Migrating Winter Birds: Charting a New Course for Biodiversity Conservation


Yuan Xueshun rescues an injured Whooper Swan during the winter migration season at Rongcheng Lake in Shandong Province.

Each year, as winter's chill settles over Shandong Province, 56 year-old farmer Yuan Xueshun puts down his work and braves the cold to circle around Rongcheng Lake in search of migrating Whooper Swans. For 35 years he has dedicated his life to the protection of these wild birds and their habitat near his home in Weihai, as they take part in their annual flight from Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Siberia in northern Russia. Yet for a long time, only the swans could understand the sound of his call as he made his daily rounds, carrying and distributing a modest bag of leftover vegetable leaves that his wife and daughter had collected from the market.

"I help the swans out of conscience, not for money, not for power and not for reputation" said Yuan. "Even though it may seem like hard work, its important to me."

Known locally as Swan Lake, this small corner of eastern China is one of only a handful of Whooper Swan wintering grounds in Asia, along with those in the Korean Peninsula and Japan. At its peak, some 6,000 of these majestic birds once flocked to the region in search of the fresh water and food provided by 15,000 hectares of nearby wetlands. However, when economic development led to the dumping of silt from the lake on these wetlands and pesticides from local farms contaminated water systems, the water shortages and pollution that followed caused severe damage to the environment and made it difficul t fo r th e 20,00 0 birds that visited the area to find enough food and water. As a result, only 1,200 swans were recorded at the lake in 2004.

Having started to protect this important natural habitat – the largest in Asia – in 1976, when he was just 21, Yuan has also had to endure long periods of opposition from within his own community. For example, as news spread that the Weihai Whooper Swan Protection Association had received a 200,000 yuan (US$26,000) international environment grant in 2003, local farmers began blaming the swans for eating their wheat crop and argued that, as Chairman of the Association, he should use the money to compensate them for their losses. A deadly outbreak of bird flu in 2006 caused further anger among residents, while Yuan has also had to work hard to build public awareness about the dangers posed to the swans by fishing nets, traps and poachers.

Despite a long list of outstanding personal achievements that started when he converted his yard into a household recovery centre in 1985, these challenging circumstances led Yuan to apply for support from the Global Environment Facility. Through its Small Grants Programme, administered by UNDP, the Weihai Whooper Swan Protection Association was awarded a grant of 315,000 yuan (US$50,000) in 2010, to help cover the cost of food, water and medical supplies for the swans. A one year project was also set up to promote the economic benefits of biodiversity conservation and encourage local government, businesses and communities to protect the swans.

Highlights

  • At its peak, some 6,000 of these majestic birds once flocked to the region in search of the fresh water and food provided by 15,000 hectares of nearby wetlands. Only 1,200 swans were recorded at the lake in 2004.
  • And there has been an increase in the number of swans returning to the area to around 3,000, attracting a growing number of photographers seeking to capture one of nature's most inspiring sights.

 

From the start, the project prioritised the need to encourage environmentally-friendly farming and construction planning, consistent with the mandate of the 1992 Biodiversity Conservation Convention to protect winter bird migration channels. An education base was set up for youth to come and learn about the swans' needs, and additional training workshops attended by 3,600 men, women and children, helped reposition the swans from being perceived as a nuisance to a potential source of income. Advice on sustainable tourism management and biodiversity conservation distributed in the area also helped promote agritourism, as hotel and restaurant owners gained insights into the advantages of conserving the natural beauty they expected their guests to want to come and see.

A small area of wetland was later leased to and restored by the Association, allowing for the swan rescue centre to be relocated and expanded. In addition, farmers have slowly reduced their use of traps and patrolling capacities have been increased with 6 local families agreeing to volunteer at newly established feeding and rescue stations. The Association has also seen a noticeable increase in financial contributions from people previously opposed to its work, including the donations of several tonnes of corn feed from a local business.

This newfound backing has helped Yuan focus on doing what matters most to him, adopting more than 500 injured birds and successfully releasing 400 back into the wild. UNDP's involvement has increased support for the Weihai Whooper Swan Protection Association, whose membership now stands at more than 100, and has also helped establish stronger links with the Bayanbulak Nature Reserve in Xinjiang. And there has been an increase in the number of swans returning to the area to around 3,000, attracting a growing number of photographers seeking to capture one of nature's most inspiring sights.

While, it still remains to be seen whether more swans will return to the area, the prospects for sustainable development are encouraging. Local communities are gradually realising the value of their environment and seeking international support to protect it, and with UNDP's continued support further incorporation of biodiversity considerations within local development policies remains a distinct possibility.