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.
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.
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.
Only three years ago there were fears that China’s east coast could become an epicentre of extinction, such was the rate and extent of loss of intertidal mudflats, vital to millions of migratory shorebirds including many species whose populations are in sharp decline. However, in the last three years things have moved fast, even by China standards, and the emotions of shorebird researchers and conservationists have swung from depression and despair to hope and celebration.
In early July 2019, the future of migratory shorebirds in Asia and Australasia became a little more secure due to the addition by the United Nations of two of the most important locations – Taozini and Yancheng – onto the list of World Heritage sites. Whilst not a silver bullet for saving these migratory shorebirds, shared by at least 22 countries in East Asia and Australasia, it’s a big step forward and reflects significant recent progress by China on a range of conservation issues.
The Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay are at the heart of one of the world’s largest, and most threatened, flyways known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), a bird ‘superhighway’ that connects the Arctic with the southern hemisphere. Millions of shorebirds rely on the intertidal mudflats of China’s coast as a ‘service station’ to refuel and rest on their incredible journeys from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle to non-breeding grounds as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Their journeys, which scientists have only recently begun to understand, are stories of life on the edge; incredible endurance, specialism, beauty and awe. Just one example is the ‘baueri‘ Bar-tailed Godwit that migrates from New Zealand to Alaska via the Yellow Sea to breed, before flying non-stop from Alaska back to New Zealand after the breeding season. In the last ten years it has become clear that the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper relies on the Yellow Sea in both spring and autumn for food, rest and moulting.
One of the most effective ways to secure protection for the remaining intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea coast would be to secure nomination as World Heritage sites. This would not only require detailed evaluations and management plans but would also help promote the importance of the area both nationally and internationally. At the same time, inscription as World Heritage site would come with hard protection obligations.
And so the process, and all the hard work that comes with such a complex nomination, including liaison between the local and national governments, academics, NGOs and China’s World Heritage team, began.
As a first step, in February 2017 a total of 14 sites were added to China’s “tentative” list for World Heritage status, a pre-requisite to a formal nomination. The early efforts were given a significant boost in January 2018 when the State Oceanic Administration announced a ban on further ‘commercial-related’ land reclamation along its coast. This was reinforced by a circular from the State Council (China’s Cabinet) in July of that year. Momentum was building.
The process of securing nomination as a World Heritage site is not easy. Vast amounts of technical data are required and the nomination must address detailed questions about why the sites are important, how the sites will be protected and managed, as well as addressing the interests of various stakeholders. As a complex ‘serial’ nomination, involving more than one site, the process was even more demanding.
Eventually, after much work and collaboration, the formal nomination documents were submitted. The next part of the process for ‘natural heritage’ sites is for the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to conduct a technical review of the submission in order to make a recommendation to governments on the World Heritage Committee, the body that approves nominations.
In this case, the IUCN recommended deferral of the Yellow Sea application, pointing out some weaknesses in the application.
Whilst the IUCN report was unquestionably thorough and correct in its assessment, the recommendation to defer was greeted with gasps of horror from the conservation community in China and overseas. The reality was that, should the application be deferred, there were so many other sites in China on the waiting list for World Heritage nomination that it could be years before the Yellow Sea sites could be put forward again and, such was the urgency of the conservation issue related to this nomination, there simply wasn’t time. The Chinese team, supported by an incredible effort from the international conservation NGOs, orchestrated by BirdLife International, quickly put together a business case as to why, in this case, the global importance and urgency of the nomination was such that the recommendation from IUCN should be noted but that the sites should be inscribed in any case. The Australian government, encouraged by BirdLife Australia, put forward a motion to this effect.
In early July, the World Heritage Committee met in Baku, Azerbaijan, to decide whether to accept the latest series of nominations for World Heritage status from all over the world. The conservation community held its breath.
On 5 July, it was the turn of China’s Yellow Sea nomination to be discussed. The proceedings can be seen here but the most relevant part of the World Heritage Congress’s decision is simply this:
“The World Heritage Committee, Having examined Documents WHC/19/43.COM/8B and WHC/19/43.COM/INF.8B2,
Inscribes the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf of China (Phase I), China, on the World Heritage List on the basis of criterion (x);”
In short, the nomination was accepted subject to China complying with certain conditions to address the weaknesses outlined in the IUCN technical report. An excellent and sensible resolution. I think it’s fair to say that the conservation community breathed a huge collective sigh of relief.
As referenced by the official decision, this is just the beginning involving two of the most important sites. By 2020, phase II will be prepared, under which additional sites are expected to be added to this ‘serial’ World Heritage Site and, ideally, given the Yellow Sea region is shared by China, the Republic of Korea (RoK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a joint three-way World Heritage Site would better reflect the shared natural heritage of this area and would illustrate the importance of countries working together to conserve migratory birds.
There is still an enormous amount of work to do to secure the future of migratory shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. However, it is hard to overstate the change from three years ago.
So, for now, big congratulations to China and to everyone who has worked so hard to support the nomination, including the scientists and think-tanks who have proven the importance of the Yellow Sea to migratory birds and the economic value of coastal wetlands, to the national and local governments for creating an enabling policy framework, to academics, domestic NGOs and conservationists for the advocacy and technical support for the nomination, to international NGOs for rallying international support and to every individual who has expressed support, providing day to day encouragement to everyone working on this issue… today, you are all conservation heroes!
The depression and despair has turned into genuine hope.
Every year millions of shorebirds migrate from the southern hemisphere, many from as far as Australia and New Zealand, to the Arctic to breed and back again. Nearly all are dependent on the food-rich intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion (the east coast of China and the west coasts of North and South Korea) as stopover sites during these epic journeys, as can be seen in this visualisation of migration patterns.
It’s worth taking a moment to try to comprehend the endurance and resilience required by these birds, many of which are small enough to fit in the palm of a human hand. One population of BAR-TAILED GODWIT (Limosa lapponica) winters in New Zealand and flies, via the Yellow Sea, to Alaska and then, after raising its young, makes an 11,000 km nonstop return journey. The energy requirement for this flight is equivalent to that of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more than seven days. Along the way, these birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain before they set off, and they even shrink their digestive organs.
Sadly, the number of Bar-tailed Godwits successfully reaching New Zealand each autumn has more than halved, from around 155,000 in the mid-1990s to just 70,000 today. The Bar-tailed Godwit is just one of more than 30 species of shorebird that relies on the tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion. The populations of most are in sharp decline, none more so than the charismatic but ‘Critically Endangered’ SPOON-BILLED SANDPIPER (Calidris pygmaea).
So, what is the reason for the decline? Scientists, including Prof Theunis Piersma and his team, have uncovered evidence for what many birders and conservationists have long suspected – that a major cause of the decline is the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea. They’ve shown that birds using the Yellow Sea twice per year – for their spring and autumn migrations – are declining at a faster rate than those using the Yellow Sea only once. It’s a ‘smoking gun’.
Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat. If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.
However, in January, the Chinese government announced that it will halt all ‘business-related’ land reclamation along its coast. This is a massive boost to the tens of millions of migratory shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway (EAAF) that depend on the intertidal mudflats of China’s east coast, including species on the brink of extinction, such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea) and the ‘Endangered’ Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris).
Two English-language articles reporting the change in policy were published in the Chinese media – one on Xinhua, China’s largest news agency, and one in The China Daily. Significantly, the latter was posted on the website of the State Council, China’s ‘Cabinet’, indicating the high level of support for the new policy.
The articles reported on a 17 January 2018 press conference held by Lin Shanqing, Deputy Director of the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). Lin outlined several elements of the new policy:
First, the government plans to “nationalise reclaimed land with no structures built on it and will halt reclamation projects that have yet to be opened and are against national policies.”
Second, all structures built on illegally reclaimed land and that have “seriously damaged the marine environment” will be demolished.
Third, “the central government will stop approving property development plans based on land reclamation and will prohibit all reclamation activities unless they pertain to national key infrastructure, public welfare or national defence”.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly in terms of the future of China’s east coast, “local authorities will no longer have the power to approve reclamation projects”.
Gu Wu, head of SOA’s National Marine Inspection Office, said that
“in the past, land reclamation, to a certain extent, helped to boost economic development by mitigating the land shortage in coastal regions and providing space for public infrastructure and industry parks. However, illegal and irregular reclamation activities caused a number of problems to marine ecosystems and lawful businesses”and that“those effects have become a major public concern, so the administration decided that reclamation would be closely looked at in its annual inspection last year.”
The press conference on January 17th was preceded by two media articles criticising coastal provinces for their mismanagement of land reclamation projects, revealed by SOA’s 2017 inspections. Hebei Province (home to well-known birding sites such as Beidaihe, Nanpu and Happy Island) was admonished because “tourism, aquaculture and shipbuilding had all been allowed in a national nature reserve in Changli County.”
And Jiangsu (home to Rudong and Taozini) and Liaoning (home to Dandong and Dalian) were subject to finger-pointing in this article.
In Jiangsu Province:
“a total of 14 projects, involving 81.29 hectares of reclaimed land”, had been wrongly approved since 2012;
A large amount of reclaimed land remain deserted, with only 21.28 percent of reclaimed land actually developed;
Developers of 184 land reclamation projects had not obtained government approval before they started building their projects; and
The province was failing to effectively protect nature reserves. Fish farming had been operating in about 9,955 hectares of sea waters around a national wetland reserve in Jiangsu, where such commercial operations should have been banned.
And in Liaoning Province, the SOA found that:
The provincial government was failing to effectively supervise land reclamation projects and control pollutants from being discharged into the sea;
Although the provincial government fined polluters and violators of reclamation regulations, more than half of the fines had not been collected;
Among 211 waste water drains into the sea registered by the provincial environment authorities, 68 were not approved through legal procedure and some of the drains have not been carefully monitored.
SOA’s announcement of the new policy on land reclamation came as something of a (very welcome) surprise to the conservation community. However, those with experience of working in China will know that policy development often works in this way.. the process of policy formulation is opaque and when a new policy is announced it is not uncommon for the announcement to be the first information to emerge from the government that a policy review is taking place.
Of course, announcing a new policy is one thing; implementation is another. China’s record on implementing environmental regulations is not the best, as can be seen in the violations of existing regulations in Hebei, Liaoning and Jiangsu. It remains to be seen whether this policy will be enforced with the rigour required to ensure the integrity of the remaining intertidal mudflats. Nevertheless, at this stage, there is no reason to think that implementation will not happen. In fact, I am optimistic; the new policy is consistent with President Xi’s focus on building an ecological civilisation, as he emphasised at the 19th Communist Party Congress and it is in line with the recent strengthening of environmental regulations, including the Environmental Protection Law.
Halting land reclamation along China’s coast is a necessary but not sufficient step to slow the decline in populations of shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway. The priority will now be to ensure protection for, and effective management of, the key sites for migratory shorebirds. This is what organisations such as the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute and local NGOs will be focusing on over the next months and years.
Transforming the fortunes of the world’s most threatened flyway will only be possible if there is cooperation between all of the countries along the route – from Russia in the north to Australia and New Zealand in the south. China’s role in the East Asian Australasian Flyway is key and could set an example for countries hosting the world’s other major flyways, including the Atlantic and Pacific Flyways which also face threats, such as pollution and habitat loss associated with the drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
While there is a huge amount still to do to ensure the future of migratory shorebirds in East Asia, China’s announcement could be the turning point for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the many other species dependent on the intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea coast. At this stage, it would be churlish to say anything other than “Well done, China”!
Note: This article was edited on 23 January 2018 and 9 February 2018 to add further information.
Protecting the Yellow Sea is the highest conservation priority in East Asia. Coastal wetlands in China are facing massive pressure from economic development and, over the past 50 years, the country has lost more than 60 percent of its natural coastal wetlands.
As readers of this website will know from articles here, here and here, there has been a huge national and international effort to try to conserve what remains of the incredibly rich intertidal mudflats on which millions of shorebirds, including the charismatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper, depend.
Earlier this year, there was a big, and symbolic, step forward when the Chinese government announced that a total of fourteen sites 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.
Just a few months later, in mid-June, came another step forward. 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.
Under the terms of the MoU, the four parties will work closely to conserve and manage the site, and will establish a provincial nature reserve (PNR) at Nanpu wetland within the 12 months.
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 Nanpu Wetland 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 22 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.
According to the MoU, The Paulson Institute and WWF will provide best domestic and international nature reserve construction and management practices in the process of planning, approving, building, and managing Nanpu Wetland Nature Reserve, so as to build, protect and manage it in an effective and efficient manner.
Let’s hope this initiative is the first of many and that more Provincial and local governments along the Yellow Sea coast will follow this example and work to protect the remaining intertidal mudflats in their regions. There is no doubt that the Yellow Sea is a jewel in the crown of China’s environmental and ecological heritage and it has 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.
Finally, if you would like to experience the astonishing Yellow Sea migration for yourself, contribute to the conservation effort and you’re free this November, you’re in luck! One of the most hard-working and impressive domestic organisations working to protect the Yellow Sea intertidal mudflats – local NGO, Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBS in China) – is running the second of its special birding tours to the Yellow Sea coast this autumn. Showcasing the global importance of this coastline, the tour will focus on some of the most endangered and unique birds of the region, including Spoonie. It will be led by some of China’s finest young conservationists and bird guides and 10 per cent of the participation fee will go directly to support local conservation NGOs in China. Background about the first trip, this spring, can be found here. And here’s a summary of the November trip:
Dates: November 2 to November 17 (16 days)
Sites: Shanghai, Jiangsu coast, Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces, Poyang Lake Nature Reserve, Dongzhai Nature Reserve, Yancheng Nature Reserve.
Yellow Sea coast: Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Red Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Saunders’s Gull, Relict Gull, Black- faced Spoonbill, Reed Parrotbill and over 200 migratory shorebirds and forest birds.
Wuyuan: Scaly-sided Merganser, Scimitar Babblers, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Dusky Fulvetta, Chinese Bamboo Partridge, and other forest birds including Pied Falconet, Red-billed Leiothrix, Red-billed Starling, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Chestnut Bulbul, Grey-headed Parrotbill etc.
Poyang Lake NR: Siberian Crane, Baer’s Pochard and Geese of all kinds
Dongzhai NR: Reeves’s Pheasant and the reintroduced Crested Ibis.
Yancheng NR: Red-crowned Crane, Japanese Reed Bunting and Baikal Teal
The tour will be led by China Coastal Waterbird Census Team surveyors who have been working as volunteers for over 10 years.
For more details on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there is a downloadable PDF and, for further questions, you can contact Li Jing, leader of SBS in China, on email@example.com.
I wish I could join!
Cover photo of Spoon-billed Sandpiper by Chen Tengyi, one of the guides for the November Yellow Sea tour.
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?!
Are you free in mid-April, want to experience the world-class migration along the Yellow Sea coast AND support the local conservation effort? If so, keep reading…
A local NGO called Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBSC) is organising a special eleven-day tour for birders to showcase the spectacular migration of the Yellow Sea, connecting with some very special birds, including Spooner, whilst contributing to the effort to preserve this globally important habitat.
For background, the East Asian Australasian Flyway is the greatest flyway on the planet, stretching from the Taimyr Peninsula and Alaska in the north through China, Japan and the Koreas to Australia and New Zealand in the south. In total, the flyway passes through 22 countries and is used by more than 50 migratory species. The Yellow Sea is of vital importance to these birds, comprising a series of stopover sites where they can refuel, rest and moult their flight feathers during these mind-boggling journeys.
As most readers will know, much of the important intertidal mudflats along this stretch of coast have been reclaimed, causing the populations of many shorebirds to decline, most prominently the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Thankfully, there is a large conservation effort dedicated to saving what remains of the intertidal mudflats and, importantly, there are an increasing number of local organisations and NGOs leading this effort. One such organisation is “Spoon-billed Sandpiper in China (SBSC)”, a Jiangsu-based NGO led by the impressive Li Jing. Established in 2008, SBSC focus on conserving the biodiversity along the Jiangsu coast. The team conducts regular waterbird surveys, promotes birding and nature observation activities, introduces people to the unique marine culture and improves conservation awareness among local communities, including schools, fishermen unions and business.
SBSC is a key partner of the China Coastal Waterbird Census Group (CCWCG). The Census Group was established in 2005, training birdwatchers in bird identification and counting methods. Surveys have been conducted by volunteers every month since September 2005, and it is widely recognised as the most successful example of citizen science in China.
To help promote the area to international birders and raise money to support the conservation effort, Li Jing and her colleagues have arranged a special tour for birders this April. Running from 11-21 April, the tour will start and finish in Shanghai and will take in Rudong, the most important site in the world for Spooner, as well as a day’s pelagic trip and visits to nearby sites in Wuyuan, Nanjing hills and Huangshan. The mouthwatering list of species likely to be encountered includes Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Asian Dowitcher, Little Curlew, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Saunders’s Gull, Black-faced Spoonbill, Reed Parrotbill, Blue-crowned Laughingthrush, Masked Laughingthrush, Hwamei, Grey-sided Scimitar Babbler, Short-tailed Parrotbill, Dusky Fulvetta, Chinese Bamboo Partridge and many others including Pied Falconet.
Participants will have the added bonus of being guided by the best – Li Jing, Chen Tengyi, Han Yongxiang and Shanghai’s finest, Zhang Lin. These birders have been surveying this part of the coast for more than 10 years and discovered the importance of Rudong for Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Birders could not be in better hands!
At the time of writing there are 6 places available on the trip and interested birders are invited to contact Li Jing via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
It promises to be a wonderful experience and, as well as seeing some special birds, participants will be helping the local effort to save these globally important sites.
Cover photo of Spoon-billed Sandpiper by Chen Tengyi.
Looking out of my apartment window on the first day of 2017, a blanket of toxic smog seems to drain all colour out of life and the perennial question question pops into my head – why do I live in such a polluted, congested place?
Header image: the view from my apartment at 1200 on 1 January 2017
The answer, of course, is the excitement and adventure of living in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation. And when one considers the positives – the stunning biodiversity, the opportunity for discovery, the potential to make a difference and the wonderful people – the negatives are seen in context and they become far more tolerable.
Looking back, 2016 has been an astonishing year with many highlights, thankfully few lowlights, and progress made in some key conservation issues. Together, they give me a genuine sense of optimism for the future.
January began with the unexpected discovery, by two young Beijing birders, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of a small flock of the “Endangered” Jankowski’s Buntings at Miyun Reservoir. This was the first record of Jankowski’s Bunting in Beijing since 1941 and, given the precipitous decline in the population of this poorly known species, a most unexpected find. The fact they were found by young Chinese is testament to the growing community of talented young birders in Beijing. There are now more than 200 members of the Birding Beijing WeChat group, in which sightings and other bird-related issues are discussed and shared. Huge credit must go to world-class birders such as Paul Holt and Per Alström who have been generous in sharing their knowledge of Chinese birds with the group. As well as the expanding WeChat group, there are now more than 400 members of the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society (up from 300 in the last 12 months). So, although starting from a low baseline, the increasing membership, together with the increase in the number of local birdwatching societies, such as in Zigong in Sichuan, and the development of international birding festivals, such as in Lushun, Dalian, shows that there is the beginning of an upsurge in the number of young people interested in birdwatching. That is a positive sign for the future of China’s rich and unique avifauna.
In tandem with the growth in birding is the emergence of a number of organisations dedicated to environmental education across China. Given the relative lack of environment in the Chinese State Curriculum, there is high demand amongst many parents for their children to develop a connection with nature. I’m fortunate to work with one such organisation – EcoAction – set up and run by dynamic Sichuan lady, Luo Peng. With a birding club for Beijing school kids, a pilot ‘environmental curriculum’ in two of Beijing’s State Schools and bespoke sustainable ecotourism trips to nature reserves for families and schools, Peng deserves great credit for her energy and vision in helping to change the way people interact with the environment. I am looking forward to working with her much more in 2017.
After the boon of seeing Jankowski’s Buntings in Beijing, a lowlight in late January was the desperately sad passing of a much-loved mentor and friend, the inspirational Martin Garner. Martin fought a brave and typically dignified and open, battle with cancer. I feel enormously lucky to have met Martin and to have corresponded with him on many birding-related issues. His wisdom, positivity and selfless outlook on life will be missed for years to come and his influence continues to run through everything I do.
Much of the early part of the spring was spent making the arrangements for what has been, for me, the highlight of the year – The Beijing Cuckoo Project. Following the success of the Beijing Swift Project, the results of which proved for the first time that Swifts from Beijing winter in southern Africa, the obvious next step was to replicate the British Trust for Ornithology’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China. We needed to find Chinese partners, secure the necessary permissions, raise funds to pay for the transmitters and satellite services, and make the logistical arrangements for the visit of “Team Cuckoo”. At the end of May, everything was set and the international team arrived in Beijing. Together with the local team, we caught and fitted transmitters to five Common Cuckoos, subsequently named by Beijing schoolchildren and followed via a dedicated webpage and on social media. We could not have wished for a better result. Three of the five are now in Africa, after making incredible journeys of up to 12,500km since being fitted with their transmitters, including crossing the Arabian Sea. As of 1 January, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi Juan are in Tanzania and Skybomb Bolt is in Mozambique.
This Beijing Cuckoo Project has combined groundbreaking science with public engagement. With articles in Xinhua (China’s largest news agency), Beijing Youth Daily, China Daily, Beijing Science and Technology Daily, India Times, African Times and even the front page of the New York Times, these amazing birds have become, undoubtedly, the most famous cuckoos ever! Add the engagement with schools, not only in Beijing but also in other parts of China, and the reach and impact of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams. I’d like to pay tribute to everyone involved, especially the Chinese partners – the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, China Birdwatching Society and the staff at the tagging locations (Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu) – who have all been brilliant, as well as the BTO’s Andy Clements and Chris Hewson for their vision and sharing of expertise and the sponsors – Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International. Finally, a big thank you to “Team Cuckoo”: Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Geert De Smet, Gie Goris and Rob Jolliffe. You can follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos here. All being well, Flappy, Meng and Skybomb will return to Beijing by the end of May.
In 2017 we are planning to expand the Beijing Cuckoo Project to become the CHINA Cuckoo Project, which will involve tagging cuckoos in different locations across the country. More on that soon.
As well as being privileged to have been part of such a groundbreaking project, I have been fortunate to be involved with some exciting progress on some of the highest priority conservation issues, working with so many brilliant people, including Vivian Fu and Simba Chan at Hong Kong Birdwatching Society/BirdLife. The plight of shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is well-known, with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper the “poster species” of conservation efforts to try to save what remains of the globally important intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay. More than 70% of these vital stopover sites have been destroyed already through land reclamations and much of the remaining area is slated for future reclamation projects. Scientists, including an ever greater number of young Chinese such as Zhu Bingrun, now have the evidence to show that the population declines of many shorebird species, some of which are now classified as “Endangered”, can be attributed in large part to the destruction of the vital stopover sites in the Yellow Sea. After meeting world-leading shorebird expert, Professor Theunis Piersma, in Beijing in May and arranging for him to address Beijing-based birders with a compelling lecture, it’s been a pleasure to support the efforts of international organisations such as BirdLife International, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), led by Spike Millington, IUCN, UNDP and The Paulson Institute as well as local NGOs such as Save Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 山水 (ShanShui) in their interactions with the Chinese government to try to encourage greater protection for, and sustainable management of, the remaining intertidal sites. One of the pillars of the conservation strategy is to nominate the most important sites as a joint World Heritage Site (WHS) involving China and the Koreas (both North and South). This would have the advantage of raising awareness of the importance of these sites to those in the highest levels of government and also requiring greater protection and management of the sites. I am pleased to say that, due to the hard work of these organisations, much progress has been made and the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development (MoHURD), the ministry responsible for WHS nominations, is now positively taking forward the suggestion and working on the technical papers required to make a submission to the State Council for formal nomination. Special mention should be made of John MacKinnon, whose expertise, network of contacts in China and enthusiasm has made a big difference, to Nicola Crockford of RSPB and Wang Songlin of BirdLife International for their diplomatic work to create the conditions for the WHS issue to come to the fore, to David Melville, who recently delivered a compelling presentation covering a lifetime of shorebird study, to MoHURD at a workshop convened by ShanShui, and to Hank Paulson who, through the publication of the Paulson Institute’s “Blueprint Project” and his personal engagement at a very senior level with Provincial governors, has secured a commitment from the Governor of Hebei Province to protect the sites in his Province highlighted in the Blueprint. These are significant advances that, although far from securing the future of China’s intertidal mudflats, have significantly improved the odds of doing so.
China’s east coast hosts the world’s most impressive bird migration, known as the East Asian Australasian Flyway. That flyway consists of not only shorebirds but also many land birds and it is this concentration of migratory birds every spring and autumn that attracts not only birders but also poachers. This year has seen several horrific media stories about the illegal trapping of birds on an industrial scale, primarily to supply the restaurant trade in southern China where wild birds are considered a delicacy. Illegal trapping is thought to be the primary cause of the precipitous decline in the population of, among others, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially classified as Endangered.
It would be easy to be depressed by such incidents but I believe there are two developments that provide optimism for the future. First, although the legal framework is far from watertight, the authorities are now acting, the incidents are being reported in the media and the culprits are receiving, at least in the largest scale cases, heavy punishments. And second, these cases are being uncovered by volunteers, groups of mostly young people that spend their free time – weekends and days off during weekdays – specifically looking for illegal nets and poachers at migration hotspots. They work with law enforcement to catch the culprits and destroy their tools of the trade. These people are heroes and, although at present it’s still easy for poachers to purchase online mist-nets and other tools used for poaching (there are ongoing efforts to change this), it’s a harder operating environment for them than in the past. Big change doesn’t happen overnight but the combination of greater law enforcement, citizen action and media coverage are all helping to ensure that, with continued effort and strengthening of the legal framework, illegal trapping of migratory birds in China is on borrowed time.
Another conservation issue on which progress has been made is the plight of Baer’s Pochard. The population of this Critically Endangered duck has declined dramatically in the last few decades, the reasons for which are largely unknown. However, after 2016 there is much to be optimistic about. First, there are now dedicated groups studying Baer’s Pochard in China, including population surveys, study of breeding ecology and contributing to an international action plan to save the species. These groups are working with the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, EAAFP and others to build a knowledge base about the species, raise awareness and develop concrete steps to conserve the species at its remaining strongholds. A record count of 293 birds in December at the most important known breeding site in Hebei Province (Paul Holt and Li Qingxin) is a brilliant end to a year that will, hopefully, be a turning point for this species.
On a personal level I was extremely lucky, alongside Marie, to experience a ‘once in a lifetime’ encounter with Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai and, just a few days later, two Snow Leopards. Certainly two of my most cherished encounters with wildlife.
So, as I glance out of my window again, I realise that a few days of smog are a small price to pay to be part of the birding and conservation community in China. As 2017 begins, I have a spring in my step.
We enjoyed a brilliant two days with 33 species of shorebird logged, including flocks of long-distance migrants, many of which were still in fine breeding plumage, including GREAT KNOT, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, GREY PLOVER, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, the ‘Near Threatened’ ASIAN DOWITCHER and even a single ‘Endangered’ NORDMANN’S GREENSHANK. My poor quality video and photos simply don’t do justice to these birds.
As we were travelling back to Beijing, I checked the news on my smartphone. The headline was about the Rio Olympics, a forward look to two weeks of celebrating the astonishing physical feats of the world’s best athletes – from 100m sprinters to marathon runners. The parallel with the shorebirds was striking. Take the Bar-tailed Godwit. One population of this specieswinters in New Zealand and flies, via the Yellow Sea, to Alaska and then, after raising its young, makes the return journey directly, a gob-smacking non-stop 11,000 km over the Pacific Ocean. According to scientists, this journey is the equivalent of a human running at 70 kilometres an hour, continuously, for more then seven days! Along the way, the birds burn up huge stores of fat—more than 50 percent of their body weight—that they gain in Alaska. And before they embark on this epic journey, they even shrink their digestive organs, superfluous weight for a non-stop 7-day flight. Try that, Usain!
Sadly, the number of Bar-tailed Godwits successfully reaching New Zealand each autumn has fallen sharply, from around 155,000 in the mid-1990s to just 70,000 today. And the Bar-tailed Godwit is only one of more than 30 species of shorebird that relies on the tidal mudflats of the so-called Yellow Sea Ecoregion (the east coast of China and the west coasts of North and South Korea). The populations of most are in sharp decline, none more so than the charismatic but ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
So what is the reason for the decline? Scientists, including Prof Theunis Piersma and his team have, through years of painstaking studies, proved what many birders have long suspected – that the main cause of the decline is the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea. Around 70% of the intertidal mudflats in this region have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat. If the current trajectory continues, the Yellow Sea will become a global epicentre for extinction.
The problem, in China at least, is a combination of local economics and national regulations. The coastal region of China is home to 40% of the country’s population, and produces roughly 60% of national GDP. Local governments receive much of their revenue through land sales and the land that demands the highest price is agricultural land close to major cities. However, to ensure China’s food security is preserved, there is a national regulation (the Law of Land Management) stipulating that there must be no net loss of agricultural land. So any farmland sold for development must be offset by land elsewhere being allocated for agriculture. The relatively cheap reclamation of mudflats is, therefore, a profitable way for Provinces to be able to sell high-value land for development whilst conforming with the “no net loss” rule by allocating much of the reclaimed land for aquaculture. In the absence of a law protecting nationally-important ecosystems, local priorities rule. And, although large-scale land reclamation projects, at least in theory, require national level approval, these rules are easily circumvented by splitting large projects into several, smaller, constituent parts. With a booming economy over the last few decades, resulting in high demand for land, the tidal mudflats are suffering death by a thousand cuts.
So, what can be done? Ultimately, what’s needed is greater protection for, and more effective management of, nationally important ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, not only for migratory birds but also to avoid undermining China’s basic ecological security, such as providing fishery products, fresh water and flood control. That will require a combination of new laws, amendments to existing laws, regulations and greater public awareness. There is some great work on this, initiated by the Paulson Institute in partnership with China’s State Forestry Administration and the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, that makes some compelling recommendations.
In parallel to these recommendations, one idea is to secure nomination of the Yellow Sea Ecoregion as a shared World Heritage Site between China and North and South Korea. The concept is based on the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site, a so-called ‘serial’ nomination of linked sites across three countries. Initiated by The Netherlands and Germany in 2009, with Denmark joining in 2014, this World Heritage Site is based in large part on its unique importance for migratory waterbirds. Whilst World Heritage Site status wouldn’t mean automatic protection for the Yellow Sea Ecoregion, it would give it greater national and international recognition based on its significance for migratory shorebirds along the world’s largest and most important flyway. That must be a good thing.
More immediately there is much that must be done to raise awareness about the importance of these areas for migratory shorebirds, as well as local livelihoods – vital work if the conservation community is to have a chance of influencing local governments. Whenever I speak about migratory shorebirds in China, without exception, people are amazed by the journeys these birds undertake and they are enthused to do something to help. Most are simply unaware that the Yellow Sea coast lies at the heart of the flyway. The good news is that there is now an increasing number of local birdwatching and conservation groups in many of China’s coastal provinces engaging local governments and doing what they can to save their local sites. There are grassroots organisations in China working hard to promote environmental education, not only with schools but also the general public. And there is a growing band of young Chinese scientists studying shorebird migration along the Yellow Sea. These groups fill me with great optimism about China’s future conservation community.
Internationally, organisations such as BirdLife, including their superb China Programme team – Simba Chan and Vivian Fu – are working with groups such as the Global Flyway Network, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, as well as Professor Theunis Piersma and his dedicated team. Together, they are advancing the concept of the World Heritage Site with the UN, governments and local groups. At the same time, I believe it is incumbent on us all to be Ambassadors for these birds, to celebrate their lives and to do what we can to promote awareness about their incredible journeys.
The tidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea are one of China’s treasures, alongside the Great Wall, but they are in peril. Affording them robust protection and effective management is the highest conservation priority in east Asia and it’s a race against time.
Wouldn’t it be something if, alongside the rolling coverage of the Olympics, state TV and radio profiled the most impressive athletes of all – the shorebirds of the East Asian Australasian Flyway?
References and resources:
BIRDS OF THE YELLOW SEA – datavisualization of migration routes by 422 South on Vimeo. See URL: https://vimeo.com/150776396
BBC World Service/ABC Radio series on the East Asian Flyway, 2016. See URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wpkd8
Saemangeum on Birds Korea. See URL: http://www.birdskorea.org/Habitats/Wetlands/Saemangeum/BK-HA-Saemangeum-Mainpage.shtml
Why North Korea Is A Safe Haven For Birds, BBC, 2016. See URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36533469
The Paulson Institute Blueprint of Coastal Wetland Conservation and Management in China, 2015. See URL: http://www.paulsoninstitute.org/news/2015/10/19/paulson-institute-and-chinese-partners-publish-blueprint-of-coastal-wetland-conservation-and-management-in-china/
Global Flyway Network: see URL: http://globalflywaynetwork.com.au/
East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP): See URL: http://www.eaaflyway.net/
On Wednesday evening, birders in Beijing were treated to a brilliant lecture by Dutch Professor Theunis Piersma, the world-leading shorebird expert.
China’s east coast hosts one of the world’s most amazing natural spectacles every spring and autumn – the migration of millions of shorebirds from their wintering grounds in Australia and New Zealand to breeding grounds in the Arctic. It’s a journey that requires sustained physical exertion on a scale that is way beyond the best human athletes in the world. For many of these birds, the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay on China’s east coast are vital stopover sites on this awe-inspiring journey. And yet, as we know, the reclamation of tidal mudflats along the Chinese coast is advancing at a rapid rate. Already, around 70% of the intertidal mudflats have disappeared and much of the remaining 30% is under threat.
Professor Piersma has been studying shorebird migration for decades and, working with a brilliant team of researchers from China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea, among others, his research, using colour-ringing and satellite tagging, is showing two clear findings.
First, that populations of many shorebird species, in particular the study species of Red Knot, Great Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit, are declining rapidly. And second, that the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay is the problem.
To birders familiar with China’s east coast, these two findings won’t come as a surprise but of course, if there is to be any chance of convincing policymakers to adjust their plans, the most important thing is to provide evidence.
That is why Professor Piersma’s work is so important. He and his team have been able to provide several key pieces of compelling scientific evidence.
First, their research shows that the three study species, each of which uses a different habitat in the Arctic, are showing similar increasing mortality rates. To find out what is causing this rising mortality rate, each part of their life-cycle must be studied. Monitoring on the wintering grounds in Australia and New Zealand shows that mortality there is normal, demonstrating that the problem lies elsewhere. The main reason for mortality on the Arctic breeding grounds that could affect all three locations simultaneously is when the ice is slow to retreat, meaning that birds arrive on the breeding grounds when they are still frozen and there is a lack of food, leading to high mortality. Weather data from the last 7-8 years during the study period shows that, if anything, the melt has been earlier than usual, meaning that cold springs are not the reason for high mortality. This strongly suggests that the problem is not in the Arctic but instead along the migration route.
Second, different subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit that use different migration routes are experiencing different mortality rates. Birds that winter in Australia use the Yellow Sea twice every year, during their spring and autumn migrations to and from their breeding grounds. Birds that winter in New Zealand use the Yellow Sea only once – in spring – making an incredible non-stop journey of more than 10,000km from Alaska to New Zealand. If the problem was the Yellow Sea, one would expect the two subspecies to show different mortality rates. Sure enough, satellite tracking by scientists has shown that birds that use the Yellow Sea twice are experiencing a mortality rate twice as high as birds that use the Yellow Sea only once per year. That’s pretty telling.
This information, together with other supporting evidence, strongly supports the hypothesis that the reclamation of tidal mudflats in the Yellow Sea is causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline fast.
The challenge is to inject this scientific evidence into the Chinese policymaking circles. That is why Theunis met with officials from the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) during his visit to Beijing. This group is a government-sponsored “NGO” (is that an oxymoron?) that has the authority to make submissions to the State Council (China’s cabinet) about issues relating to wildlife conservation and biodiversity. The meeting was positive with a keen interest from the officials in Professor Piersma’s work and an appetite to use the scientific data to develop proposals to the State Council. There is a lot of work to do to influence decision-makers about the importance of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay for migratory shorebirds but, as someone important once said, “every great journey starts with a single step.”
Big thanks to Professor Piersma for taking the time to meet with young Chinese birders during his visit and we wish him good luck as he continues his research and begins the task of convincing policymakers to take into account the importance of China’s east coast to so many amazing shorebird species. Any birders visiting the coast should look out for and report any colour-ringed or tagged birds they see, recording the species, location, position of the colour-flags and any other interesting information. Observations from amateur birders play a vital role in contributing to the research. See here for details about how to report a flagged bird. And here for a visual guide to the flags used and their places of origin.