Wings of hope

By Liang Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-31 19:32:14

Hunters use high-frequency lights on hilltops to lure migrating birds into snares on September 9 in Xinshao, Hunan Province. Photo: CFP
Hunters use high-frequency lights on hilltops to lure migrating birds into snares on September 9 in Xinshao, Hunan Province. Photo: CFP

The silence was broken by gunshots late at night on October 14.

High-frequency lights on hilltops penetrated the darkness, luring the birds into the snares.

The slaughter of migrating birds in Luoxiao Mountain, on the border between Jiangxi and Hunan provinces, had begun.

For centuries, Luoxiao Mountain has served as a passageway for migrating birds. Each year, millions of them fly over the mountain and head south.

However, this passageway has now become a death trap for the birds.  Between one and three tons of migrating birds are captured and killed each year, according to local reports.

Liu Huili, a volunteer from Nature University, an NGO dedicated to protecting wildlife, went blank for a few seconds when she heard the gunshot.

"It was the first time I had heard gunshots so near. It was so loud, like the popping of firecrackers. Then, I saw birds fall from the sky," Liu told the Global Times.

After constant media exposure on the slaughter of migrating birds in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, Liu, along with three other volunteers, decided to take action.

Pretending to be bird experts who had come to collect specimens of migrating birds, Liu and her colleagues successfully got in with the hunters, secretly followed villagers in Suichuan county, Jiangxi Province, climbed to the hilltop and filmed the slaughter.

"We wanted to make a documentary and draw people's attention to protecting migrating birds," Liu said. 

Bird protector

On October 16, a 12-minute documentary on the bloody slaughter of the migrating birds in Guidong county, Hunan Province was widely circulated on the Internet. It received more than 150,000 hits that day alone.

The documentary was filmed by a group of volunteers from Hunan Bird-Protecting Camp, headed by Li Feng, a volunteer and a journalist. The group had spent months tracking down the hunters and investigating the local bird market to seek out the profit chain behind the hunt.

They encountered a lot of difficulties. "Once, a volunteer and I were forced to jump from a cliff to escape being discovered by the villagers," Li told a CCTV news program.  They were only saved by grabbing on to bushes during their fall.

The film shows villagers using high-frequency lights on the hilltops and a 10-meter-high, 8-meter-wide net to ensnare the migrating birds. The birds, which generally fly close to the hills, crashed into the net, and most were killed.  Those that had escaped the net were brought down by villagers with guns or bamboo sticks.

The dangerous plight faced by the migrating birds has obviously touched a nerve among the public.

A group of volunteers from NGOs dedicated to protecting migrating birds has since launched a massive campaign against the slaughter, and are asking the central and local governments to set up a long-term protection mechanism.

Zhang Qigang, a bird expert from the National Bird Banding Center of China, which monitors numbers, types and the areas in which birds are spotted, lamented the fact that migrating birds that were banded in Jiangxi were never captured by banding centers in the rest of the country in the past decade.

"Possibly, they were killed soon after we banded them," Zhang said.

Changing people's attitudes toward hunting birds is greatly important, Zhang noted, adding that he spends most of his energy persuading people not to engage in the practice.

That meant occasionally being harassed by local villagers when they were stationed on hilltops to carry out banding.

Once, when he was setting up a net and preparing to capture birds, two villagers showed up halfway down the hill, and set fire to a tire to create heavy smoke. "After the smoke rose from the mountains, the birds changed their original route and avoided flying over the hilltop where we installed the net," Zhang said. He was unable to capture any birds that night.

"At the beginning, villagers misunderstood us and thought we were occupying their place, preventing them from using it to hunt birds," Zhang explained.

Gradually, Zhang began to contact the local forestry station and asked them to cooperate with the banding work. After officials from the forestry station joined in the study, villagers changed their attitudes, and some even began taking an interest in their work.

Turning bird hunters into bird-banding assistants also helped protect migrating birds. "We have recruited at least three bird hunters in Suichuan, Jiangxi Province, as volunteers for bird-banding. We used their place and they helped us capture birds with the net and freed them after we completed the banding," Zhang said, adding that experts were dispatched to teach volunteers how to free birds from nets to avoid hurting or killing them.

NGOs, bird experts and the government recognize it is important to work with local residents and groups.

"They have passion and are familiar with the area, they know about the birds and their minds will be changed after they participate in bird-banding," Zhang said.

Hunting tradition

In most villages along the border between Jiangxi and Hunan, hunting birds is a time-honored tradition. Their ancestors used to set trees on fire on the hilltops to lure the birds. Now, they use high-frequency lights instead, reports said.

Meanwhile, the increasing demand for migrating birds, considered a delicacy in parts of southern China, has resulted in an increase in hunting.

The business is a lucrative one. In Suichuan county, the per capita income of people in rural areas averages only 2,000 yuan ($320) a year, while hunting and selling migratory birds contributes to one-third of the total income.

"Villagers have no idea how much the birds might be worth. They follow the old saying that birds with thick necks which are tasty can be sold at a high price," Liu said.

Some villagers poach the birds just for fun. "Some youngsters who work in big cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen ask for leave and come back home to hunt birds," a 71-year-old villager who gave his surname as Chen told Southern Weekly.

The increase in the slaughter has put great pressure on the central and local governments. Campaigns were quickly launched to crack down on the hunting, selling, purchasing and transportation of migratory birds.

Hunan forestry police launched a month-long crackdown on the slaughtering of birds on October 18 in a bid to prevent wild animals from ending up on restaurant tables.

A total of nine cases were solved, eight suspects detained, and more than 1,260 migrating birds were freed as of October 24.

Nature reserves

Experts agree that building a string of nature reserves along the route will help protect migrating birds.

Initiated by Liu Huili, the Nature University wrote a public letter to the State Forestry Bureau late October, calling on the government to set up nature reserves along the migratory birds' route, especially in key areas like Jiangxi and Hunan, in a bid to protect them from poachers.

The letter was widely circulated on the Internet. As of press time, around 20 NGOs and bird-watching societies had signed the letter.

"A majority of the nature reserves are located in western China, while the routes of the migrating birds are mainly in the middle and eastern parts of China. The current nature reserves are not likely to help protect the migrating birds," Xie Yan, director of the WCS China Program, an NGO dedicated to protecting wild animals, told the Global Times.

China has set up several nature reserves in recent years at Dongting Lake and Poyang Lake, where the migrating birds can stay all through the winter and breed.

However, the lack of nature reserves along the route has resulted in large numbers of birds being killed before they even reach the habitat, Xie said.

Some experts suggested setting up nature protection areas in the counties along Luoxiao Mountain, including Suichuan in Jiangxi Province and Guidong in Hunan Province, where the killing takes place.

According to a four-year survey carried out by the National Bird Banding Center of China, at least 100 species of migrating birds fly over Luoxiao Mountain each year, 20 of which are categorized as birds under national protection.

In a seminar held last Sunday, bird experts, conservation experts and zoologists agreed it was necessary to build protection areas along the route to protect the migrating birds, but they were concerned these efforts would be in vain without the support of the local and central government.

"There are still a considerable number of residents living in these areas. Establishing nature reserves doesn't mean forcing them to leave their old homes, but the local government should impose some restrictions on people's activities in the nature reserves," Zhang Zhengwang, a professor from the China Ornithological Society, told the Global Times.

Residents of the nature reserves are required not to hunt birds, cut trees, or explore local natural resources in the core area of the nature reserves, Zhang said.

Instead, they should develop organic agriculture, the bird-watching industry and tourism to help the local economy.

In this respect, most mountainous areas in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces can easily be turned into bird-watching sites, Zhang noted.

In Luoxiao Mountain, located on the border between Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, large areas of primeval forest provide a good shelter for a diverse range of resident birds. In addition, more than 1 million birds flew over Luoxiao Mountain during the migrating season.

More than 100 species of birds have been discovered in the area in past years, statistics showed.

"With more and more bird-watchers staying, living and spending money here, villagers realize that protecting birds can bring them wealth, and they also learn how to get along with the birds," Liu said.

Bolstering law enforcement measures in the nature reserves is also of vital importance.

"The management of the nature reserves mainly relies on the local government. The central and local governments should promote awareness of wildlife laws among the local villagers and impose harsh penalties on the hunters," Xie Yan said.

According to the Wild Animal Protection Law, anyone who captures, kills, sells, buys, transports or carries wildlife that comes under special State or local protection must be fined or prosecuted.

However, the lack of law enforcement means poachers have no deterrent. "The forestry policemen can be seen when they climb up the hills holding torches, which gives poachers the opportunity to run away. They can also be tipped off if the forestry policemen go to the site," Liu Huili said.

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