Biodiversity rising up the agenda..

With biodiversity rising up the agenda due to the forthcoming UN negotiations due to take place in Kunming, China, in 2021, there is a lot happening here in Beijing and China.. on many fronts.  Here’s a quick summary of an eventful last few weeks.

At the end of October, I was honoured to be invited by my good friend, Shen Chu (Becky), of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to Kunming in Yunnan to deliver a public lecture at an event to celebrate International Snow Leopard Day.  With the exception of a couple of day trips into Hebei Province, this was my first trip out of Beijing this year.  The event was hosted by the Elephant Bookstore in Kunming and, as well as a live public audience, the event was streamed online to more than a hundred thousand people.  The organisers did a fantastic job, bringing together local artists, schools and musicians, and there was even a special Snow Leopard IPA produced by the local craft brewery which included a QR code with lots of facts about the Snow Leopard. 

Speaking about the Valley of the Cats community-based conservation and wildlife-watching project in Kunming.
Snow Leopard IPA. At 8% it’s a fitting strength for a beer celebrating the “King of the Mountains”!

With the city scheduled to host the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity next year, it was wonderful to see such energy – and innovative ideas – among local people to engage the public about nature and wildlife.

Just a few days later, I set off to the Valley of the Cats with a subset of these brilliant young people from Kunming.  Having promised Becky several years ago to help her to see a Snow Leopard in the wild, there was an air of expectation as we landed in Yushu and made our way to the Valley.  It was my first visit of the year to this magical place and, as always, it did not disappoint.  We enjoyed a spectacular few days and treasured encounters with four Asian Brown Bears (an adult male and a separate mother with two cubs), a single Snow Leopard on a fresh kill of yak and a wonderful hike through some of the most stunning scenery I have seen. 

On our last morning we stopped by Yunta’s house for a cup of tea. Yunta is one of the village leaders and has been a strong supporter of the Valley of the Cats project since its inception.  It was early morning, around -10 degs C and I was shivering in four layers, yet Yunta was in a vest!

It was particularly encouraging to meet with a group of young local people who are keen to take on some of the running of the tourism project and to contribute to wildlife monitoring.  Seeing their enthusiasm and pride in their local environment was heartwarming.

Just a few days after returning from Qinghai, I was delighted to hear that the Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife-watching tourism project had been named as a runner-up and received a “recognition of excellence” under the Nature Stewardship category of the Paulson Prize for Sustainability.  Competing with more than a hundred projects across China, this was fantastic recognition for the local community.  You can read about the winning projects – on battery recycling in Wuhan and wetland restoration in Haikou – here.

Having been part of the team to produce the report entitled “Financing Nature: Closing The Global Biodiversity Financing Gap”, the authors have been busy reaching out to as many influential governments, ministers, organisations and individuals as possible to try to influence the debate on how countries finance the USD 700 billion per year needed to protect our most important biodiversity and ecosystem services.  That figure may sound like a lot of money – and it is – but to put it in context, it is less than the world spends each year on soft drinks.  Governments have a fundamental role to create the right regulation that generates funding for nature.  That means no longer allowing those that do harm to the environment to do so for free and rewarding those who protect and preserve.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the figure of USD 700 billion could be reduced by around half by reforming harmful subsidies (specifically on agriculture, fisheries and forestry).  It does seem out of step that, in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, governments around the world are still paying people billions of dollars to employ practices that cause harm to our environment.  This week I was invited to brief senior staff at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing.  As an organisation that funds many large infrastructure projects in developing countries, it was encouraging to hear about their enthusiasm for ensuring biodiversity and climate change criteria feature prominently in their lending criteria. 

Handing over a copy of the “Financing Nature” report to Sir Danny Alexander, Vice President of AIIB.

A second meeting has now been planned to examine how AIIB can become a leader amongst multilateral development banks on this issue.  There is a very long way to go to ensure that infrastructure projects are mandated to minimise harm to the environment and offset any unavoidable damage by investing in habitat protection and restoration elsewhere.. but that change is coming.. the only question is how fast?

Continuing the theme, last Saturday I participated in a discussion panel on biodiversity and climate change at the Caixin Global Summit in Beijing, an annual event that brings together an impressive line-up of people – from China and overseas – to discuss major global issues.  

And the following day I participated in the launch of the Beijing government’s “Urban Forestry Network”, a group of c30 people who will develop proposals for improving the quality of the capital’s tree planting and biodiversity-related projects in Beijing.  This network has the potential to make a big difference to how land is managed in Beijing, improving and restoring habitat for wildlife, and I look forward to playing an active role as the group develops its workplan.

Launch of the Beijing Urban Forestry Network on Sunday 15 November 2020.

You may be wondering if I have been able to do any birding recently and, sadly, the answer is no!  However, I am looking forward to this Sunday when I will be accompanying the new UK Ambassador to China, Caroline Wilson, on a birding trip to Yeyahu, during which we will be discussing biodiversity, China and the importance of the UK and China working closely together, as hosts of the UN climate change and biodiversity negotiations respectively, to ensure these processes are reinforcing and lead to a successful outcome.  It’s hugely encouraging to see the UK Ambassador taking a strong and early interest in these issues and I look forward to doing my bit to work for the strongest outcomes possible at both Kunming and Glasgow in 2021.

With Christmas in the UK out of the question this year due to the pandemic, I’m hoping for a few days of relaxation and birding around the capital.  With waxwings arriving and the first snow today, the excitement of what might turn up is palpable.  Will it be a Pallas’s Sandgrouse winter or could there be an influx of Asian Rosy Finches, or maybe even another of the special redstarts from the Tibetan Plateau.  Can’t wait to get out there and explore!

 

Beijing and Biodiversity: China Dialogue article

A few weeks ago I was invited to contribute an article to China Dialogue, one of the most respected platforms on China issues relating to the environment.  In the build up to what will be arguably the most important meeting ever on nature, due to take place in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in 2021, biodiversity is climbing the political agenda.  However, it would be a mistake to think that national governments alone can solve the nature crisis.  Home to the majority of the world’s population, cities have a vital role to play.  My article focuses on how Beijing could help to show the way in designing and managing a city that is good for people and for nature.  You can read it here (available in English and Chinese).

A message from Баян (BAYAN) on International Biodiversity Day

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. 

BAYAN’s journey took him from Mongolia to Mozambique and back to China, crossing 31 borders involving 18 countries and a total distance of c24,000km.  Outward journey from Mongolia to Mozambique in yellow, return in orange. Block dot shows location of last signals, 100km north of Kunming, Yunnan Province on 12 May 2020.

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:

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?

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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)

Total distance: c24,000km

Rest In Peace Баян (BAYAN) 🙏