FOR THESE impressed by nature on a planetary scale, it is a special time of year. During the fall bird migration, around 50 individuals from 155 species of waders and other waterfowl descend the great avian artery known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.
It extends from the breeding grounds in Alaska and the extreme northeast of Russia to Australia and New Zealand. In Hong Kong, where Banyan resides, the wetlands and mud flats of Mai Po are of global significance – a crucial pit stop along the flyway. Fion Cheung from WWF, who works to protect Mai Po, says it’s filling up with early arrivals: Eurasian curlews, with long, curved beaks and broad-billed sandpipers.
The waders who depend on the rich tidal mudflats for food need all the help they can get in this part of the world. Illegal hunters have set up anti-fog nets along the Chinese coast. Worse yet, in just 70 years, China has lost more than half of its coastal wetlands to “reclamation”. In a senseless project in South Korea, 400 square kilometers of tidal estuary were locked in Saemangeum. Among the many affected species, the spoon-billed sandpiper is now threatened with extinction. When two “spoons” arrived in Mai Po this year, Ms. Cheung says, bird watchers outnumbered them several times.
So the small group of birding experts from Asia were dismayed earlier this month when the world’s largest bird conservation organization, BirdLife International, a UK-based coordinating group NGOs around the world, expelled its longtime Taiwan member, the Chinese Federation of Wild Birds (CWBF). the CWBF led the charge to protect the habitat of the black-faced spoonbill, which breeds in the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea, winters in Taiwan and further south, and had shrunk to just 400 individuals . The number climbed to over 4,800, largely thanks to the CWBFefforts of.
Even more striking, the CWBF helped bring the Chinese crested tern back from the dead. In 1937, an ornithologist cut down 21 specimens and put them in a drawer at the Beijing Museum. Never seen after that, the Chinese crested tern was presumed extinct. But in 2000, Taiwanese bird watchers rediscovered a few birds on disputed islets just off the Chinese coast. Out of perhaps a dozen individuals, the number is around 40 pairs that breed on the Taiwanese and Chinese islands – still one of the rarest birds in the world.
BirdLife International denies that China, which claims Taiwan as its own and opposes anything that gives it the appearance of an independent country, encouraged the deportation of CWBF. Instead, BirdLife argues, implausibly, that in order to preserve its charitable status in Britain, it had to seek assurances that the CWBF would not take any “political” position regarding Taiwan’s international status – that the CWBF refused to do. BirdLife may have taken the plunge on its own, hoping for better access to China, or perhaps even increased funding. If so, there is still no sign of either.
Allen Lyu from CWBF insists the organization is apolitical and has always bent over backwards to accommodate diplomatic niceties (it has already changed its name three times to allay concerns). Whatever the details, the expulsion takes place in a region made more fragile by Chinese assertiveness. In recent days, China has gotten angry over a list of American arms races that Taiwan wants to contain the type of invasion China reserves the right to launch against it. In a show of force, nearly 40 Chinese fighter jets crossed the middle line of the two countries in the Taiwan Strait (right on the flyway). Even New Zealand has it in its neck to, among other things, support Taiwan’s involvement in the World Health Organization, which China vehemently opposes.
In these tense times, applaud the Asians whose passion for conservation helps keep the channels open. North Korea’s decision to protect two wetlands under an international convention is perhaps the only recent example where the nuclear state has sincerely embraced global institutions. The Chinese crested tern saga has strengthened relations between mainland and Taiwanese bird watchers, who hold an annual meeting on the status of the tern hosted by the CWBF. Four years ago, New Zealand and China signed a treaty to protect the habitat of the Band-tailed Godwit which, according to Maori tradition, carries the spirits of their ancestors from their ancestral homeland. What better emblem could there be for cross-border cooperation?
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Twitchers Without Borders”