Something astonishing is happening in China. An unfolding story that one Chinese friend told me, “could be a turning point in conservation and wild bird protection in China.”
On Sunday 11 November local people discovered many sick and dying ORIENTAL STORKS (Ciconia boyciana) at Beidagang Reservoir, Tianjin (just 30 mins from Beijing by train). These globally endangered birds – with a restricted range in East Asia – had been poisoned illegally by poachers using a chemical called carbofuran that, although banned in the EU, Canada and many other countries, is commonly available and used, legitimately, as a pesticide all over China.
The storks were possibly unintended victims of well-organised and, sadly, all-too common poaching activity intended to catch swans, ducks and geese for the restaurant trade.
Carbofuran is mixed with cereal, or given to fish in small man-made pools. Birds lose consciousness after eating the bait, are caught by hand and injected with an antidote. The victims are then shipped – usually alive – to restaurants, primarily in southern China. The demand for wild birds is high and they are sold as a delicacy, with many consumers, particularly in southern cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, believing that wild birds taste better than farmed produce, and they are prepared to pay a premium. A wild goose or swan can fetch several hundred Yuan (100 Yuan = 10 GBP). The business is highly profitable.
The scale of this activity in China, and the range of methods used by poachers to catch wild birds, are covered in an excellent, but sobering, article in the most recent issue of Goose Bulletin. The authors estimate that between 80,000 and 120,000 ducks, swans and geese are caught illegally in China for the restaurant trade every year.
So what makes the recent case involving Oriental Storks at Beidagang such a big deal?
The answer is the incredible public reaction, led by local people and driven by social media.
The events unfolding at Beidagang, although desperately sad, could have been much worse were it not for some dedicated and brave individuals. Local birders, together with volunteers, officials from the Forestry Administration, police and even firemen have been working together to help catch, treat and care for these birds. They have set up 24/7 patrols to deter the poachers. All of this has been transmitted on social media and the coverage has gone viral. The Chinese micro-blogging service, Weibo, has over 500 million users (on a par with the global membership on Twitter) and activists have been providing regular updates that have been ‘re-tweeted’ by a growing band of followers. As I write this post, the latest update has been ‘re-tweeted’ over 900 times to more than a million users in less than one hour.
This is leading the traditional print and visual media. Already, we are seeing articles relating to this poisoning incident in Chinese and English language media, both local and national.
All of this follows a recent outcry against the illegal trapping and hunting of wild birds in China, also led by social media. Three weeks ago a brave undercover journalist released a shocking video about hunters using spotlights to confuse migrants in Hunan Province before gunning them out of the sky. The Chinese public was outraged and Weibo was alive with condemnation of the hunters and also criticism of the authorities for being slow to act. Shortly after this major outcry, local birders discovered over 2km of illegal mist nets at Beidagang, the site of the current Oriental Stork tragedy. Local activists, many of whom are now on site trying to save the storks, led a ‘day of action’ involving over 60 volunteers, and even the Chinese army, to take down illegal mist nets in the reedbed. This was covered by local and national TV as well as print media. Due to these two events, the number of articles relating to illegal bird trapping and hunting nationwide has exploded.
The campaign to eradicate the illegal hunting of birds is gaining momentum. And the scale of the reaction by ordinary Chinese people all over the country has been overwhelming, demonstrating clearly that the vast majority of Chinese people care deeply about their wild birds. It will be very hard for the authorities to ignore.
None of this would be happening without the incredible dedication, passion and energy of a small number of volunteers at Beidagang. There are many people involved but a special mention must go to Xunqiang Mo (aka “Nemo”), a local student, and Jingsheng Ma, who have personally led the effort to cut down the illegal nets and are now leading the ongoing operation to save the Oriental Storks. They are heroes in every respect.
Here is a personal account from yesterday evening, provided by Zhu Lei, a Beijing-based birder monitoring the situation:
“There is heart-breaking news. 8 more dead storks been found today, which raise the total number up to 21 !
The ground team located 3 evidently man-made small water pools (around diameter of 1m, depth of 0.3m), one of them contained a big empty packing bag (900 g × 20 packets – although the scene is absolutely terrible, it does not necessarily mean the whole bag of poison has been used there) of pesticide. We suspect that the poachers have put the toxic chemical directly into the water in these pools or used the same methods as those 2 Jilin guys (filled the fish with toxic, then put into the pools) to poison the birds.
According to signs on the bag, the pesticide used in this massacre is nothing but Carbofuran. The bags were already taken by the police as potential evidence. Some tissue also been taken from the dead birds for further forensic tests. The cause of death will only be revealed as the test report is released (although everything points to it being poisoning with carbofuran).
The volunteer team (mostly from the local community and nearby Tianjin city) should be applauded for their hard work. Among them, a bicycle enthusiasts team is worthy of mention for they’ve taken the duty to patrol the dam which surrounds the wetland in daytime, and at least 3 of them have tried hard to wade into the muddy wetland searching for sick birds. Several local rich bird photographers (I think the guys who can afford the big Canon or Nikon big lenses and expensive cameras could be called ‘rich’) have provided financial support to cover spending such as other volunteers’ accommodation and food, etc.
People from government agencies also contributed to the action. Today, even a team of firemen was called to the spot, due to lack of proper equipment (e.g. waders, boats) to deal with the situation faced in the wetland. They just try to do what they can over there.
24h ground patrolling has been launched last night, and the patrol has been equipped with night-vision goggles donated by a businessman from Tianjin.
Tomorrow, the team will focus on locating more poisoned lure pools and will destroy them. A plan to provide safe food (mainly small fish) to the storks still at the wetland will be carried out tomorrow.
Special thanks to Nemo for his great devotion and efforts in saving those birds on-site, and kindly receiving my interview tonight. He is a real hero and deserves our highest respect.”
You can follow the latest developments with the Oriental Storks at Beidagang and the broader campaign to eradicate illegal mist-netting at this website. Already, many people have expressed their support for these brave and committed individuals and their comments are making a real difference to the volunteers. Knowing that there are people all over the world supporting their efforts is a real boon for them. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to comment to show your support. This could just be the decisive battle in the war against illegal trapping and hunting of wild birds in China.