Looking Desperately for an Air Bridge

Land reclamation in Bingzhou Peninsula (formerly, island) of the Dongzui Bay ,Tong'an District, Xiamen, China. Image from wikipedia

The spring of 2017 50 million waterbirds will move from their winter homes in South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in Russia, Mongolia, northern China, the Korean peninsula, Japan and even Alaska. They rely on intertidal flats teeming with nourishing molluscs, worms and crustaceans, as well as plants, to supply the food that fuels their journeys.  Of the eight big flyways, the East Asian-Australasian is also the one displaying the sharpest decline in the number of birds. Of its 155-odd waterbird species, at least 24 are now globally threatened. They include the diminutive spoon-billed sandpiper, a wader whose numbers are down to fewer than 200 pairs.

Transiting one of the world’s most dynamic industrial regions is clearly taking a toll. Asia’s migratory waterbirds face immense pressures, from hunting, pollution, ingested plastic and competition from aquaculture. But the biggest disaster is the destruction of coastal way-stations. Since 1950 China has lost over half its coastal wetlands to “reclamation”. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Yellow Sea, into which the Yellow River flows, has lost over 35% of intertidal habitat since the early 1980s. An especially destructive moment was the run-up to the Beijing Olympics of 2008, for which a lot of heavy industry was moved from the capital to the coast.

Xianji Wen, who works for the WWF, describes the Yellow Sea as a “bottleneck” for the whole flyway: so many waders pass through it that the loss of habitat there is particularly consequential. Four-fifths of Asia’s red knots, having wintered in Australasia, stop on their way north at one spot, Luannan, east of Beijing. The bar-tailed godwit flies non-stop from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea—over 6,000km. After recovering there, the species flies non-stop again to its breeding grounds in the extreme north of Russia.  Populations of both species have crashed by over a third, probably because of coastal development…..

There is a silver lining, however. The vast middle class created by the region’s breakneck growth is becoming interested in conservation…In China several hundred birdwatchers gather for the spring migration by the Yellow Sea near the North Korean border. And Mr Wen says that local governments in China increasingly take pride in the acclaim they win for conservation schemes—several work with the WWF. In 2016 China and New Zealand even signed an agreement—an “air bridge” between the two countries—to protect the habitat of the bar-tailed godwits, whose annual departure, Maori mythology holds, is for the homeland of the ancestors who first colonised New Zealand.

South Korea’s conservation movement is feeble. But the government of North Korea, by failing to develop the country, has inadvertently preserved a greater share of valuable waterbird habitats. It recently agreed to designate one as a protected site under the “Ramsar” international convention on wetlands….

Excerpt from Canaries in the Coal Fumes, Economist, Apr. 22, 2017

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