I watched the small flock of Teal circle over the “reservoir”,
looking for a place to rest on their arduous northward journey. After circling four times, and failing to find
a deep enough area of water to land on, they flew off. I put my binoculars down and surveyed the damage that has
been done to one of the prime birdwatching sites at one of the world’s most important migration stop-off points.
Dismayed, I stared incredulously at
the dozen or more diggers and trucks that were crawling around on what was, until recently, the south end of a reservoir that
had been teeming with aquatic life and the birds that depend on its richness.
I’m not ashamed to admit that my bottom lip began to quiver as I called a friend
to find out what was happening – after all, this area had been, I had understood, designated a “protected area”
(one of only two protected areas on the entire Qinhuangdao coastline as far as I know).
I found out that the official line is that
“they are cleaning the river”. Incredible as this seemed, I was at
least given a little hope that my fears that this precious place is being “developed” are groundless. But even if it is restored to its former glory (or miraculously
improved), the decision to drain the reservoir in the spring – when numerous fresh-water-dependent birds pass through
the area – is breathtakingly heartless.
I have been coming to Beidaihe every spring for the past 16 years and have witnessed a gradual decline in the prime habitat
that the migrants depend on. “Gradual”, that is, until this visit, when on a single day I saw destruction on a
bigger scale and faster pace than I have ever seen here before: the Yang estuary has been dammed; twenty per cent of the bird-magnet little wood near there has been cut away; many of
the fish-rich ponds near the Yang river have been filled in and another housing estate is being built; housing estates are
also being built on the sides of the Dai river; a housing estate now occupies the entire area of the once-fabulous (for birds)
“Radar Marsh”; and 4x4s were driving around the sandflats, the only other “protected area” (at least
that’s what the sign says).
Last year, I attended the International
Bird Festival in Beidaihe, where dozens of birdwatchers, environmentalists, and a few government officials gathered to talk
about the importance of protecting this critically-important migration area. Words are easy, but words need to be judged by their effectiveness. And judging by what I have seen today, those pleas for help, aimed at the
only people who can provide the islands of protection against the relentless tide of infrastructure development in this country
– the government officials – fell on deaf ears. As they always do. Over the course
of 16 years, the only designated “protected areas” I am aware of have been at the reservoir and sandflats (see
This really is a crying shame, not just for the birds, but also for the reputation of Qinhuangdao (the city that is responsible
for the administration of Beidaihe). Among
birdwatchers and environmentalists around the world, the Qinhuangdao region is a world-famous location – more than 400
species of birds have been seen within the city’s borders. Every year for the past 16 years, scores of foreigners made the long trip here to witness one of
the greatest migration spectacles on the planet (they write about it, taje photos of it, and tell others about it, who in
turn come to see it for themselves). The
city’s residents know about this and many are quite rightly proud of their city’s international “status”.
The city’s government has, not surprisingly,
been keen to leverage this for its own PR. If
you read the gushing local tourist books and look at the local government’s official website (they have an English version
of it if you would like to take a look), you get the impression that the people responsible for the area are acutely aware
of the importance of protecting the natural environment, and that this is a “green haven”. Indeed, this idea of “green, harmonious development” is something
that has been embraced by all levels of government in China. This policy is not just simply the right thing to do ethically it also (as I have touched on) pays dividends in terms
of how a city is perceived – by its citizens and by the tourists that visit it (domestic and overseas).
Only a handful of China’s 700 or
so cities are as fortunate when it comes to the richness of the natural environment and the diversity of the wildlife that
falls within their jurisdiction. In this
respect, nature has dealt Qinhuangdao the most marvellous hand. And this is why the people responsible for running the city have to act now before it’s too late, because there’s one thing far, far worse than not being famous
for something, and that is being infamous for wantonly flushing that precious something down the toilet.
Being known as the city that used to be famous for birds and birdwatching would not be an advertising slogan to be proud