Three Questions With: Chen Liwei

The Paulson Institute recently launched a Coastal Wetlands Conservation Network in China, allowing wetlands managers, nonprofits and academics to share best practices and information to improve conservation of the crucial—and severely threatened—ecosystems. Chen Liwei, who runs the Institute’s wetlands projects, explains why we should care—and describes the time he first experienced the magic of the Siberian crane.

Chen Liwei holding a stem of Spartina, an invasive species of grass that threatens China’s wetlands, at Minjiangkou Estuary in Fujian Province


Why did the Paulson Institute establish this network?

This is a crisis moment for China’s wetlands: they are threatened by land reclamation, pollution and the spread of invasive grasses that destroy their ecosystems. The coastal wetlands’ area has shrunk by 22% over the past 10 years; only 32.75% of the natural coastline remains intact. One key problem in China’s 400 coastal nature reserves, wetland parks and protected zones is that they are managed by different agencies, weakening their effectiveness. Erratic management makes the problem worse. The Paulson Institute established this network to help re-think the role of the wetland protected areas and help grassroots voices be heard by decision makers and the public.


Why should we care about the wetlands?

The coastal wetlands are the first line of defense against rising sea levels caused by climate change, and they provide crucial eco-services, such as water purification and flood control for the 560 million people who live in China’s coastal provinces. In 2014, these 11 coastal provinces accounted for 58.6% of the country’s GDP. The wetlands’ eco-services are a guarantor of the region’s sustainable economic development. The wetlands also provide a mid-journey resting place for endangered migratory birds, which spend several months there each year, refueling and resting on their long annual journey—in some cases all the way from far-flung Siberia to Australia and New Zealand! These birds are part of our valuable natural heritage. Their beauty and amazing migration are one of the great wonders of the world. China needs to share responsibility for their care.


What is your favorite migratory bird, and why?

I would have to say Siberian crane. It was a mid-March, sunny afternoon at Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province, and suddenly I witnessed swirling clouds before me. Several hundred Siberian cranes had jumped into the air from the surface of the lake, swirling and soaring until their figures could not be distinguished. I could only see the reflection of sunlight from the cranes’ wings. I don’t know how long it took before I realized cold tears were slipping down my face, dropping from my chin. Later I understood that all migratory birds are elegant and vulnerable and need our protection. But that day, those Siberian cranes were like fairies between heaven and earth.