Protecting China’s wetlands

Increasingly, the wonders of the country’s waterfowl -- and their green and blue habitats -- are being revealed. To help safeguard them, the UK conservation group WWT works with Chinese authorities, writes Malcolm Tait.

[This article first appeared in the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s magazine Waterlife and is republished here with permission.]

To many in the general public in the western world, the wildlife of China is something of a mystery. Giant pandas, of course, hit the headlines in decades past when they were used as a tool of diplomacy, offered up as gifts to nations with which China wanted to develop strong relationships. In more recent times, however, those same animals have become a symbol not so much of entente cordiale, but of global conservation, their fame for scarcity matching that of the tiger and the whale.

It’s not just the panda that’s been in decline, either. A few years ago, the world witnessed the first probable extinction of a large mammal species for many decades, when surveys for the bajii, or Yangtze River dolphin, were not able to find a single remaining individual. There might be one or two still roaming the deeper waters of the river, but to all intents and purposes, the bajii is now functionally extinct – the first cetacean to succumb since humans came onto the scene.

If the western public has a view of Chinese wildlife, it’s likely that it’s one of decline and fall. Which would be a shame. Although there are valid concerns for much of China’s wildlife, there is still much to conserve. “China and, in particular, the south-western region of the country, is in fact one of the richest nations for biodiversity in the world,” says Sir Anthony Galsworthy. He was a council member of the UK-based conservation organisation Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) for eight years, and now sits on the board of WWT Consulting, the country’s leading wetland consultancy.

Galsworthy was also the UK ambassador to China from 1997 to 2001, which gives him rather a unique perspective. “During my time in Beijing, we replanted the embassy garden to encourage the birds. We ringed some 60 species in all, many of them warblers, which was a rather remarkable total for what was essentially a small oasis of green in the heart of one of the world’s busiest capital cities.”

His tenure covered a significant period in China’s recent history. In 1997, the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong from the UK to China took place, making Galsworthy’s first year one in which the eyes of the world were focused on China. Interestingly, it also coincided 
with some early roots of environmentalism in the country. It was in the late 1990 that NGOs first started to take shape in China, and most were of an environmental bent.

“Environmental NGOs tended to be seen as less politicalthan many others,” he says, “which I believe gave them the opportunity to develop as the millennium drew to a close. The Chinese 
government is very supportive of environmental effort – the nation was one of the first to sign up to the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, for example.

“Yet governmental backing doesn’t necessarily translate into local support. During my time as ambassador, the premier [Zhu Rongzi] started putting restrictions upon tree-felling activities, as they were causing flooding in various parts of the nation. A strong law, but difficult to police, particularly in a country so huge, and with more than one billion inhabitants. NGOs that tried to 
enforce the laws were sometimes subjected to threats from local groups and businesses that objected.”

If the government is not able to keep tabs on its outlying regions, imagine how difficult it must be for those who are trying to monitor the wildlife that is there. In the UK, we have a long history of recording, monitoring, exploring and understanding our wildlife. There are very few individual fields, let alone regions, that haven’t been exhaustively studied for biodiversity. Yet Britain is quite small compared to China. Very small indeed. In fact, the near 250,000 square kilometres that make up the nation would fit no fewer than 40 times into China’s boundaries. China, quite simply, is huge, and monitoring its wildlife is a massive task.

Yet it’s a task that needs undertaking. The species that WWT works hard to conserve – such as the Bewick’s swan, and the globally threatened spoon-billed sandpiper and scaly-sided merganser – use China as a migratory path from eastern Russia or as wintering grounds. To be able to build up a full picture of their ecology, we need to know where they are during their sojourns and how many go there.

Richard Hearn is WWT’s head of species monitoring, and has been spending a fair bit of his time in China recently. “Since 2008, we have been working to support WWF China’s efforts to develop a skilled, comprehensive and well-coordinated waterbird monitoring network in the Yangtze floodplain, the most important region in Asia for wintering migratory waterbirds, particularly wildfowl and cranes,” he says. “It’s complex and demanding, due mainly to the vastness of many of these wetlands –Poyang Hu is over 3,500 square kilometres, for example – and the sheer number of them.”

“The work has involved training courses for reserve managers, members of local civil society birdwatching societies and other interested individuals and, in 2011, we supported the recruitment of a Yangtze waterbird monitoring project officer who will coordinate and undertake training activities. One of his first tasks has been to collate a report on a waterbird census, carried out in January 2011. The results will allow the first accurate estimates of the population trends of many of these waterbirds, crucial for the conservation of these globally important populations.”

Understanding where birds might be is one thing; providing protection for them is another, and this is where WWT Consulting comes in. Several years ago, this international consultancy wing of WWT was called in to assist with the development of a wetland centre in Hong Kong, and so successful was the venture that within the first three months of opening, no fewer than 250,000 visitors passed through its doors.

“This is another change that’s been taking place in China,” says Galsworthy. “Hong Kong, of course, has long been a reasonably affluent place, but since the 1990s, similar signs of affluence have been appearing in mainland China. With affluence tends to come more leisure time and, for many, leisure time is an opportunity to develop an interest in wildlife.”

Across China there is a growing interest in wildlife, a commitment to restore wetlands and create green and blue spaces. Galsworthy’s colleague, Emma Alesworth, is associate director at WWT Consulting, and, with the team, has worked on a number of projects in central and eastern China. These include master plans for new wetland centres, providing advice on wetland restoration, and developing management plans for nature reserves.

“At WWT Consulting,” she says, “we feel passionately about wetlands, their species and the benefits they can bring, so one of the most important considerations is how to sensitively integrate people and wildlife. This is where we can help, undertaking assessments that ensure the wetlands work for a range of species, and adopting holistic approaches when designing hides and 
boardwalks, so that they fit into the landscape and help minimise disturbance on the wildlife. The wetlands we have been working on in China provide opportunities for setting up environmental-education programmes and really getting people inspired by nature, which can only be a good thing for the long-term protection of these special habitats.”

China’s wetlands
may once have been among the least well known in the world, but things are changing. With continued support from the national government, and more hard work on the 
ground by WWT and its international and local partners, we hope to discover more and more about the beauties of these wonderful lands and how they can be protected and enhanced.

And if that is so, then the case of the baiji may be consigned to history as a one-off.

Strengthening the links

Wetland Link International (WLI) is a global support network, coordinated by WWT, for wetland centres that provide education and visitor activities on site. Of the 320 current centre-based members around the world, some 25 are in China.

“That’s nearly 8% of the entire membership,” says WLI head Chris Rostron, “demonstrating 
the importance of Chinese wetlands on a global scale. In 2007, WWT’s chief executive, Martin Spray, and the then-head of WLI went on a fact-finding mission to China, signing a memorandum of cooperation with China’s State Forestry Administration. This put WWT in a stronger position to play an active role in working to protect and enhance Chinese wetlands, and showed great intent on the part of Chinese authorities.

“WLI currently has a proposal to develop a new WLI Asia post, which will work closely with 
partners in China. Later this year, we’ll be attending a key Asian wetlands symposium in China [in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, in October], by which time we should know the result. All going well, we’ll be able to support more wetland-protection projects in wetland centres across China.”

Malcolm Tait is editor of
Waterlife, the magazine of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.

[This article first appeared in the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s magazine
Waterlife and is republished here with permission.]

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