It was only three years ago that many scientists thought the Yellow Sea would become an ‘epicentre of extinction’, such was the pace and extent of the loss of intertidal mudflats along China’s coast. The populations of many shorebirds in what is known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) were in free-fall. In the last 30 years, the population of Red Knot had declined by 58%, the Far Eastern Curlew by 80% and the Curlew Sandpiper by 78% to name a few. And of course the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper was facing imminent extinction.
Today, although there is still a long way to go to secure the future of the millions of migratory shorebirds that rely on this region as a refuelling stop during their incredible journeys from as far away as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic, there is hope.
In 2018 the Chinese government announced a ban on further reclamation of coastal wetlands. This policy decision, taking many by surprise, effectively removed what was considered the biggest threat to migratory shorebirds in the Flyway. Two of the most important sites have since been inscribed as World Heritage Sites and a further 12 are due to be added in the next few years. Focus is now switching to recovery and restoration of sites and tackling the remaining threats to these shorebirds, such as the invasive spartina grass and illegal hunting.
Over the last 12 months, in my role with the Paulson Institute, I have been part of a team, involving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and EAAFP, producing a video to tell the story of this policy turnaround. Through interviews with scientists, policymakers and NGOs at the heart of the issue, the 14-minute documentary shows how people from across disciplines and international borders worked together to create an evidence base that, ultimately, was too powerful to ignore.
It is a story of hope that shows that, even when things can seem desperate, it’s vital never to give up. As we move towards the UN Conference on Biological Diversity in Kunming in October, that is a very important message.
Watch the video here:
Huge thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, EAAFP and my wonderful colleagues at the Paulson Institute for the terrific teamwork over the last 12 months. Most of all, thank you to all the scientists, NGOs, policymakers, advocates and everyone who has helped count shorebirds whose efforts have given hope to this most diverse, and most threatened of flyways.
Back in December, with thanks to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, I participated in the Meeting of the Partners of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) on the island of Hainan, just off the southern coast of China. The EAAFP is an informal partnership of governments, international organisations, NGOs and companies dedicated to celebrating and conserving the world’s largest Flyway, supporting tens of millions of migratory birds.
The Partnership’s secretariat, based in Incheon in South Korea, works hard to “protect migratory waterbirds, their habitat and the livelihoods of people dependent upon them” by providing a flyway wide framework to promote dialogue, cooperation and collaboration. One example of this work is the creation of “Task Forces” to work on single species and/or single habitats, for example on Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Baer’s Pochard and the Yellow Sea.
For me, it was fascinating to meet with many international experts from the Partner countries, including Australia, China, Japan, Korea (North and South) Mongolia, New Zealand, Russia, Thailand and the US, and to participate in some of the workshops to help progress conservation of the Flyway’s special species and places. For one species close to my heart – Baer’s Pochard – it was heartening to hear from the Mayor of Hengshui about the outstanding work he, his colleagues and partners have been doing to protect and manage Hengshui Hu (Hengshui Lake), the most important known site for this critically endangered duck.
However, perhaps the most important outcome of the meeting was the official launch of a new “Science Unit” to underpin the work of the EAAFP. The Center for East Asian-Australasian Flyway Studies (known as CEAAF) sits in Beijing Forestry University under the leadership of Professor LEI Guangchun. It has been funded for an initial five years by two Chinese Foundations – the Mangrove Conservation Foundation and Qiaonv Foundation – and is officially part of the EAAFP Secretariat.
Under Professor LEI’s leadership, the CEAAF team includes some of China’s most talented young waterbird scientists – including JIA Yifei, LIU Yunzhu, LU Cai, WU Lan and ZENG Qing – and is already taking forward work to coordinate winter surveys of priority species such as Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Scaly-sided Merganser and Baer’s Pochard.
It’s more evidence of China stepping up to the plate in terms of the conservation of birds and their habitats, and I look forward to working with Professor LEI and his team to strengthen the work to protect and celebrate the world’s important Flyway.
Header photo: the CEAAF team with senior members of the EAAFP Secretariat. From left to right: JIA Yifei, ZENG Qing, LU Cai, Lew Young (Chief Executive of EAAFP), Professor LEI Guangchun, Hyeseon Do (EAAFP Secretariat), WU Lan and LIU Yunzhu.
At 1748 local time on 28 May 2018, Li Feng, a researcher and bird surveyor from Hengshui University found, photographed and videoed a female BAER’S POCHARD (Aythya baeri) with ducklings at Hengshui Hu National Nature Reserve in Hebei Province, China. This is the first confirmed breeding of the “Critically Endangered” diving duck anywhere in the world in 2018 and is almost certainly a direct result of conservation efforts by the local government and nature reserve staff, supported by the Sino-German Hengshui Lake Conservation and Management Project
The breeding success follows hot on the heels of the first international workshop of the Baer’s Pochard Task Force at Hengshui Hu in March 2018 and the subsequent commitments from the local government and local nature reserve to manage the lake for the benefit of this beautiful diving duck.
Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri) is a poorly known migratory diving duck that was formerly widespread in eastern Asia.Since the 1980s it has suffered a precipitous decline throughout its range, estimated to be >90%, and fewer than 1,000 birds now survive in the wild, making it rarer than the Giant Panda.Since 2012 it has been classified by the IUCN as “Critically Endangered”, meaning it is just one step away from extinction in the wild.In the last five years it has become clear that Hengshui Hu in Hebei Province is the most important known site in the world for this species with more than 300 recorded during spring migration in 2017, several overwintering and a few pairs spending the summer.However, due to a combination of fluctuating water levels during the breeding season, illegal egg collection and disturbance by electro-fishermen and tourist boats, there has been no recent evidence of breeding.
It was back in March 2017 that I visited Hengshui Hu, as part of the Sino-German Hengshui Hu Project run by German Development Bank, KfW, to to help train Hengshui University and nature reserve staff about waterbird monitoring and identification of Baer’s Pochard. At that time I could not have dared dream that there would be breeding success a little over a year later.
Since then, the local groups have been systematically counting waterfowl, in particular Baer’s Pochard, on a weekly basis, helping to build up a better picture of how the lake is used by Baer’s Pochard and other waterbirds. At the same time, a series of targeted conservation actions have been initiated, including declaring the likely favoured breeding area as a seasonal fully protected zone, compensating fishermen who could no longer fish in the protected zone, clamping down on illegal activity including illegal fishing and egg collection, stabilising the water level during the breeding season to avoid nests being flooded, and beginning a public information campaign to raise awareness about the global importance of Hengshui Hu for Baer’s Pochard.
Just two months ago, the international spotlight shone on Hengshui Hu when, on 19-20 March 2018, delegates from ten countries gathered for the first international workshop on the conservation of the Baer’s Pochard under the auspices of the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP).Delegates from Bangladesh, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Japan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, Russia and Thailand heard from senior Chinese local and national government officials, academics and international experts, discussed urgent conservation priorities and agreed the “Hengshui Declaration”.
The actions by the local nature reserve and Hengshui University, enabled and reinforced by the political will shown by the local government, have undoubtedly created the conditions for successful breeding in 2018 and, in another demonstration of local commitment, more than 40 volunteers from Hengshui University have already set up a group to monitor the progress of these, and hopefully more, Baer’s Pochard ducklings.
The positive results from Hengshui, coming so quickly after the concerted actions to support Baer’s Pochard, are deeply heartening and demonstrate that local conservation actions can deliver results. And although there is a very long way to go to secure the future of this endangered species in the wild, successful breeding represents a positive step forward for the conservation effort.
Big congratulations to the local government, the local nature reserve, especially Mr Yuan Bo and Ms Liu Zhenjie, and to Hengshui University, in particular Dr Wu Dayong and Li Feng, and to everyone else involved, including Professors Ding Changqing and Lei Guangchun and Dr Wu Lan at Beijing Forestry University, Guido Kuchelmeister, Matthias Bechtolsheim and John Howes from the KfW project, Rich Hearn at WWT, Hyeseon Do from EAAFP and many more.
In June 2017 the Hebei Provincial Forestry Department, Hebei Luannan County Government, the Paulson Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the aim of protecting one of the most important sites along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – Nanpu coastal wetland, near Tangshan in Hebei Province. Nanpu is a site Beijing-based birders know well. The spectacular concentrations of shorebirds, not to mention the world-class visible migration of passerines, makes it one of the best birding sites within easy reach of the capital.
That agreement was one of a series of recent positive announcements from China about the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay. In early 2017, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay had been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination. I reported at the time that, although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese 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.
More recently, in January 2018, the State Oceanic Administration announced a ban on all ‘business-related’ land reclamation along China’s coast and issued an order to restore illegally-reclaimed land. Already, at Yancheng, sea-walls are being removed to allow the tide once again to feed the mudflats. In March 2018, a major government reorganisation saw environment and biodiversity elevated as government priorities and management of all protected areas being brought under one ministry. These developments are enough to put a smile on even the most pessimistic conservationist’s face!
And so it was with a spring in my step that last weekend I was fortunate to participate in a visit to Nanpu with a delegation that consisted of the mightily impressive, and growing, group of scientists – both Chinese and international – working to study shorebirds along the flyway and some VIPs including Hank and Wendy Paulson of The Paulson Institute and Pulitizer-nominated writer Scott Weidensaul.
It was such a joy to see so many young and extremely capable Chinese scientists – Zhu Bingrun, Lei Ming, Mu Tong to name a few – contributing such a huge amount to our knowledge about the importance to migratory birds of the intertidal mudflats and salt ponds and, being led by Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, they are in great hands.
As much as the scientific data is necessary to help make the case for conservation, it is not sufficient. Also needed is a champion who can make the case at senior levels of government and that’s where Hank and Wendy Paulson come into their own. With Hank’s unrivalled experience and access in China, underpinned by the work of his institute, including the Coastal Wetlands Blueprint Project, they have been instrumental in engaging with local governors and the Chinese leadership about the importance of the intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and convincing them of their value. Together, it’s a formidable team.
We enjoyed so many stimulating discussions about the latest research, the progress of the work to create Nanpu Nature Reserve and, of course, shorebirds! And thanks to the advice of the Aussie shorebird researchers (Chris Hassall, Adrian Boyle and Matt Slaymaker are back for their 10th year to monitor the Australian-banded birds!), we were on site in perfect time to witness the most amazing spectacle of RED and GREAT KNOTS commuting from their roosting sites in the ponds to the newly-exposed mud on the falling tide. Seeing these shorebirds, most of which were in full breeding plumage, was something to behold and there were gasps of awe as the flocks, sometimes numbering thousands of birds, wheeled around before settling just a few metres in front of us in stunning early morning light. It was the perfect reminder of just why protecting these mudflats is so important – the world would be a much poorer place without these incredible travellers.
There is no doubt that the intertidal mudflats are a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and they have the potential to attract thousands of visitors each year, as well as endearing a sense of pride for local people and, indeed, the whole country. With national level policy seemingly moving in the right direction, let’s hope the local progress at Nanpu will act as an example for other sites along the Flyway. Huge thanks to Hank and Wendy Paulson, Professors Zhang Zhengwang and Theunis Piersma, Scott Weidensaul, Zhu Bingrun, Mu Tong, Lei Ming, Wang Jianmin, Dietmar Grimm, Shi Jianbin, Rose Niu, Adrian Boyle, Chris Hassell, Matt Slaymaker and Kathrine Leung for making it such an enjoyable trip!
Video: RED and GREAT KNOTS at Nanpu, May 2018.
Title image: (l-r) Scott Wiedensaul, Professor Zhang Zhengwang, Professor Theunis Piersma, Wendy Paulson, Hank Paulson, Terry Townshend. Photo by Zhu Bingrun.
Located in Luannan County of Hebei Province, Nanpu wetland consists of natural intertidal mudflats, aquaculture ponds, and salt pans. Its unique geographic location and wetland resources make it one of the most important stopover sites for migratory water birds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), including rare and endangered species such as Red Knot, Great Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, and Nordmann’s Greenshank. Each year, as many as 350,000 water birds stage and refuel here. Among the water birds at the Nanpu wetland, the population of twenty-two species exceeds one percent of their global population sizes or their population sizes along the EAAF, making it a wetland of international importance according to criteria determined by the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation of wetlands and their resources.
Nanpu wetland is facing many threats, such as reclamation, over-fishing and invasion of spartina, a rapidly spreading grass that suffocates intertidal ecosystems. Studies show that there has been a steady decrease in population of some migratory water birds that depend highly on Nanpu wetland for refueling. For instance, over the past decade, the population of Red Knots that overwinter in New Zealand and Australia along the EAAF has been declining at an annual rate of nine percent. IUCN claims that if no further conservation measures are taken, few Red Knots might remain ten years from now.
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?
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.
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 BuntingEmberiza 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-doveStreptopelia 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 OwlBubo 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 PuffinFratercula arctica and Black-legged KittiwakeRissa 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-eyeZosterops modestus, the Echo ParakeetPsittacula eques and the Azores BullfinchPyrrhula 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
This is big news. The Chinese government has just taken an important step to protect some of the key remaining intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay. A total of fourteen sites have 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 Chinese government. And, if these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.
The extensive mudflats, sandflats and associated habitats of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Bay, represent one of the largest areas of intertidal wetlands on Earth and are shared by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (RoK). It is the most important staging area for migratory waterbirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF). And yet, in the last few decades, around 70% of the intertidal habitat has been lost to land reclamation projects, causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline dramatically.
Species such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot are highly dependent on the area for food and rest during their long migrations from as far as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. And of course, this area is not only important as a stopover site. Almost the entire world population of Relict Gull winters in the Bohai Bay, and the whole population of Saunders’s Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill breed in the area.
The tentative nomination has not happened out of thin air. It’s the result of many years of hard work by domestic Chinese organisations, supported by the international community.
Subsequently, national workshops were held in Beijing in 2014, and Incheon, Republic of Korea, in 2016 to implement this resolution nationally. Then, in August 2016, I was fortunate to participate in a joint meeting in Beijing, where representatives of the government authorities of China and the Republic of Korea responsible for World Heritage implementation discussed the nomination of Yellow Sea coastal wetlands.
A further resolution “Conservation of intertidal habitats and migratory waterbirds of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, especially the Yellow Sea, in a global context” was adopted at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), responsible for World Heritage nomination in China has been active in identifying key sites and involving stakeholders to promote the current tentative list, with technical assistance from ShanShui, a Chinese conservation NGO. Whilst the list is not comprehensive – there are other key sites that many conservationists feel should be included – it is a strong foundation and it is possible to add further sites in due course. Importantly, at the same time, the Republic of Korea has been working on a nomination for the tidal flats of the southwest region including the most important site for migratory waterbirds in the country, Yubu Island.
With these proposed nominations by China and the Republic of Korea, the coastal wetlands of the Yellow Sea are being increasingly recognized by governments for their outstanding global importance and it is hoped that this will result in stronger protection and effective management for the continued survival of migratory waterbirds.
There is a long way to go to secure formal nomination and inscription onto the list of World Heritage Sites – that process can take many years – but it’s a vital step and an important statement of intent that provides a renewed sense of optimism about the potential to save what remains of these unique sites. Huge kudos, in particular to MOHURD and to ShanShui, and to everyone who has been working so hard to make this happen, including the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute, IUCN, John MacKinnon and many more.
The long-term vision is that there will be a joint China/Republic of Korea and maybe even DPRK World Heritage Site covering the key locations along the Yellow Sea/Bohai Bay. Now, wouldn’t that be something?!