Although the week at Tiaozini involved a packed schedule, I did manage to steal away for an hour to the mudflats for the incoming tide. Watching a flock of Great Knot with Eurasian Curlew, Oystercatcher and Saunders’s Gulls overhead as the sun dropped behind me was a memorable experience. I attempted to capture at least some of the magic by recording a soundscape. Put on your headphones and transport yourself to the Yellow Sea coast!
I am just back from a week of filming at Tiaozini, Jiangsu Province, with Chinese national television (CCTV4) for a special programme about the importance of coastal wetlands. This part of the Yellow Sea coast is a critical stopover for millions of migratory shorebirds along what is known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), one of nine major migratory flyways in the world.
These incredible birds migrate from as far south as Australia and New Zealand to breeding grounds as far north as the Arctic Circle. They are shared by 22 countries and, with that, comes a shared responsibility to protect them and the places they need.
In recent years there has been an incredible turnaround in the prospects for China’s coastal wetlands. In the last few decades, possibly as much as 50% of China’s coastal wetlands have been lost and, just a few years ago, scientists were worried that the Yellow Sea could become an ‘epicentre of extinction’. Then, in 2018, there was a sudden change in policy when the State Council issued a ban on further reclamation of coastal wetlands and committed to protect the remaining important sites. As a first step, Tiaozini was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2019 in recognition of its global importance to migratory birds. Phase II of the serial World Heritage nomination, involving more than ten additional coastal wetland sites, is now underway. A short video summarising the turnaround is called “Saving a Flyway”.
Although the future of migratory shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway is far from secure, and there are many additional and growing threats such as climate change, pollution and invasive spartina, the greatest immediate threat to the Flyway has been removed.
During my visit, it was clear that there have been some remarkable developments in terms of managing the site for migratory birds. A dedicated high tide roost has been designated through the renting – by the local government – of a former aquaculture pond. The water level is managed specifically for birds and, during my visit, it hosted thousands of birds of many different species, from large gulls, spoonbills, godwits, avocets, sandpipers and several different species of duck, including both dabbling and diving ducks. The large Saunders’s Gull (Chroicocephalus saundersi 黑嘴鸥 Hēi zuǐ ōu) colony, numbering almost 3,000 pairs, is now protected and monitored 24/7 and a dedicated research facility has been set up close by, hosting teams from Beijing Forestry University, Fudan University and Nanjing University. The research includes benthos surveys to understand the health of the mudflats and bird population monitoring. The visitor centre – dominated by Spoon-billed Sandpiper-themed infrastructure including a Spoony Cafe, Spoon-billed Sandpiper-shaped benches and Spoony-themed people carriers – hosts students from schools in the local area, from across Jiangsu Province and from further afield (there were at least three schools visiting on the first day I was there). The overwhelming feeling about the future of migratory shorebirds is now filled with optimism – such a contrast from when I first visited the area in 2010.
Of course, the growing threats of climate change, pollution and spartina are very real and will require a lot of hard work and dedication to address but, just for a moment, it was good to take in and celebrate a moment of optimism!
It was wonderful to meet so many people – from the managers to academics to local staff – passionate about protecting the intertidal mudflats and doing everything they can to facilitate safe passage for these extreme endurance athletes.
I am not a natural in front of the TV cameras but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to host a special programme about biodiversity that will reach tens of millions of people when it is broadcast in June!
It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom that seems to be prevalent right now. But every now and then, something happens that provides a shot in the arm.. an event or moment that inspires and provides hope.
16 September at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing was one of those moments. Clare Fearnley, the brilliant New Zealand Ambassador to China, hosted the inaugural ‘Friends of the Flyway’ to celebrate the migratory birds of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, bringing together ambassadors and senior diplomats from the 22 countries that make up the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, the secretariat of the EAAFP, senior Chinese government officials, including the Deputy Administrator of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Deputy Mayor of Dandong (stewards of Yalu Jiang, dubbed a “five-star” service station on the shorebird expressway), academics and ‘friends’.
Not only did the event provide an opportunity to celebrate and raise awareness of the flyway among ambassadors and senior diplomats, elevating migratory birds as a foreign policy issue, but it also stimulated ideas and discussions, resulting in a few potential new initiatives, such as managing embassy grounds as ‘wildlife areas’ with embassies signing up to commitments to monitor birds and other wildlife, and to make changes to management practices to improve the habitat for resident and migratory birds. A birding trip to the coast next May, for Ambassadors to experience the spring migration, is on the cards, and ‘bird-friendly’ glass, painted with ultraviolet patterns, was showcased by local artists as part of the solution to bird collisions (thought to cause the deaths of up to a billion birds in North America annually, with a new research project now starting in China to assess the scale of the issue here).
In her opening, Clare told the story of the ‘Kuaka’, the Māori name for the Bar-tailed Godwit, that has such a special place in their culture. The Kuaka is considered to be the link between the northern and southern hemispheres, a carrier of knowledge and the bringer of positive messages. For Māoris they were birds of mystery, (‘Kua kite te kohanga kuaka? Who has seen the nest of the kuaka?’).
Nearly all New Zealand Bar-tailed Godwits are from the baueri subspecies and breed in western Alaska. Their incredible migration forms a triangle. Following the breeding season, these birds make an almost incomprehensible non-stop eight or nine day flight of more than 11,000km to New Zealand, only recently discovered through the tracking of “E7” in 2007. After spending the non-breeding season in New Zealand, they begin their northern migration from early March, heading for refuelling sites around the Yellow Sea, many to the Yalu Jiang in Dandong, where they fatten up at this five-star service station for the last leg of the journey to Alaska.
Migratory birds do not respect international borders and, over a calendar year, many will visit multiple countries as they move from breeding grounds to non-breeding grounds via stopover sites. It follows, therefore, that no single country can secure the future of these birds on its own. With shared natural heritage comes a shared responsibility and, as we are in the midst of one of the greatest extinction events on Earth, and the first to be driven by humans, it is vital that the international response must go beyond national actions to protect key habitats and species, important though these actions are, to involve sustained and coordinated international cooperation.
The East Asian-Australasian Flyway is a bird ‘superhighway’ for more than 50 million waterbirds, including 35 globally threatened species, many of which commute between breeding grounds in the far north, some inside the Arctic Circle, and non-breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere. Many travel as far as Australia and New Zealand. However, it is not only the ‘ends of the flyway’ – the breeding grounds in Artic Russia and the non-breeding grounds in Australia and New Zealand that are important. The commute relies on stopover sites, particularly those in the Yellow Sea.
That is why this initiative – bringing together ambassadors from flyway countries with senior Chinese government officials – was so important. It is now hoped (expected?) that ambassadors from other Flyway countries will host similar events, celebrating particular aspects of the Flyway or specific species and sites, whilst helping to nurture and strengthen international cooperation along this important route for migratory birds.
Huge kudos to Clare and her team, especially Svar Barrington and Hayley Anderson, for initiating this event and for the New Zealand embassy’s ongoing leadership in putting biodiversity high up on the agenda for foreign policy and diplomacy.
Header photo: Clare Fearnley, New Zealand Ambassador to China, welcoming Tan Guangming, Deputy Director of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.
It was only three years ago that many scientists thought the Yellow Sea would become an ‘epicentre of extinction’, such was the pace and extent of the loss of intertidal mudflats along China’s coast. The populations of many shorebirds in what is known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) were in free-fall. In the last 30 years, the population of Red Knot had declined by 58%, the Far Eastern Curlew by 80% and the Curlew Sandpiper by 78% to name a few. And of course the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper was facing imminent extinction.
Today, although there is still a long way to go to secure the future of the millions of migratory shorebirds that rely on this region as a refuelling stop during their incredible journeys from as far away as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic, there is hope.
In 2018 the Chinese government announced a ban on further reclamation of coastal wetlands. This policy decision, taking many by surprise, effectively removed what was considered the biggest threat to migratory shorebirds in the Flyway. Two of the most important sites have since been inscribed as World Heritage Sites and a further 12 are due to be added in the next few years. Focus is now switching to recovery and restoration of sites and tackling the remaining threats to these shorebirds, such as the invasive spartina grass and illegal hunting.
Over the last 12 months, in my role with the Paulson Institute, I have been part of a team, involving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and EAAFP, producing a video to tell the story of this policy turnaround. Through interviews with scientists, policymakers and NGOs at the heart of the issue, the 14-minute documentary shows how people from across disciplines and international borders worked together to create an evidence base that, ultimately, was too powerful to ignore.
It is a story of hope that shows that, even when things can seem desperate, it’s vital never to give up. As we move towards the UN Conference on Biological Diversity in Kunming in October, that is a very important message.
Watch the video here:
Huge thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, EAAFP and my wonderful colleagues at the Paulson Institute for the terrific teamwork over the last 12 months. Most of all, thank you to all the scientists, NGOs, policymakers, advocates and everyone who has helped count shorebirds whose efforts have given hope to this most diverse, and most threatened of flyways.
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.
Title image: Greater Sand Plover, Bohai Bay
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Back in September 2012, concern about habitat loss and the plight of migratory waterbirds led to a call to ensure a suitable framework for the conservation and management of the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Gulf, and associated bird species at the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Jeju, Republic of Korea. A resolution on the ‘Conservation of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and its threatened waterbirds, with particular reference to the Yellow Sea’ was adopted by 100% of voting governments.
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?!
The formal listing of the sites can be found here: UNESCO: The Coast of the Bohai Gulf and the Yellow Sea of China
For the EAAFP press release, see here.
Far Eastern Curlew, Nanpu, August 2014. One of the species heavily dependent on the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.
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 email@example.com 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.