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The uncertain return of Beijing wildlife

Leopard Cat

Outside a cafe in east Beijing, a small bird fluttered to the ground and hopped and pecked at the concrete. Beijing Bird Watching Society member Li Ming cracked a smile and said “Passer montanus.” A humble sparrow, which Li says is the city’s most common bird, with the magpie a close second.

You can find both species in the Illustrated Guide to Wild Birds of Beijing (北京野鸟图鉴) published in 2000. The book contains photos and descriptions of 276 species, but Li says he and his fellow bird watchers reckon there are now 430 species in the city and the surrounding countryside if you include migrants that only come for the summer.

At the Olympic Forest Park north of the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium, a pair of graduate students have spent the better part of two years observing birds for an ongoing study. Xing Shuang began the study as an undergraduate project funded for one year with a small stipend (basically bus fare to get to the park) by her college Beijing Forestry University. She was later joined by Cheng Wendu, an avian ecology student at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Zoology. Cheng says they have recorded 160 bird species in the park so far.

The Chinese nuthatch - occasionally seen in Beijing's Olympic Forest Park

The Chinese nuthatch - occasionally seen in Beijing's Olympic Forest Park

It’s an impressive number. Cheng credits the figure to the park being designed with an ecological purpose: “They used native [plant] species, the area of the park is quite large, and the landscape is diversified. There are marshlands, grasslands, woodlands, and the lake is an open water area.”
Birds they have spotted even include species that are normally restricted to mature woodlands, such as nuthatches.

Birds are the most visible of Beijing’s wild animals and by many accounts, the wild animal population of the city and its environs has been growing over the last decade, despite breakneck construction and the expansion of the city to beyond its sixth ring road.

This may be due in part to the success of the massive reforestation project begun in September 2000, known as the Beijing Tianjin Anti Dust Storm Project (京津防沙尘暴工程). In a 2005 interview with the Beijing Times, then head of the National Forestry Bureau Wang Zhibao said that a massive sandstorm that hit Beijing on April 5, 2000 provided the impetus for the project:

Wang Zhibao: On April 5, 2000, the sand storm was so severe that you could barely see a person standing ten or twenty meters from you. At that time I was head of the National Forestry Bureau. That day I was attending study sessions at the Party School. Some comrades asked me, “As leader of the responsible department, how do you feel?” 
I replied “If we did not have such a big sand storm, we could not get focus people’s attention, so the chance to undertake a massive project to remedy the problem has arrived.”
Journalist: So bad turned to good. What did you do after that?

Wang Zhibao: After I returned, I organized a comprehensive study, and presented the results to the State Council on April 27. In the beginning of May, leaders from the State Council made an inpection tour of the sources of the sand storms in the Beijing Tianjin area. After that, they decided to push forward with the Beijing Tianjin Anti Dust Storm Project. There are sand storm belts all over the country, but … it was decided to first tackle the area around the capital, and then use the experience to extend the project nationwide.

The initial plan spanned 74 surrounding counties and included tree planting (manually and by broadcasting seeds from airplanes), management of grasslands and water courses, and the relocation of around 500,000 inhabitants farming on eroded land.

According to a 2010 Xinhua report, after ten years the project had successfully successfully managed 1.3 billion mu of grasslands and 11,800 square kilometers of rivers and wetlands, relocated 170,000 people and reforested 90.02 million mu (14.82 million acres or 364, 298 square kilometers).

These newly planted trees have supplied a habitat for a host of local wildlife while holding down ground near the desert’s edge. Speaking to me at her offices at the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Xie Yan, China Project Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Secretary-General for the International Zoological Association, said that the creation of nearby nature preservation areas and some of the more eco-friendly parks that now surround Beijing have also played a major part in the improvements of the last decade.

Hog badger

Hog badger

“I think you actually record more bird species than ten years ago,” Xie said, describing net gains for local wildlife over the past ten years — with some caveats. She said the ecosystem surrounding Beijing had improved largely due to reforestation projects. She ticked off a list of mammalian species that could now be more easily found in the area: leopard cats (pictured at top of article), hog badgers, macaque monkeys and weasels among them.

Asked if any species served as ecological bellwethers, Xie pointed to the song of the cuckoo: “Whenever you can hear that sound, that means the forest is okay.” For wetlands, she said, the bellwether species are migrating birds such as mandarin ducks, swans, geese, cranes and herons.

Xie also gave much of the credit for the return of such species to the Beijing area to the establishment of nature-oriented eco-parks, or jiaoye gongyuan (郊野公园). But she said pollution remains a serious problem, as do the city’s further expansion and the relative isolation of reforested areas. If those green patches could be connected to make one large habitat, she said, animal populations would increase.

Xie also said that public knowledge of how to treat animals encountered in the wild or at home is wanting. Few Beijingers have been taught not to bother wildlife, or that feeding animals can condition them to expect food from humans and increase the odds of interspecies conflict.

The students Xing and Cheng working in the Olympic Forest Park are also looking at effects of people on bird life. This may prove key to the park’s ecological balance: their findings indicate that as the number of tourists has increased, the number of birds has declined. But perhaps the most important factor, Cheng said, is how parks in Beijing are managed:

Mandarin duck - a bellwether species

Mandarin duck - a bellwether species

“Every park in Beijing is under intense human maintenance. They cut grass and shrubs to make it tidy,” Cheng said. These methods and others, like covering large areas with a single species of plant, are common to parks built with people in mind but run counter to the nature of an eco-park. The result, he said, is a landscape so pristine that it resembles less and less the natural habitats of the birds the park was built for. Over the two years of observation Cheng and Xing Shuang have seen the number of species and their populations decrease; Mandarin ducks wintering at the park, one of the bellwether species mentioned by Xie, have fallen from a peak of around 200, probably thanks to subway construction around the park’s water area.

“The problem isn’t just in Beijing, because the birds migrate. Other parks in northeast China, southeast China, they all play a part,” he said. Though wary of discussing exact numbers before the study had been published, Cheng was straightforward in his assessment, and less optimistic than other observers: “It’s very obvious the bird numbers are declining dramatically these [two] years.”

Cheng said some species that used to be more common in the city, such as rooks, have disappeared and been replaced by carrion birds. Meanwhile changes in how buildings are designed have put Beijing’s swallows and swifts in a tough spot: the awnings and eaves of older buildings they once relied on for nesting nooks have been replaced by the sleek facades of high rise apartments and office buildings. As Beijing sprawls outward, the marshlands that the birds rely on for nest-building materials are retreating, Cheng said. The city is expanding and restructuring into a landscape that is increasingly inhospitable to its airborne residents.

But it’s not all bad news. Aside from the reforestation projects, and the eco-parks, environmental awareness is becoming more widespread, and there are more and more grass roots organizations such as the Beijing Bird Watching Society, which now has more than 200 members (100 yuan per year), and holds birding activities every weekend.

The society has been around informally since 2003, but was finally recognized as a government registered organization in 2007. Head of the society Fu Jianping became a bird watcher while serving as a magazine editor in the late 1990s. In order to find someone to write about bird watching for her magazine, Fu went birding herself. She stumbled upon a massive flock of heron that had made their breeding grounds on a riverside cliff. “That first time I saw so many of them there, and during their mating season their feathers are all very beautiful. I think that sight from across the river shocked me, deeply,” Fu said. She was instantly hooked on bird watching.

Azure-winged magpie - year round Beijing resident

Azure-winged magpie - year round Beijing resident

Fu said the Bird Watching Society’s weekend outings to parks in Beijing typically draw a mix of 20 to 30 members and non-members, with the latter welcome to participate free of charge. Full members do enjoy some perks, such outings to forests further afield. For the group’s last big trip it traveled to Taiwan for a peek at the island’s birds over the National Day holiday.

Fu said the group hopes to encourage locals to take an interest in watching birds rather than swinging them in cages at waist height while on strolls. Members give lectures at schools about conservation and local bird species. They are also trying to help Beijing’s displaced swifts and swallows by constructing bird houses to hang around places like Houhai, where the species often breed. The sentiment echoes Xie’s hopes for a more ecologically-minded citizenry; one that knows how to treat animals in the wild and respects nature in an urban setting.

“I think if people are willing to spend more time in nature and learn more about wildlife, it will really make their lives different,” Xie said. “Because a society like this, in concrete… in my view it’s not really life.”

Links and sources:
2005 Beijing Times interview with National Forestry Bureau head: 防沙尘暴肆虐北京 京津地区将“生态移民”50万
2010 Xinhua report on reforestation project: 京津风沙源治理工程启动10年来沙尘天气明显减少Map of Beijing eco parks
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Beijing Birdwatching Society
Home page, English info page
E-mail: beijingbws@163.com, beijingbws@yahoo.com.cn, cbw_2004@163.com
Phone: 1343 638 0443
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Park recommendations from local birders
Northern Beijing
• Olympic Forest Park: ideal for ducks, bittern and reed warblers during the summer.
• Botanical Garden: home to the Chinese nuthatch, and good for birds in winter.
• Summer Palace and Old Summer Palace: popular with ducks in spring and autumn, also hosts warblers, swifts and buntings.
Southern Beijing
• Temple of Heaven: come during winter to try and spot a long-eared owl.
Further afield
• Baihe Canyon in Miyun County, northwest of Beijng: home to the ibis-bill, a highly sought-after species among some UK birders.
Chenjiapu valley (wild Great Wall hikes, pheasants, azure-winged magpies, black kites)
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Books and recommended reading:
Illustrated Guide to Wild Birds of Beijing (北京野鸟图鉴)
Sometimes available on Dangdang, otherwise search Taobao.com for second hand copies
Biodiversity Atlas of China (中国生物多样性) by Xie Yan
Official Wildlife Conservation Society China page for book, book for sale here
Field Guide to the Birds of China (中国鸟类野外手册) by John Ramsay MacKinnon, Karen Phillipps, He Fenqi
English version, Chinese version (with English bird names)
A Field Guide to the Mammals of China by Federico Gemma, Andrew T. Smith, Xie Yan, Robert S. Hoffmann, Darrin Lunde, John MacKinnon, Don E. Wilson, W. Chris Wozencraft
On Amazon
Wildlife Conservation in China: Preserving the Habitat of China’s Wild West by Richard B. Harris
Preview and ebook, physical copy
Chinese Species Information Service (中国物种信息服务) by Wildlife Conservation Society China
Online in Chinese
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Earlier on Danwei
Wild leopard cats of Beijing
Disappearing swifts of Beijing
Wild leopards of Beijing, Another wild leopard in Beijing?
Hog badgers and weasels of Beijing, Hog badger in Yanqing
The snakes of Beijing – a short field guide
The crows of Beijing
Wild deers of Beijing