” or “Chinese White Wagtail”, ssp leucopsis, a familiar bird from late March until October and an abundant migrant in spring and autumn.
2 – “Eye-striped White” or “Swinhoe’s White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba ocularis)
The striking ssp ocularis is very common on migration in spring (late March-April) and autumn (Sep-Oct). With the prominent eyestripe and contrasting grey mantle, these birds are relatively easy to identify.
3 – “Transbaikalan Wagtail” (Motacilla alba baicalensis)
A regular, but much scarcer, migrant than ocularis, a few of the more subtle ssp baicalensis are often mixed with flocks of the more common subspecies. With the clean white face, white chin and throat and grey mantle, contrasting with the black nape, baicalensis is, to me at least, one of the more elegant White Wagtails. The greyish wash to the flanks is also a good feature.
4 – “Black-backed” Wagtail (Motacilla alba lugens)
The next most frequently encountered is the “Black-backed Wagtail” (ssp lugens), a subspecies that breeds in Japan and is an annual, but scarce, winter visitor to the capital (October to April). A few can often be found in winter along the Tonghui River in Tongzhou and it has also been recorded on passage at reservoirs in Beijing.
5 – “Siberian White Wagtail” (Motacilla alba alba)
The fifth subspecies to have appeared in Beijing is the ‘eastern’ alba. The first record of this subspecies in Beijing was found by local birder, Luo Qingqing, on 29 March 2015. Before that date ‘eastern’ alba had been recorded in northwest China, in Xinjiang (where it is locally common) and was considered a regular but scarce migrant in Qinghai. It has also occurred in Ningxia and, possibly, Sichuan (Paul Holt, pers comm). Luo Qingqing’s sighting from 29 March 2015 was not only a first for Beijing but a first that we are aware of in all of east China!
Since 2015, no doubt due to greater observer awareness and more coverage, alba has proved to be annual in small numbers in Spring.
‘Eastern’ alba was formerly known as ssp dukhunensis but was subsumed into alba by Per Alström and Krister Mild in their excellent and groundbreaking “Pipits and Wagtails” book (2003). This treatment has been almost universally accepted and so dukhunensis no longer exists as a subspecies.
6 – “Masked Wagtail” (Motacilla alba personata)
In April 2012 I was lucky enough to find a “Masked Wagtail” (ssp personata) at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, the first record of this subspecies in the capital.
M.a.personata at Ma Chang, Wild Duck Lake, Beijing, 14 April 2012. The first record of this subspecies for the capital. Up to March 2020 there have been a further six records of this Central Asian race in Beijing.
It wasn’t long before the second personata appeared, a stunning adult male found by Steve Bale in April 2015 along the Wenyu River amongst a flock of 200+ White Wagtails. This find came a day after strong northwesterly winds that brought Beijing’s first dust storm of the Spring.
The second “Masked Wagtail” (M.a.personata) for Beijing, found by Steve Bale on the Wenyu River.
Following a recent sighting at Miyun Reservoir on 26 and 30 March 2020, there are now at least seven records of personata in the capital.
To summarise, Beijing is a brilliant place to see White Wagtails. Thanks to greater observer awareness and significantly increased coverage by a growing number of birders, the total number of subspecies seen in Beijing is six and at least five have been recorded every year since 2015. And, of course, there is still the potential for alboides to occur, which could bring the total to seven. With statistics like that, Beijing has a justifiable claim to be “The Capital of White Wagtails”!
Ref: “Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America” by Per Alström, Krister Mild and Dan Zetterström, published by Helm (2003).
This post was originally published in April 2015. It has been updated to take into account post-2015 records in order to better reflect the status of each subspecies in Beijing.
Unburdened by responsibility and blessed with a natural sense of wonder, children can be incredibly up-lifting! This week, I was delighted to receive news of an exchange of letters between schoolchildren in Mongolia and on Socotra Island, Yemen, about the Mongolian Cuckoos….
Back in June 2019, a team from the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) in Mongolia, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing visited Khurkh in northeastern Mongolia to fit transmitters to five cuckoos. A key part of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project was to visit local schools to raise awareness about migratory birds and invite the students to provide names for the cuckoos.
Since then, at least three of the five cuckoos have made it to Africa, crossing the Arabian Sea and, in the case of two, the Saudi Arabian desert, before settling in Zambia and Malawi for the winter (you can see the latest positions here). On 27 November, one of the cuckoos named NAMJAA (Mongolian for “storyteller”), briefly stopped on Socotra, a Yemeni island in the Arabian Sea, some 240 kilometres east of the coast of Somalia and 380 kilometres south of the Arabian Peninsula.
Socotra is an isolated island and, as a result, home to a high number of species found nowhere else; up to a third of its plant life is endemic. In recognition of its unique flora and fauna, it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2008. Socotra’s isolation also means that it is a magnet for migratory birds, in particular those crossing the Arabian Sea from India to Africa in autumn and we can be sure that NAMJAA was just one of many cuckoos crossing Socotra on that day.
Learning that NAMJAA visited Socotra, schoolchildren in Mongolia decided to write letters to their counterparts on the island to thank them for the safe passage of “their” cuckoos and to tell them how important their island is, not only for the resident birds, but also for the millions of migratory birds that cross the Arabian Sea during their intercontinental journeys.
Letters from Mongolia
Letter 1 from Dulguun B
Dear Socotran school friends
My name is Dulguun B. I study in the 7th grade at the general education school of the Binder village of Khentii province. Thank you for visiting us and expanding our knowledge. Thank you for teaching us the names and their character of some birds. I hope you will protect many more birds in the future.
Letter 2 from Khishigdelger
Dear Socotran school friends,
Hello friends, my name is Khishigdelger. I study in the 7th grade at the general education school of the Binder village, Khentii province. The researchers who came to study the cuckoo in our area visited us in our classroom and had a great talk about the cuckoo, a bird which we don’t know much. We learned a lot from our teacher and the researchers. It was very interesting to know the migration route of the cuckoos, to whom we gave their names and tagged by the researchers with satellite tags. We gave the name Nomad, because we Mongolians are nomadic and move every season of a year. We gave the name Onon, because of our village is located next to Onon river. The researchers said that the cuckoo is a very interesting bird and they eat caterpillars and protect forest. We believe they are also protecting forests in your country now. Mongolia has 4 seasons. At this moment it is snowing and cold outside, the temperature is somewhere between -20 and -30 Celsius. Because it is winter season here. I hope the cuckoos will be back in the summer. I’m looking forward to the moment when cuckoos returns to Mongolia.
Letter 3 from Shinekhuu
Dear Socotran friends
Hello my friends. My name is Shinekhuu. I live in the countryside and was born in a herder family. When I was a child, cuckoos used to sing almost every morning. But I have never seen a cuckoo! One day, researchers who study cuckoos visited us and they told a lot about cuckoos and their migration. I’m so glad to hear that the three cuckoos that we named have crossed the ocean and an island and then finally arrived a site where many birds gather, and they have survived to their wintering destination. I could not imagine how those birds traveled so far, having heard that they had traveled 13,000 km. I really want this bird to return to Mongolia. You should please take care of the birds and wildlife on the island of Socotra.
Best regard Shinekhuu, Binder village, Mongolia
Letter 4 from Nomingoo
Dear Socotran school friends
How are you? My name is Nomingoo. We are delighted to know that Namjaa, the cuckoo, flew over your special island in the Arabian Sea. We also learned that the Bayan crossed many countries to reach Malawi and Onon is now in Tanzania. It is just amazing, to imagine how these little birds went that far. As you may know those birds were caught in Mongolia, where we live and fitted with a satellite tag, so we could track their long migration. We look forward to seeing these 3 cuckoos back in Mongolia.
We send our good wishes for 2020
Highschool, Binder village, Mongolia
Letter 5 from Goomaral
Dear Socotran school friends
Hello my friends. My name is Goomaral. I study in Binder village. Thank you to our researchers for coming to us. If they hadn’t come then we would not know about the birds, especially the cuckoo. Thank you so much for letting us know about the cuckoo’s migration. I liked how the satellite tag is used for studying migration. Good luck with your work. I’m looking forward to the moment when cuckoos returns to Mongolia.
Letter 6 from Semuun
Dear Socotran school friends
I am Semuun. There are many species of birds and animals in Mongolia. I and my classmates are very pleased to give the name to the cuckoo that has come a long way to East Africa. Namjaa, Onon and Bayan cuckoos are probably having a great winter vacation. As you all may know, Namjaa cuckoo flew to your your beautiful island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea. I have heard that the island where you live is an important place for thousands of birds. I am writing a letter for the first time to my friends abroad. I heard about you and researchers are trying to protect this island. Good luck with your work and everything. We expect the Namjaa, Bayan and Onon cuckoos return to Mongolia soon from East Africa.
We wish you all the best for 2020
School children from Khurkh village, Mongolia
Just a few days later, schoolchildren on Socotra received the letters, read out by their teachers, and replied with their own letters and drawings.
Replies from Socotra
Letter 1 from Ashraf Saeed
To our friends at Binder and Khurkh villages schools.
My name is Ashraf Saeed. I am studying in the second year at Khaled Ibn Al Waleed High School. Thank you for writing to us, we are amazed by the small bird “Namjaa” for travelling such long distances. We hope “Namjaa” will return safely and fly over Socotra on his way back home to Mongolia. I wish you can manage to visit Socotra one day and see its rare bird and plant species. Below is one of the interesting birds, Egyptian Vulture, called locally “Su’aidoo”.
Letter 2 from Nawwaf
To our friends, school children in the villages of Binder and Khurkh.
My name is Nawwaf. I study at 30th November School in Hadibo, Socotra. Thank you for your letter, we are also proud of Namjaa who visited us in Socotra. The teacher read your letter from Mongolia. We hope Namjaa will return again and fly over Socotra on his way back to Mongolia. I hope you can visit Socotra and enjoy the unique biodiversity of trees and birds, such as the dragon blood tree. Drawing by Assim Mohammed Saeed
Letter 3 from Sa’adiyah
To our Friends students of Mongolia schools
My name is Sa’adiyah. I am a student at Al Zahra” secondary school for girls, Hadibo, Socotra. I would like to inform you that we have many species of rare birds and animals in our Island. Thank you for writing to us, we are also proud of the bird “Namjaa” who visited Socotra. We have a very special tree “Dragon Blood Tree” which one of the rare plants. We have also rare birds like the Egyptian Vulture, “Su’aidoo”. We hope you can visit Socotra and see the unique biodiversity of rare trees and birds.
Letter 4 fromYu’adah
My Name is Yu’adah. I am in the first year at Al Zahra’a Secondary School for girls in Socotra Island. To our friends at Binder and Khurkh villages. How are you? I thank you for your letters to us. We are proud of the bird “Namjaa” who visited us in Socotra and we hope “Namjaa” will come back and fly over Socotra on his way back home in Mongolia. There are many species of birds on Socotra, about 141 bird species are found here. We hope you can visit Socotra and see all kinds of birds and animals and landscape.
Although Socotra is a World Heritage Site, conservation is understandably not high on the agenda given the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the resulting complete collapse of tourism, and it is hoped that these letters from far away Mongolia will help to raise awareness about the importance of the island to migratory birds and to support those working hard in difficult circumstances to try to protect the island’s key habitats. At the same time, the Mongolian children are learning about a part of the world with which they previously didn’t realise they were connected..
Richard Porter, author of Birds of the Middle East and Advisor to BirdLife International’s Middle East Programme, said:
The Mongolian Cuckoos are connecting countries, continents and people!
The Mongolian Cuckoo Project team is grateful to the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Society (WSCC), especially Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, for facilitating the letters from Mongolia and to Richard Porter and Karim Nasher, one of Yemen’s leading conservationists, for arranging their delivery to schools on Socotra and for sending their replies.
As COVID-19 begins to take hold in many countries around the world, it is perhaps of no consolation to most people that the situation in Beijing appears to be stabilising. Life in the capital is slowly taking small steps towards normality, treading the fine line between continuing to contain the spread of this seemingly incredibly infectious virus and minimising the disruption to the economy and people’s lives. More shops and restaurants are open, albeit with restrictions on numbers and temperature checks on entry, and office workers are being allowed to return, with limits on the maximum number of people in an office at any one time and regular checks by the government.
However, as a reminder that things remain far from normal, housing compounds still forbid entry to non-residents and residents are checked for symptoms each time they enter, with everyone required to wear a mask when in public places. Admirably, the local staff in my compound have been religiously disinfecting the lifts, door handles and any other potential sources of transmission at least twice per day. And, given many people rely on deliveries for groceries and other essentials, these are now contactless – the couriers leave packages at the security gate for residents to collect, avoiding any direct contact.
The lockdown must be a gold mine of information for social scientists. The psychological effects of severe restrictions on human interaction beyond immediate family must be significant and there are already articles doing the rounds about an increase in the divorce rate, and also pregnancies, during these strange times.
For me, as someone who has always found solace and inspiration in nature, and particularly with birds, this time has been a reminder of their positive power. I’ve taken the opportunity to read more, something I have certainly neglected in recent years, and one book, in particular, made me realise what I have been missing… I lost myself for hours in “The Seabird’s Cry” by Adam Nicholson, a captivating book celebrating the incredible lives of seabirds, following ten species around the coasts and islands of Scotland, Ireland, the Americas and across the vast ocean in between. For a taste, here is Adam’s description of the Kittiwake:
“a sprung and beautiful thing, dawn grey, black eyes, black tips to the wings . . . its whole being like a singer’s held note, not flickering or rag-like, nor blown about like a tern, but elastic, vibrant, investigative, delicate . . . ”
Invigorated by nature writing, the self-quarantine has also allowed me time to research historical records of birds in Beijing, going through books and journals from the likes of Cai Qikan, Robert Swinhoe, J D D La Touche, Père Armand David and other early ornithologists in China. The result will be a new online resource, coming soon, which will provide the status of every species recorded in Beijing. Watch this space!
And in the last few days, as the situation stabilises, birders have been venturing out, in many ways the perfect activity in these times – small numbers of people in large, open spaces, always following the local regulations to wear a mask. And some of the young local birders have been handsomely rewarded with some special sightings. On Thursday, Wang Xue visited Ming Tombs Reservoir and found Beijing’s first ever AMERICAN WIGEON (绿眉鸭, Lǜ méi yā). The stunning drake lingered for the rest of the day, loosely associating with some MALLARD (绿头鸭 Lǜ tóu yā), a COMMON POCHARD (红头潜鸭 Hóng tóu qián yā) and a drake BAIKAL TEAL (花脸鸭 Huā liǎn yā).
A summer-plumaged PALLAS’S GULL (渔鸥, Yú ōu) at the same site would normally be the star of the show but that day it was relegated to the role of supporting actor.
After putting out the news of her find on WeChat, Wang Xue stayed around to help the 60 or so birders who made the short journey to experience this rare visitor. I am grateful to Steve and Zhou Xi Bale who collected me on the way, allowing me to share the moment. The sense of elation, and even release, among the group was palpable… a rare moment of joy and celebration in what has been a tough beginning to the year.
On the same day, two male BAER’S POCHARD (青头潜鸭 Qīng tóu qián yā) were found at DaShiHe in Fangshan District (Xi’ao’pai Yuren), associating with some COOT (骨顶鸡 Gǔ dǐng jī), a few GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) and a single FERRUGINOUS DUCK (白眼潜鸭 Bái yǎn qián yā). Fortunately, they stayed around and were still present at the weekend, allowing many people to catch up with this critically endangered duck.
Of course, it’s not only rare birds that provide joy. The flocks of DAURIAN JACKDAW (达乌里寒鸦 Dá wū lǐ hán yā) migrating north, the REED PARROTBILL (震旦鸦雀 Zhèn dàn yā què) calling incessantly from a reedbed and the sight of GREAT CRESTED GREBE (凤头鸊鷉 Fèng tóu pì tī) beginning their courtship displays, were all wonderful to behold.
The positive feelings were reinforced when we met with two groups of local forestry police, both of whom asked us if we had seen anyone setting up nets. They were actively patrolling and clearly getting ready to crack down on poaching in the forthcoming migration season. A few years ago, an encounter like that would have been just a dream!
The experience of the last few days has been uplifting and has reminded me just how positive birds can be to our every day lives, including our mental health. I am optimistic that the joy provided by these rare visitors and the inspiration they have provided to get out into nature, represent the beginning of a change in fortune for Beijing and its inhabitants. Spring, with all its optimism and anticipation, is here at last.
Title image: the drake AMERICAN WIGEON at Ming Tombs Reservoir (photo by Wang Xue)
Much has been written in recent days and weeks about China’s “ban on the illegal wildlife trade” in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Due to cultural and language barriers, some of the English language articles in the media have not been fully accurate. The article below, written by Li Yuhan, helps to navigate this complex issue.
Li Yuhan is one of China’s brightest young conservationists, formerly of ShanShui Conservation Center at Peking University and now studying conservation management at Oxford University. I was fortunate to work alongside Yuhan in Qinghai Province, where she headed ShanShui’s workstation in Sanjiagyuan (aka The Valley of the Cats). Drawing on contacts with Chinese academics and conservationists as well as colleagues at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, the article below explains what has happened and what it means. With her permission, I am delighted to be able to post Yuhan’s article here in full. The original is on the website of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science at Oxford University website – see here.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused more than 2700 deaths in China and has spread to 50 countries [1,2]. The evidence currently suggests the virus was first transmitted to humans at a seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province, as many early confirmed cases involved individuals that had contact with this market, and 93.9%(31/33) of environmental samples taken from the western region of the market were found to have COVID-19 . In addition to seafood, fresh meat and live wild animals were being sold and slaughtered in this market, and coronaviruses are known to jump from some species (e.g., bat, camel, civet) to people . These indicate that the virus might have stemmed from wild animals on sale at the market . However, we should be cautious as the intermediate host of COVID-19 remains unconfirmed at this stage. Following the outbreak, the market was shut down by the government on January 1st, 2020. The consumption of wildlife in China has drawn unprecedented public attention ever since, both within China and internationally, given the severe public health implications of the outbreak.
On February 24th 2020, China’s top legislature adopted a decision to “thoroughly ban the illegal trading of wildlife and eliminate the consumption of wild animals to safeguard people’s lives and health.” The decision has binding force and it took effect on the same day as its promulgation, i.e., February 24th [5,6].
This article provides a detailed explanation of this decision and is based on discussions within the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade at the University of Oxford and consultations with Shanshui Conservation Center, based at Peking University in China.
Consumption of terrestrial wild animals for edible uses prohibited
As COVID-19 is assumed to have close links with the consumption of wild animals, the new decision prohibits the eating of terrestrial wild animals, including those that are bred or reared in captivity. Hunting, trading and transporting terrestrial wild animals for the purposes of food consumption is also prohibited .
This is a big move. Previously in China, only those 402 species on the List of Wild Animals Under State Priority Conservation were banned from consumption as wild meat . However, this list is outdated and does not correspond to the conservation status of some species . Consumption of other wild terrestrial animals was permitted, subject to obtaining appropriate certificates (e.g., hunting, breeding, quarantine, trade) from the government. However, this certification system was sometimes poorly implemented. Buying a certificate and using it for “laundering” of wild-caught animals was possible .
Which species which are currently consumed are not included in these new measures?
Although this new ban was quickly celebrated by the media and some in the international conservation community, there are several nuances and exceptions that must be clarified.
Aquatic wildlife is exempt, because the National People’s Congress (NPC) views “fishing as a natural resource and an important agricultural product, as well as a common international practise” . This means, for example, that sea horses, turtles, sea cucumbers and other widely consumed species will continue to be traded under the same rules as before.
It is unclear whether the ban includes amphibians and reptiles, for example snakes. Wild plants are not included in the ban. Only farmed, terrestrial animals on the List of Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry can now be traded for food consumption. A publicly available version of this list can be found in a report to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and includes various breeds of pig, chicken, duck, goose, special poultry (e.g., ostrich), cattle, sheep, goat, horse, donkey, rabbit and deer . Mink and raccoon dog are also on the list, possibly due to demand for their pelts. Previously, some species not in the list could be farmed (e.g., civets and bamboo rats) but farming these species is now illegal, if they are to be consumed as food. The Chinese government plans to revise this list and it is very important to discuss what will be added.
What about non-edible uses?
Non-edible use of wild terrestrial animals, such as scientific research, medicinal use, and display, are still regulated by existing laws, such as the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and the Traditional Chinese Medicine Law (2016) . For example, it remains legal to use processed pangolin scales from a certificated source, or bear bile from legal farms for medical purposes, or stockpiled saiga horn. This means that a substantial number of species of conservation concern are unaffected by the ban.
What about the illegal trade?
Some wildlife trade is already illegal (e.g., tiger, ivory) in China, and the Chinese government has announced it will clamp down further on such trade with “aggravated punishment”, suggesting stronger penalties will be used for illegal wildlife trade. In the existing Criminal Law and its interpretation (2014), if the circumstances are especially serious, life imprisonment or death shall be sentenced .
Further details are not currently available but should become clear in forthcoming legislation. Since the rise of COVID-19, the Chinese government has investigated over 600 cases of wildlife crime , and hopefully, this greater focus on law enforcement will become the norm.
What about the Chinese public’s views?
Since the outbreak of the virus, several Chinese conservation organisations have organised a questionnaire to understand public attitudes and circulated it on Chinese social media (e.g., wechat, weibo), receiving over 100,000 responses. Among the respondents, 88% of whom resided in urban areas, 32% have seen people eating wild animals in the past year, while 96.4% said they supported a ban on consumption of all wild animals. Those against the ban believed that “the industry of some wildlife farming is very mature”, and that “some wildlife farming can bring income.” In terms of banning all trade in wild animals, including food consumption, medicinal use and others, more than 90% of the respondents expressed a willingness to support this . Whether this is a short-term attitude because of the current situation, and whether it is shared by more rural, less internet-savvy people, remains to be seen.
Winners and losers
Certain species will definitely gain from this decision, assuming that it is well enforced. These are terrestrial wild mammal species which are legal to hunt and consume, and which are currently potentially under threat as a result of this consumption. Species which fall into this category include civets and bats (both of which, by the way, have been implicated in previous epidemics). Others (particularly aquatic species and those used legally in Traditional Chinese Medicine) will not benefit from this legislation. The crack-down on breaches of existing laws may help species traded illegally. However, the markets have not been permanently closed as yet, and so the public health, animal welfare and conservation concerns which they produce remain.
People in the farmed wild animal industry could face severe economic losses as a result of this new legislation. Previously, the farming of certain wildlife species was encouraged by the government to help alleviate poverty . The wildlife farming industry is estimated to have created employment for more than 14 million people and worth over £56 billion, with pelt production (e.g., mink, raccoon dog, fox) representing 74.8% and food consumption involving species such as the giant salamander, frog and blue peacock, 24% . The National People’s Congress spokesman stated that local governments should guide these farmers towards other industries and provide compensation for their losses . Meanwhile, what happens to the captive-bred animals remains uncertain, with potential implications for animal welfare.
This decision may be just the start of a series of new pieces of legislation, which authorise provincial and city-level governments to implement their own measures. For example, one day after the national announcement, the Shenzhen government released a draft proposal for regional management, suggesting that the ban on animal consumption might extend to pet animals, such as cats and dogs . The National People’s Congress also plans to revise the Wildlife Protection Law (2018) and other wildlife-related laws this year. These forthcoming legislative changes will need continued attention and efforts by Chinese NGOs and the public to make sure that the changes are as effective as possible.
It has taken so much human suffering to bring attention to this issue. However, the speed with which this new decision has been taken offers hope that the lessons of COVID-19 will be learned.
Special thanks to Melissa Arias, Dan Challender, E.J. Milner-Gulland, Xuesong Han, Amy Hinsley, Xilin Jiang, Xiao Mao, Terry Townshend, Lingyun Xiao, for their valuable comments and edits to this blog.
Header photo: Menu of a wild meat restaurant in Wuhan Huanan seafood market, where civet, bamboo rat and other animals were sold. Photo credit: weibo
 中华人民共和国农业部 Ministry of Agriculture P R of C. 中国畜禽遗传资源状况Genetic Resource of Livestock and Poultry of China. 2003.
 最高人民法院最高人民检察院关于办理走私刑事案件适用法律若干问题的解释 Interpretations of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate on several issues concerning the application of law in handling criminal cases of smuggling. 2014/2020-02-28. http://www.court.gov.cn/shenpan-xiangqing-7081.html
 野生动物修法调查 | 22天，10万份问卷，聊聊这些民间的声音 Survey on the revision of laws on wildlife: 22 days, 100,000 responses, voices from the public. Shanshui Conservation Center. 2020/2020-02-28. http://www.shanshui.org/information/1926/