I have reported before – for example here and here – about the local police in Beijing responding to reports of wildlife crime. I am pleased to say their good work appears to be a sustained effort.
On Thursday afternoon I paid a short visit to the Wenyu River. It’s a reasonably fast-flowing river so, even in the depths of winter when most water bodies are frozen, it is often ice-free and attracts many water birds, including thousands of duck and occasionally swans and geese. However, as well as providing good birding, this knowledge is not lost on wildlife criminals.
Thursday was not particularly birdy and the highlight was a party of four Whooper Swans which relaxed on the river with one eye on me as I scanned the duck from the river bank. Suddenly, around 60 Mallard took flight and I wondered what had caused the disturbance.. Then I saw the culprit – a young man with a catapult who had been firing ball bearings at the flock, initially from his car and then from much closer as he hid behind a tree.
As a wildlife-lover, sights like this make me angry and sad. In the modern world, wildlife is facing enough pressures from habitat destruction, pollution and the impacts of climate change without the actions of an ignorant few. I took some photos and video, including a clear image of his car plate, and sent them to the local State Forestry Police in Shunyi District. Despite it still being the Chinese New Year holiday, to my delight the police responded immediately and, the following day, they had tracked down the owner of the vehicle, called him in to the police station, confiscated his catapult and ‘educated’ him about the law.
Given no ducks were seen to be killed (thankfully he had a poor aim!), the most the police could do was give him a stern warning and remind him that his actions were against the law. The police said he was very sorry and went home feeling repentant.
It is a good reminder to anyone who sees wildlife crime in Beijing (or anywhere) not to turn the other cheek or to think that the police won’t take it seriously. Please capture as much evidence as you can, note the location and call the police. At least in Beijing, they WILL act to enforce the law that protects all wild birds in China.
To help, I have published a list of the telephone numbers for the State Forestry Police in Beijing. Note the police are organised by District, so the numbers are different, depending on where you live or go birding. If you live in Beijing, or visit regularly, please save this image on your phone so you know who to call if you encounter any wildlife crime.
Huge thanks and kudos to the Shunyi District State Forestry Police for responding so fast and effectively, especially during the Chinese New Year festivities.
Beijing police: ridding the capital of wildlife crime, one offender at a time!
I was delighted to see that, following the coverage by Sam Vadas of Reuters, the story of Gu Xuan (Beijing’s “anti-poacher”) has been covered by The Guardian with an excellent, and moving, 10-minute film by Sean Gallagher. Some revealing footage showing the birds, the poachers, the illegal markets and the police. It’s essential viewing for anyone who cares about wild birds.
As Xuan says, education is critical, and I am convinced that, thanks to his tireless efforts and the actions and influence of the growing birding community in China, the tide will change.
Illegal hunting is a major threat to wild birds in most parts of the world. Even in so-called advanced countries, the problem persists. My home country – the UK – is certainly not immune with the continued illegal persecution of raptors to protect commercial shooting interests.
In China, trapping birds both for the cage-bird trade and for food is an activity that, despite tougher laws and greater enforcement, remains a problem. However, increasingly, people – especially young people – are standing up for wildlife. For example, in Beijing during spring and autumn – peak times for bird migration – groups of volunteers go out every day looking for illegal nets and, through liaison with the local police and direct action, are working hard to accelerate the demise of illegal hunting in China’s capital city. A few weeks ago I met with Beijing’s most active anti-poacher – Gu Xuan. Through crowdsourcing he receives a small – and increasingly unsustainable – income that just about allows him to be a full-time bird protector. Before our meeting, I thought I had a reasonably good understanding of poaching in Beijing but what he told me – both the scale of the illegal activity and the prices of some cage birds – shocked me. He agreed to answer a few questions and, with his permission, I have reproduced his answers below.
Although the scale of the problem and the way many migratory birds suffer, may be heartbreaking, it is heartening to hear about the dedication of young people such as Xuan and the progress he and his fellow volunteers are making against incredible odds. They deserve the respect and support of wildlife lovers the world over.
Beijing may be just one battleground in the war against illegal hunting in China but I strongly believe that if attitudes can be changed here, it will have a knock-on effect across the whole country.
Interview with Gu Xuan
1. Please tell me about yourself – how old are you? Where are you from? What is your background?
My name is Gu Xuan. I also have a Spanish name – Silva. I was born into a normal family in a small village called Bakou in the northwest of Beijing. I am 29 years old.
Before I began to protect wild birds, I used to teach life skills to orphaned children, for example, showing them how to take care of themselves and teaching blind children how to use a cane to navigate.
2. For how long have you been tackling poaching of wild birds in Beijing?
I began this work in December 2015, so it’s now three years.
3. What motivates you to do this work?
Ever since I was a little boy, I have had a desire to be with mother nature and the animals, to watch them and spend time with them. One day I took home a stray dog; I could feel the energy, the connection between us and with mother nature, and this experience showed me my future. When I was offered the chance to work on this bird protection project, I knew 100% for sure this was my duty and my dream to fight for nature. I don’t think I need any other motivation. This is the way I see and feel the world.
4. What is the scale of poaching in Beijing? E.g how many birds do you think are caught each year? Is it getting better or worse?
When I began three years ago, it was a very bad situation. Even though this is the capital of my country, the need to do this work is very pressing.
Due to old traditions, there are a lot of local people who like to cage birds to watch them and listen to their sound. So, in order to satisfy this demand, many people set nets during the migration season to catch wild birds. We find very large numbers of illegal nets in the Beijing area. And it is not only for the cage-bird trade. We have often found people catching birds for food.
Nowadays, three years on, the areas where I patrol are a little better but we can always find new places with illegal nets. The overall situation is out of my control and I cant tell the full scale, but i think it’s bad.
5. Who are the poachers? What’s their profile? Are they old or young, men or women?
The majority of poachers are unemployed men between 40-60 years old. However, we do find a few young people and women.
6. Why are they catching wild birds? For the cagebird trade or for food or both? These aren’t hungry people, right? Not for survival?
Some are rich and some poor but they all have a good life and do not need to eat wildlife to live.
7. Who are the buyers of the birds for the cagebird trade?
At the market, many local people from many different backgrounds buy the wild birds.
8. Which species are the poachers particularly targeting and why?
The most popular cage birds are the Bluethroat, Siberian Rubythroat, Eurasian Siskin, Yellow-bellied, Marsh and Coal Tits, Yellow-breasted Bunting, white-eyes and larks. A pristine male Siberian Rubythroat can sell for as much as 200,000 CNY (GBP 22,000) but most will change hands for a few hundred or few thousand CNY, depending on species and condition.
9. What if they catch other species such as buntings, shrikes, pipits?
If they catch birds not on their target list, for example a Brown Shrike, an Olive-backed Pipit or a warbler, some poachers will release them but others will take them for food.
10. Which areas are the worst in Beijing?
Some places are particularly bad, such as Tongzhou, Chaoyang, Mentougou, Haidian and Fengtai.
11. What is the attitude of the police?
At the very beginning, the police did not care too much. They would not allow us to see their work and they were afraid that someone will blame them. However, in the last three years, I can see a real change in their attitude and action. Now they respond quickly and efficiently when we report illegal nets and will do their best to catch the poachers.
12. What are the penalties if the police catch poachers?
We have the Wildlife Protection Law, and poachers will be punished according to the law. Usually a fine or, if the offence is serious involving a large number of birds, they may receive a custodial sentence.
13. What do you think needs to be done to bring an end to the poaching?
I think if we want to end poaching, there are a number of things that must happen:
Police must strictly implement the law
We, as volunteers, must patrol frequently
We must raise awareness among the local population about the amazing birds we have in Beijing, the effect of poaching on these wild birds and how people can help through discouraging the keeping of cage birds and discouraging eating wild birds
We need to work together and we need more volunteers!
14. What can people do to help?
Obviously, we need money to carry on our frontline action. We need to be able to support full-time volunteers. I have many ideas to protect the birds but I can’t end poaching by myself. I hope people will join us if they have time and chance. Anyone who comes out with us will feel the energy on the front line. Then, spread this energy to your family, your friends and your social media (Wechat) groups. We need your help!
15. Anything else you want to say?
The persecution of wild birds is like other wild animals. In order to satisfy their own needs, in order to satisfy a moment of happiness, in order to make more money, some people harm animals and destroy them. The habitat that protects this magical life also protects ourselves because we live together on this beautiful planet. Everyone has a responsibility!
I was struck by Xuan’s passion and dedication for saving wild birds. He told me that, in peak migration season, he rises around 3 or 4am every day in order to be on site at dawn when the poachers are most active. He invited me to join him for a day next spring, an invitation I was only too pleased to accept. I very much hope others will join him to accelerate the demise of illegal poaching in Beijing.
EDIT: Gu Xuan’s story has since been covered by Reuters and The Guardian, helping to spread the word about his heroic efforts in Beijing.
As birders well know, September is a peak time for autumn migration. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that millions of birds must pass over Beijing, most undetected as we sleep, from their breeding grounds in the vast forests and tundra of Siberia to wintering grounds in China, SE Asia and some as far away as Australia and New Zealand. As well as being an exciting time for birders (as can be seen from the Latest Sightings page), this is also a time of peak activity for poachers – those who wish to capture these miracles of nature and put them into cages.
Last weekend Marie and I found an illegal mist net on the local patch. The poacher was almost certainly targeting Siberian Rubythroats and Bluethroats, birds that command a decent price (CNY 200-300 each, GBP 20-30) in the now mostly underground bird markets scattered around the capital. Petrified we’d call the police, he willingly helped us release the birds in the net and freed those he had already caught and bagged, before making a run for it as we destroyed the nets and poles.
We called the police in any case and sent them the photos before publishing the images on Chinese social media. Just an hour or so later, a journalist from the Beijing Evening News (one of Beijing’s most popular newspapers) called and asked some questions before writing an article about the incident. The link was published on the popular social media platform – WeChat – and was soon picked up by the Shunyi Forestry Police, who subsequently issued this public notice.
For those of you who don’t read Chinese, the notice refers to a British “bird protection volunteer” who found some illegal nets, dismantled them and reported the incident to the police. It then warns poachers that the police will increase their patrols in the area, requests that anyone who sees illegal nets to call the police and commits to increasing education and awareness about wild bird protection.
That’s a pretty good result and shows how attitudes are changing, both among the media and with the law enforcement authorities. When I arrived in China seven years ago there was little chance the police would have responded to reports of people catching wild birds. Now they act positively and swiftly. And whilst this is Beijing, and other parts of China almost certainly lag behind, it’s nevertheless another good sign for China and bird conservation. Well done, Shunyi Forestry Police!
After the success of the 1st China International Birding Festival, it was with some sadness that I received a call from the Dalian Lushun Wild Bird Protection Association on Thursday evening. Volunteers had been out that day and found more than 800 metres of illegal mist nets at Laotieshan, the site of the festival. They sent me these shocking images.
The group’s leader explained that, when the festival was in progress, the poachers had lain low, knowing that the discovery of mist nets during the event would have embarrassed the local government and almost certainly led to severe punishment. However, now, with the spotlight turned away, the poachers were back in force. Apparently 7-8 poachers regularly haunt the Laotieshan area and every autumn there is a running battle between the criminals and the local wild bird society, Laotieshan nature reserve staff and forestry police.
One piece of good news is that the local bird group has been engaging with the poachers to try to persuade them away from catching birds to becoming bird protectors. One of them has already given up his nets and is now paid a small amount to look for, and take down, illegal nets. Discussions with a second poacher are ongoing.
As is well-known, poachers make the best gamekeepers, so I have my fingers crossed that they are successful. Whatever the result, it’s important to highlight the brilliant work of the Dalian Lushun Wild Bird Protection Group. Heroes.
With autumn migration in full swing, poachers are out in force trying to trap species such as the Siberian Rubythroat or Bluethroat for the cage bird trade. Encouragingly, the local police are acting fast and doing what they can to stop them!
When I moved to the Shunyi District of Beijing this Spring, I was lucky enough to find, very close to my apartment block, an area of scrub. Scrub, as any birder will tell you, attracts birds and, during spring and autumn migration in Beijing, a LOT of birds. Since early May I have recorded exactly 70 species in this little wild patch on the outskirts of one of the most populous capital cities in the world. Right now it hosts Siberian Rubythroats, Thick-billed, Lanceolated, Pallas’s Grasshopper, Dusky and Yellow-browed Warblers, Stonechats and Brown Shrikes.
It is perhaps not a surprise that the area has also attracted the attention of poachers who illegally trap birds for the cage bird trade. The last few days – peak migration season for some of the most sought-after species, such as Siberian Rubythroat and Bluethroat – has seen the beginning of a battle… between me, the birder (and good guy, obviously), and the poachers (the bad guys).
Here are the events of the last few days:
First, three days ago, I discovered about 150m of mist nets with a MP3 player blaring out the song of Siberian Rubythroat. In fact it was the song – which I assumed was coming from a wild bird, unusually singing in autumn – that first drew me to the precise spot. As I climbed over a heavily weeded mound, there they were – mist nets, very carefully and professionally set up.
At this point I couldn’t see anyone, although I suspected the poacher was nearby. Without thinking, I immediately started to dismantle the nets, ripping them so they would be rendered useless and snapping the bamboo poles and chords.. After a few minutes the poacher appeared and shouted at me to leave the nets and to go. I think he knew by the look in my eye and the expression on my face, that wasn’t going to happen. I grabbed my camera and, despite him becoming incredibly camera-shy, I took a photo of him before continuing to dismantle the nets. I told him that he was breaking the law and that I would call the police. He suddenly became very cooperative, offered me a cigarette (refused) and even started to help me take down the nets. After about 10-15 minutes I had destroyed all of the nets and poles. I made it clear that if I saw him again, I would send his photo to the police.
The next morning, I was on site at first light to check the area. There were no nets and no poacher. I began to check the vicinity and immediately found a mist net, not far from the scene of the encounter the day before and, I suspect, abandoned by the same poacher. There were 6 birds caught up, their struggles to free themselves only causing them to become more entangled. There were 2 Siberian Rubythroats, a Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, 2 Stonechats and a Richard’s Pipit. My first priority was to release the birds and it took me 30 minutes of careful and concentrated effort to free them all. One of the Rubythroats was particularly weak but, after resting on the ground for a few minutes, managed to fly into the scrub. One of the Stonechats had a wounded leg but nevertheless was able to fly strongly. The Richard’s Pipit flew up high, uttering it’s familiar “shreep” call before heading strongly southeast – a wonderful sight to see. The Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, as anyone who has seen one will be familiar with, darted into deep cover never to be seen again. After dismantling the net and breaking the poles and chords, I searched the rest of the area before heading home for breakfast.
Fast forward to this morning. I was due to have a Chinese lesson at 0900, which would mean leaving my apartment at around 0800. Before heading out, I decided to spend an hour or so on the roof of my apartment block to see whether there was any visible migration after the overnight rain. With a few Richard’s Pipits and Yellow Wagtails moving, there were enough birds to hold my interest but nothing spectacular. After about half an hour I realised that the height of the roof provided a great vantage point from which to scan the whole area for mist nets. It wasn’t long before I could see about 300m of mist nets with four guys standing around and occasionally retrieving unfortunate birds as they flew into the invisible traps. My heart sank. A friend had provided me with the number of the local police and, after calling them, I was surprised and delighted with their response – they would come immediately! My directions were not perfect (my Chinese is still not of a sufficient standard) so they asked me to meet them there to show them the spot. I cycled and waited by the roadside, the poachers and nets out of sight the other side of a wall adjacent to the road. It wasn’t long before one of the poachers appeared from behind the wall to fetch some water from his car.. As he walked past me, he looked at me suspiciously as I desperately tried to pretend (unsuccessfully, I think!) that the reason for me being there was that I had a problem with my bike..! A few minutes later, two of the poachers emerged and drove away… I suspected that they realised something was afoot. Just a few seconds later the police arrived… but on climbing through the hole in the wall, the poachers were now nowhere to be seen – they had almost certainly been spooked and, as two of the poachers drove their cars to the other side of the scrubby area, another had taken out all of the birds and the poachers’ belongings via another entrance (the movement of cars seemed to suggest this). Nevertheless, the police and I took down and destroyed all of the nets and the police took copies of the photos of the poachers’ vehicles I had taken with my iPhone. Although the police must catch the poachers red-handed if they are to secure a prosecution, the evidence helps to build up a supporting case.
So, although the poachers got away this morning, I feel hugely encouraged. The Shunyi police were superb. They responded quickly (on site within half an hour), they were supportive and the chief officer even gave me his personal mobile phone number and said to call him straight away if I find more nets or poachers. I suspect the poachers were given a good scare, too, and I would be surprised if they returned to this area. This was a model response by the police and they should be congratulated for taking wildlife crime seriously. I will certainly be saying lots of good things about them on Chinese social media.
If further motivation was needed to stamp out this cruel practice, I was shocked to find the head of a Dusky Warbler underneath one of the nets. The Dusky Warbler is insectivorous and is not a beautiful singer. It is “by-catch” for the poachers who are targeting Siberian Rubythroats and Bluethroats. To see the way they trapped, killed and discarded this tiny bird, on its already hazardous migration from Siberia to southern China, was heartbreaking. However, it makes me more determined to stand up for wild birds.
The Battle of Shunyi rages but, with the police onside and the poachers on the run, it’s only a matter of time before the good guys win!
Thanks to the tremendous work of some dedicated individuals and the support from the local community and the authorities, 13 ORIENTAL STORKS were successfully released yesterday at Beidagang, Tianjin.
Last night I had the pleasure to meet some of the volunteers involved after my lecture to the Beijing Birdwatching Society and I was so inspired by their passion and dedication to saving their wild birds. They are a wonderful example of how community action can make a difference and provide real hope for the future. However, it is important not to get carried away with one small success and, as if to illustrate that point, during my conversation with one of the volunteers, she received a phone call to say to that a single ORIENTAL STORK had been found dead, suspected by poisoning, near Happy Island, Tangshan, Hebei Province. A sobering reminder that the events at Beidagang, although resulting in a happy ending on this occasion, represented just one small battle in the war against the illegal persecution of birds in China.
You can see some of the photographs from the release here.
The volunteers I spoke to were overwhelmed by the support from all over the world as expressed on the Chinese Currents website. A big thank you to everyone who took the time to comment.