Advancing sustainable growth in the United States and China

Three Questions With: Spike Millington

Chief Executive, East Asia Australasia Flyway Partnership


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There is much doom and gloom about China’s wetlands and the future of the migratory birds they sustain. More than 60% of those wetlands have disappeared since 1950. Do you see any positive developments? Are you actually hopeful?

Yes, there have been positive developments, not least the declaration last month by the Governor of Hebei province to protect the coastal wetlands of that province, notably the Luannan coast, which is so vital for the continued survival of Red Knot and other long-distance migratory waterbirds in the East Asian – Australasian Flyway. Strengthened protection of other remaining intertidal areas of China’s coastal provinces would go a long way to saving these areas, not just for migratory waterbirds, but also for the many and varied benefits they provide in supporting local community livelihoods and broader ecosystem services, such as buffering sea-level rise and storm surges. I am also encouraged to see China beginning to push for World Heritage status for Yellow Sea intertidal areas, recognizing their global importance. Of course, many challenges remain to save China’s wetlands, such as recognizing them as valuable habitats rather than “waste lands” and changing policies and incentives for their conservation and wise management, rather than their destruction. But, with the current emphasis on ecological civilization, I believe these changes are coming, so I remain optimistic, even though time is not on our side.

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How has China’s attitude toward the wetlands and the migratory birds changed in the past, say, five years?

Spike Millington shares his knowledge of migratory birds with schoolchildren on Korea’s Jeju Island.

It is interesting you mention the last five years: in 2012, I saw a full page spread in “China Daily” entitled “Migration Devastation,” which detailed the plight of migratory shorebirds and China’s coastal mudflats. I was very pleasantly surprised to see the timely recognition of this issue, which I believe marked the start of an upsurge in understanding and concern for coastal wetlands and their importance to migratory waterbirds among, not only government agencies and academic institutes, but also the general public, where we have seen a rapid increase in birdwatching groups and societies. I think this also parallels an increasing awareness of the important role of China in safeguarding the waterbirds that depend on its wetlands to ensure that these birds can complete their migration from non-breeding grounds in Australia and New Zealand to their breeding areas in the Arctic regions. And together with this, there is an understanding of the need for international cooperation to save this migration, together with an increased sense of responsibility of the key role that China must play in this. Recently, we have seen Chinese government agencies, at the national and local levels, along with members of the public, respond quickly to cases of apparently deliberate poisoning of waterbirds. Social media networks have played an important role in coordinating timely responses to these events, too, so I think the change in attitude is also linked to greater ease of communication these days.

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What advice do you have for China, based on your international experience?

The scale of coastal development, and conversion of other wetland areas in China is quite staggering. Similar areas in the United States and western Europe also witnessed rapid development in earlier time, although the pace was slower, as technologies were less developed at that time. Many changes in wetland and coastal conversion were made there that are now recognized as mistakes, and restoration efforts are underway to re-create more natural water and tidal flows, including breaking down hard coastal defence infrastructure and removing dams. The cost of this is quite high, much higher than if these areas had been recognized for the natural ecological services they provided in terms of, for example, flood control. China does not need to repeat these mistakes: it can forge a better path by emphasizing the wise management of natural wetlands and harnessing the many benefits. One example concerns the eradication of alien invasive cordgrass (Spartina). Parts of the United States have 20 years’ experience and have spent many millions of dollars to rid coastal marshes and mudflats of these plants, and have come up with a cost-effective solution using minimal ecological impact herbicide. This is ready-to-use in China, which is suffering greatly from invasive Spartina. But to be maximally effective and save costs, this technology needs to be applied now. The longer China waits the worse the problem will become and the more expensive it will be to eradicate it and restore the coastal wetlands.

BONUS Question: What was your favorite birding experience in China, and why? What do you feel when you see the migratory birds?

Wow, that’s a tough one, China is such a rich and diverse country and I have so many happy birding memories! How to compare the glowing glimpse of a Golden Pheasant picking its way across the dark forest floor in Taibaishan in Shaanxi province with the whirring arrival of Pallas’s Sandgrouse at a small wetland in the Hulunbuir grasslands in Inner Mongolia? Birding is a very personal experience. While living in Beijing, I would make a point of going out to the Summer Palace in late April to greet the arrival of the Pallas’s Warblers, singing loudly from the ancient willow trees, and waiting eagerly at the local lotus paddies for the arrival of the first golden-headed Citrine Wagtails.

When birders talk about migratory birds, they talk of the renewal, of the changing of the seasons, and there is something truly wonderful about the arrival of shorebirds at newly-unfrozen lakes and of the warblers and flycatchers in the greening woods, knowing they have traveled so far. We experience similar emotions when the cranes and geese come in the early winter. But it is also the constancy, the sense that this migration has been going on for generations, despite the rapidly changing landscape that the birds encounter.

This is where I worry that some landscapes will change so much, such as the coastal mudflats that support millions of migratory waterbirds every year. That very soon this migration will dwindle and cease, and that future generations will not be able to enjoy the same spectacle that we witness now.

Which I guess brings me to another favorite birding experience, but one that doesn’t involve birds directly. It was two years ago, in May, at the birdwatching festival organized in Dandong, around Yalu Jiang. Thousands of people came, especially young people, and families with children, to look at the shorebirds massing on the mudflats, and the kids especially were so excited to show their parents. After the festival day, I expected that people would go back home, but in the next days as we surveyed the area, we met many groups and families who had come to see the birds and were eager to know more about them and why they were there. For me, it was genuinely inspiring, and at the same time, hopeful.

Topics: Coastal Wetlands, Conservation