Yancheng planning to become a world-leader on coastal wetland conservation

Just three years ago, Taozini, the recently-discovered and most important known staging site for the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, was under grave threat from land reclamation projects. At that time, already around 70% of the Yellow Sea’s intertidal mudflats had been lost and much of the remaining 30% was under threat of a similar fate.

It is astonishing, and illustrative of how fast things can change, that today it is a World Heritage Site (WHS) with hard commitments for protection and management.

Readers of Birding Beijing will know it was on 5 July that saw Phase I of China’s two-phase, serial nomination “Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of Yellow Sea/Bohai Gulf of China” inscribed on the list of natural World Heritage Sites in recognition of its critical importance to migratory waterbirds. The Phase I inscription comprises Jiangsu Dafeng National Nature Reserve (NNR), the experimental zone of Jiangsu Yancheng NNR including Dongsha Radial Sands, Jiangsu Yancheng Tiaozini Wetland Park, Jiangsu Dongtai Gaoni Wetland Nature Reserve Plots and Jiangsu Dongtai Tiaozini Wetland Nature Reserve Plots.  At least 14 additional sites will be included in the Phase II nomination, scheduled for 2022.

Last weekend I participated in the 2019 Yellow and Bohai Sea Wetlands International Conference: Natural World Heritage, Conservation, Management and Sustainable Development to celebrate the inscription of this special part of the coast as a WHS and to help develop ambitious plans for management and public engagement.

Terry making the case for Yancheng to become the “mission control” for tracking shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway as a way of engaging the public, especially schools, about the wonders of migratory birds and the importance of China’s coastal wetlands.

The thing that struck me most was the language and tone of the senior officials, including the Mayor of Yancheng and representatives of the national and local Forestry and Grassland Bureau, who spoke clearly and passionately about the importance of protecting coastal wetlands in line with President Xi’s “ecological civilisation” and “beautiful China”. This kind of language would have been unthinkable from such officials three years ago.

The commitment of the local government was illustrated by the lengths to which they had gone to secure the participation of international experts in the fields of science, policy, management and communications. There is no doubt they are serious about making Yancheng, including Taozini, a world-class natural World Heritage Site and to become a leader in coastal wetland conservation.

Chinese and international experts gather to celebrate the inscription of Phase I of China’s serial World Heritage Site and to develop plans for effective protection, management, research and outreach.

Whilst there is a long way to go to secure the long-term future of these coastal wetlands and many challenges to overcome, it is important to acknowledge this progress. And it is testament to the scientists, especially Professor Theunis Piersma and his team of Chinese and international scientists, who have provided robust evidence about just how important these coastal wetlands are for migratory waterbirds, to the local birders, including Zhang Lin and the local NGO Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China led by Li Jing, who first discovered the importance of Taozini for the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, to the academics and policy makers in China, especially those led by Professor Lei Guangchun at Beijing Forestry University, who have been building and promoting the case for coastal wetland protection, to the Paulson Institute who developed a hard-nosed economic analysis of the value of coastal wetlands, to the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership for promoting cooperation along the Flyway, to the international conservation community, including BirdLife International, offering support and expertise along the way. And most importantly, to all the individuals who have supported and provided encouragement to all of the above. To get this far has been a remarkable national, international and multi-disciplinary team effort that has changed the fate of the most threatened Flyway in the world.

Seeing the huge sign at the header of this post towering over the main road to the coast, somehow made it feel real.

China launches new science unit to support the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership

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.

The official signing ceremony with the EAAFP Secretariat and Beijing Forestry University to establish the EAAFP Science Unit (CEAAF).

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.

Valuing Wetlands in China

At first glance, coastal mudflats can seem grim and desolate places with little obvious economic value.  It is therefore not surprising that these areas have often been considered by planners, and the public, to be suitable for reclamation projects and development.

Over the past 50 years in China, 60% of temperate coastal ecosystems, 73% of mangroves and 80% of coral reefs have been lost mostly due to economic development. Only 24% of coastal wetlands have been legally designated as protected areas, much lower than the mean wetland protection rate of 43.5% across China, and coastal wetlands in China’s most economically developed provinces/municipalities – such as Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Tianjin, and Shandong – are hot targets for development projects.

This rapid development has not come without costs. Thanks to studies such as the Blueprint for Coastal Wetlands in China, we now know that many of the decisions to develop these coastal areas have neglected the significant benefits of wetlands – so called ecosystem services – including helping to prevent and mitigate flooding and storm surges, regulating climate change by storing carbon, purifying water and providing sustainable livelihoods for local people, as well as providing invaluable habitat for millions of migratory shorebirds as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere.  Such ‘natural capital’ is not reflected on most countries’ balance sheets but, nevertheless, its erosion undermines the ability to achieve sustainable economic growth.

One of the six recommendations contained in the Blueprint was the need to carry out publicity and education activities about wetland conservation, raising awareness and involving the public in protecting coastal wetlands and migratory birds.

That is why, this week, the Wetland Conservation and Management Office of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration in partnership with the Paulson Institute, the Lao Niu Foundation and the Mangrove Conservation Foundation, launched a new project to set up Wetland Education Centres across China.

The project, due to run for three years, will draw on national and international best practice, including from Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong, Guandu Nature Reserve in Taiwan and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Singapore as well as wetlands in Japan, Korea and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserves in the UK.

The objectives are to establish:

  • A standard system for wetland education centres in China
  • Three to five demonstration wetland education centres within three years
  • A professional network for wetland education centres in China and to provide support for the establishment and development of further wetland education centres

This project will help build and strengthen public awareness about the value of China’s remaining coastal wetlands and underpins the recent announcement by the Chinese government to ban all further commercial land reclamation along the coast.

Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University delivered a comprehensive overview of wetlands in China and it was great to see Chris Rostron of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) addressing the meeting to relay some of their experience in bringing wetland education to the public.

It’s heartening to see China’s top level policy announcements being backed up by the less high-profile but arguably more important, initiatives on the ground to raise awareness about the value of wetlands and the need to protect them.

And it’s not only in China that the value of wetlands is being recognised.  At the end of August, the government in Sri Lanka approved recommendations to protect and restore the urban wetlands of the capital, Colombo, after a study by The World Bank and WWT Consulting showed that benefits included:

  • Flood damage mitigation (without the wetlands, it was modelled that a 1 in 100 years flooding event could happen every year)
  • The wetlands provided cooling for the city of up to 5 degrees Celsius in the summer
  • Providing a home for >250 species of wildlife, including the endangered Fishing Cat
  • Air and water pollution mitigation
  • Food security for the urban poor
  • Places for recreation, education and tourism
  • Carbon sequestration

In total, these benefits were calculated to be worth 8.8 million RS (GBP 41,500, USD 54,000, CNY 370,000) per hectare per year.

On 28 August the Sri Lankan cabinet approved the recommendations and will designate the remaining wetlands as protected areas as well as setting up a dedicated management body to ensure they are managed effectively.  What a great example!

 

 

 

Summit for the Flyways: Progress in China

As I write this, we’re beginning day two of the Summit for the Flyways in Abu Dhabi and, although there will be a formal outcome statement at the end of day three, I wanted to emphasise what, for me, was the highlight of day one – the outline of progress in China presented by Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University.

Readers of Birding Beijing will have heard about some of the recent progress, including the ban on land reclamation and the government reorganisation that puts all protected areas under one agency.  However, it’s one thing to hear about changes from an enthusiastic and optimistic foreigner but quite another to hear about it directly from a Chinese academic.

The key slide is below.

For clarity, the text reads:

National Policy Change
1. All Reclamation Projects Suspended
2. Zero Loss of Nature Wetlands
3. Wetland Conservation and Restoration Order
4. Leadership Accountability for Wetland Loss
5. Nomination of World Heritage Sites

New Ministry
Ministry of Natural Resources
State Administration for Forestry and Grassland
National Park Administration

It’s hard to overestimate the significance, and pace, of these changes, all aligned with Xi Jinping’s vision of “ecological civilisation” as set out in the manifesto for his second term presented last year.  And whilst implementation is, of course, the real test, putting in place the right policies is a fundamental first step.  With China hosting the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2020, the time when new targets for conserving and celebrating nature are due to be designed, this vast country with unique natural heritage is seemingly getting its house in order and setting an example.