I am just back from a week of filming at Tiaozini, Jiangsu Province, with Chinese national television (CCTV4) for a special programme about the importance of coastal wetlands. This part of the Yellow Sea coast is a critical stopover for millions of migratory shorebirds along what is known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), one of nine major migratory flyways in the world.
These incredible birds migrate from as far south as Australia and New Zealand to breeding grounds as far north as the Arctic Circle. They are shared by 22 countries and, with that, comes a shared responsibility to protect them and the places they need.
In recent years there has been an incredible turnaround in the prospects for China’s coastal wetlands. In the last few decades, possibly as much as 50% of China’s coastal wetlands have been lost and, just a few years ago, scientists were worried that the Yellow Sea could become an ‘epicentre of extinction’. Then, in 2018, there was a sudden change in policy when the State Council issued a ban on further reclamation of coastal wetlands and committed to protect the remaining important sites. As a first step, Tiaozini was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2019 in recognition of its global importance to migratory birds. Phase II of the serial World Heritage nomination, involving more than ten additional coastal wetland sites, is now underway. A short video summarising the turnaround is called “Saving a Flyway”.
Although the future of migratory shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway is far from secure, and there are many additional and growing threats such as climate change, pollution and invasive spartina, the greatest immediate threat to the Flyway has been removed.
During my visit, it was clear that there have been some remarkable developments in terms of managing the site for migratory birds. A dedicated high tide roost has been designated through the renting – by the local government – of a former aquaculture pond. The water level is managed specifically for birds and, during my visit, it hosted thousands of birds of many different species, from large gulls, spoonbills, godwits, avocets, sandpipers and several different species of duck, including both dabbling and diving ducks. The large Saunders’s Gull (Chroicocephalus saundersi 黑嘴鸥 Hēi zuǐ ōu) colony, numbering almost 3,000 pairs, is now protected and monitored 24/7 and a dedicated research facility has been set up close by, hosting teams from Beijing Forestry University, Fudan University and Nanjing University. The research includes benthos surveys to understand the health of the mudflats and bird population monitoring. The visitor centre – dominated by Spoon-billed Sandpiper-themed infrastructure including a Spoony Cafe, Spoon-billed Sandpiper-shaped benches and Spoony-themed people carriers – hosts students from schools in the local area, from across Jiangsu Province and from further afield (there were at least three schools visiting on the first day I was there). The overwhelming feeling about the future of migratory shorebirds is now filled with optimism – such a contrast from when I first visited the area in 2010.
Of course, the growing threats of climate change, pollution and spartina are very real and will require a lot of hard work and dedication to address but, just for a moment, it was good to take in and celebrate a moment of optimism!
It was wonderful to meet so many people – from the managers to academics to local staff – passionate about protecting the intertidal mudflats and doing everything they can to facilitate safe passage for these extreme endurance athletes.
I am not a natural in front of the TV cameras but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to host a special programme about biodiversity that will reach tens of millions of people when it is broadcast in June!