Saving China’s “Swan Lake”

“From October to next March flocks of cranes and other wild waterfowls alight on Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake in Jiangxi Province, to escape winter,” says Gong Zeng, deputy to the Ninth National People’s Congress and member of the Jiangxi Environment and Resources Protection Commission. “These birds, including rare white cranes, gray cranes, mandarin ducks, and swans, fly here from China’s north and Siberia, forming a unique lake scene acclaimed as the “White Great Wall of China” by foreigners, for most of them are white.”

Yet, Gong Zheng said, the poaching and slaughter of wildlife still prevails, despite countermeasures. He called for a series of measures to be adopted to stop wildlife slaughter and illegal trading at the National People’s Congress, which is in session now. Meanwhile, the National People’s Congress should strengthen supervision. His proposals have aroused the great concern of the central government, since Poyang Lake is a world renowned resort for many first- and second-class waterfowls under state protection.

Gong said October through March is the dry season for Poyang Lake, which usually sees the forming of nine stretches of shallow marshlands, creating an ideal winter haven for migratory birds. There are 310 species in the region totaling one million birds. Among these, 50 species are under state protection. Last year, some 2,990 white cranes, a bird near extinction, came here, accounting for 98 percent of the world’s total.

Yet over-fishing and illegal trading of white cranes and ducks near the lake zone have seriously disrupted and threatened normal activities, said Gong. The lake has witnessed decreasing flocks of birds arriving. To safeguard their winter resorts, the Poyang Lake Nature Reserve was established in 1983, with an area of 22,400 hectares. Yet, the wild birds protection effort in the lake zone has gone through a tortuous course for various reasons.

The catering industry in China’s southern provinces have always covertly served dishes of wild animal meat to attract customers at a fairly expensive price, which is a stimulus for those wanting to make a quick fortune by conducting this trade. Some criminal gangs are even established for this purpose, although related China law stipulates that those killing or transporting wild animals under second-class state protection are subject to severe punishment.

In addition, the reserve is set up in an area where local fishermen have lived for hundreds of years. Now, they are forced to suspend their fishing during the stay of migratory birds so as not to erode their habitats. As a result, local people are suffering losses since fishing is not allowed in the best fishing season and their living is not as good as before. Some secretly fish and others turn to poaching, spreading fish nets or spraying poison to capture the wild birds. This became most rampant in 1998.

Furthermore, some local factories are established near the lake, causing heavy pollution. Some of them have been forced to close by the Jiangxi provincial government. Yet, for local economic reasons, some still exist. Coordination between various departments is a must to solve this problem, said Gong Zeng. Local governments still lacks strong determination in this matter and some are ignorant of the wildlife protection law.

After a long investigation, the provincial government of Jiangxi determined to tackle the problem, especially as it launched environmental agricultural development in 1999. At the end of that year, the provincial Department of Public Security launched a large campaign against wildlife poaching and trade, captured more than 10 gangs and saved several thousand birds. Hence, much of the illegal behavior has been brought under control. In 2000, an increasing number of wild birds returned to Poyang Lake once again. Yet, loopholes still exist.

Poyang Lake has been frequented by the British and Danish princes, large numbers of UN experts ornithologists, and bird-lovers. Since the establishment of the reserve, scholars, experts and tourists from many foreign countries have come to watch the graceful white cranes, which they consider as a scene unique to China but should be protected by all the people in the world.

“Don't turn Poyang Lake into the slaughterhouse of wild birds,” once warned Shen Baoxiang of the School of the Central Party Committee, who has twice urged the Jiangxi provincial government to strengthen the crime attacking.

Gong said that, to improve the situation by a big margin, intensified efforts and related policies must be adopted to protect nature. We should achieve common knowledge that biological variety should be guaranteed for sustained and harmonious development between man and nature. Wildlife and environment protection awareness should also be further enhanced in society on a whole. In addition, Gong hoped that media should play a bigger role in exposing the related misbehaviors and publicizing wildlife protection knowledge.

Most important of all, said Gong, government should give subsidies or other forms of compensation to local fishermen and help them develop a diversified economy to increase their income while preserving the ecosystem. Balance should be obtained between bird protection and improving local people’s livelihood. Local forestry workers near the lake should be mobilized and encouraged to participate in the protection. Only through joint efforts by related organizations and people can wild lives near the lake be better protected and cared. Law enforcement and supervision should be intensified to stop the loopholes in this regard.

Gong said ecological tourism should be developed cautiously at Poyang Lake, which has seen a flourishing development in the world. Gong stressed that the Poyang Lake Nature Reserve should learn from other successful nature reserves in terms of tourism development. Large and frequent groups should not be allowed to visit the lake zone since many wild birds will be frightened away.

Gong said he was glad that the cranes arriving at Poyang Lake had increased in number and variety from October 2000 to April this year. China is a country boasting great variety of flora and fauna resources, yet it is still a country not doing enough work in protecting them. Moreover, as ecosystem and environment in some areas in the country are destroyed, he called for solid and concrete measures to be carried out by the country, instead of just issuing orders and regulations.

(CIIC by Guo Xiaohong 03/14/2001 )