Volunteers fight an uphill battle to save endangered wild birds from hunters

Source:Global Times - Agencies Published: 2016/10/27 19:28:39

A volunteer takes away an illegal net that traps migratory birds.Photo: CFP

A volunteer takes away an illegal net that traps migratory birds. Photo: CFP


A volunteer frees a bird after cutting it from a net. Photo: CFP

A volunteer frees a bird after cutting it from a net. Photo: CFP

Setting up illegal nets to trap migratory birds and selling them for meat or as pets is big in China. Every year during this season, volunteers rescue hundreds of thousands of birds. But now volunteers are afraid of setting the birds free again, in fear they might run into more illegal nets.

Among eight major global migration paths for birds, three pass through China. Every October, as hundreds of thousands of birds fly south, a season of hunting and killing also starts in China. From northeast China to Tianjin and then to the Beibu Gulf along the South China Sea, these lines have become a bloody journey plagued by poachers driven by profit and market demand.

This year is no exception. Around the just-passed national holiday, volunteers dedicated to protecting birds spotted over 5,000 birds trapped in two huge illegal bird-hunting areas in Tianjin and Tangshan, Hebei Province. They tore down kilometers of nets and saved 3,000 birds, including many endangered wild birds.

Bloody paths

It is a scene that most people would find too horrible to look at.

In early October, when volunteers found the illegal bird-hunting area in a remote marshy part of Tianjin, they also found many trapped birds dead or dying in nets, with the bodies of even more birds abandoned and decomposing on the ground. Occasionally the scream of birds pierced the deathly stillness.

From the end of September, the volunteers with several environmental-protection organizations, including the foundation Let Birds Fly, began travelling around the boundary area of Tianjin and Tangshan. Altogether they found and demolished bird nets that came to an astonishing total of over 20,000 meters long.

Knit together with black nylon wire, each net is about eight meters long and one meter tall, fixed to bamboo poles at either end, and they line up closely to form a dense trap. Birds that are trapped by the net, though they don't get hurt immediately, suffer as they hang on the nets for days on end.

Among the reeds were also scattered electric speakers that mimic the calls of birds to attract them into the nets. Some of the speakers use frequencies so high that humans cannot hear.

When the volunteers saved the trapped birds, many other birds were soon caught again in the net. They needed to clear every single net from the area to ensure the animals' safety, which became a main task.

Tian Zhiwei, a volunteer with the Wild Life Protection Association of Leting county, Tangshan, said bird hunters fall into three categories: local farmers who want to eat the birds, wealthy people who see bird-hunting as sport and professional bird hunters, or bird dealers.

Tian told the Procuratorial Daily that professional bird hunters are the most destructive to birds. They are equipped with more sophisticated equipment and track migrating birds over the long term. Behind these hunters is usually a big black market, which put the birds either on dining tables or in cages. He believes the nets in Tianjin were set up by these professionals.

As a matter of fact, the footprints of such bird hunters can be found far beyond Tianjin. As a nationwide survey conducted by Let Birds Fly shows, from September 25 to the middle of October, there were at least 30 cases in which wild birds were harmed and such nets were discovered.

Meeting market demand

In the follow-up investigation over illegal hunting, the volunteers and government officials found a large quantity of dead migratory birds and birds traps in a Tangshan village. More than 2,500 birds packaged in plastic bags, were stuffed in two big refrigerators.

According to law enforcement officials, the wild birds were fattened up and suffocated to death and were about to be sent to dinner tables of southern China.

Migrating birds are usually pretty thin. To get a good price, bird dealers feed these birds tons of medicine and antibiotics to help make them gain weight quickly and then kill them.

Some birds, whose meat is unfortunately regarded by Chinese people as having medicinal effects, have suffered from intense hunting in the past half century. The yellow-crested bunting, seen by some as the "ginseng of the sky," has gradually become an endangered species due to huge demand for their meat.

As Liu Yidan, a famous volunteer devoted to protecting wild birds, told Southern Weekend, the huge profits available is the biggest reason bird hunters set out to catch so many birds.

A volunteer from Hebei once revealed to media that while the farmers make only 1,000 yuan ($153) by planting rice every year, hunting birds in their rice fields for a season could earn them 20,000 yuan.

Bird-hunting is just the first link on the black profit chain of the migrating bird trade. It is a business that requires almost no capital to enter. A few dozen yuan can buy one electronic bird callers, nets and bamboo poles that can last them a whole season. At the end of the chain, a yellow-breasted bunting can be sold for six yuan each while some large wild birds can be sold for thousands or even tens of thousands of yuan.

The market for such birds is huge, whether as food or as caged pets. In many illegal markets for birds in Beijing, Tianjin and Tangshan, there are dealers publicly peddling migrating birds. Many fearless bird dealers even wait at the park gates and outside temples for customers, because Buddhists who like to free captive animals are their ideal customers.

A volunteer named Wang Jianmin told Procuratorial Daily that in several big bird markets in Tianjin, nearly 10,000 wild birds are traded every day. The birds on the market are mainly migrating birds that have recently passed through the city and some species are under special State protection.

Difficulties in protection

As the public grows more aware of animal protection in recent years, harming and selling wild birds is becoming less tolerated.

The law is also catching up in this respect. It has long stipulated in criminal law that those who illegally hunt, kill or sell endangered wild animals will be punished. China's Wild Animal Conservation Law that was revised this July prohibits hunting wild animals and the sale of certain hunting devices.

But problems remain in terms of enforcement. In addition, law enforcement departments with authority over wild animals are still passive in protection, and acting only after they receive reports from the public.

Buying and freeing animals already in captivity, which used to be the main way the public would help wild animals, has largely been abandoned as a technique as it simply spurs demand for the birds and therefore greater hunting.

Qi Yuting, a volunteer with Let Birds Fly who took part in the anti-net operation in Tianjin this month, told the Global Times that they are still facing many difficulties in rescuing birds.

"Our volunteers need to get up as early as 4 am and drive to rural areas for patrols, they have to listen for and identify those electronic callers, or look for suspicious people carrying long sticks walking nearby," Qi said.

With only simply detective devices like telescopes, it often takes them about one or two hours to find these traps. But demolishing nets means nothing to the hunters. They can set up new nets again very quickly later.

As soon as they find the nets, Qi said they call the police. Though the situation is getting better compared to several years ago, she still complains that many village police officers are not familiar with bird protection.

"Sometimes it takes quite a long time for the police to arrive, and they barely have any awareness of bird protection," said Qi. "The police once took our volunteers and the bird hunters to the police station together, but did not punish those hunters at all, even giving them back their hunting tools," she added.

It is also a dangerous job. The volunteers sometimes face violence from bird hunters. In spring 2015, while Liu Yidan was rescuing trapped birds on a net, she was attacked by three bird hunters.

Apart from rescuing birds, Qi's organization is also involved in promoting legislation to protect birds and offering help to other bird-loving groups all over China.

All in all, NGOs alone cannot solve this problem and there needs to be greater official effort to crack down on this illegal hunting. 

Various government departments and NGOs should work together on transport, sales, and so on, so as to totally eliminate the profit chain that threatens the safety of wild birds, as noted by Lu Jun, director of the National Bird Tagging Center.

Newspaper headline: Morbid migration

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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