The fate of one of the world’s most endangered birds is closely tied to the future of China’s disappearing coastal wetlands.
Shi Yi May 11 2016
It was the kind of news experts only believe if they see it with their own eyes: A man in China claimed he had spotted 100 spoon-billed sandpipers foraging on the muddy coast of the Yellow Sea.
The bird is so small that it would barely cover the hand of a grown woman. It is also so rare that a group of such a size would constitute a fifth of the worldwide population.
“Count them,” wrote Tong Menxiu, the man who found them. “Just in one photo there are dozens of them.” Tong is a birdwatcher from the eastern Chinese province of Fujian.
Every year around May, the tiny sandpiper migrates more than 8,000 kilometers south, from Arctic northeastern Russia through Japan, the Korean peninsula, and China, before arriving at its wintering grounds in Myanmar, Thailand, and Bangladesh. In the spring, it returns to Kamchatka and other coastal areas in Siberia.
Without the nourishing mudflats of coastal China along the way, especially around the eastern province of Jiangsu, the spoon-billed sandpiper wouldn’t be able to make such an arduous journey.
The chances that the bird will still exist in five years are already slim. If China isn’t on board in protecting it, sustaining the population becomes near impossible.
The chief problem is that China’s coastal wetlands are being destroyed on a large scale.
A year after Tong's discovery, in 2012, Christoph Zockler, a German researcher and expert with the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper Task Force, travelled to Jiangsu province, along with several other experts.
“We couldn’t believe him,” Zockler said, referring to Tong and his claims. “So we went and saw for ourselves that it was a huge number.”
The conservationists were thrilled. The bird, with its distinctive spatula-shaped bill, is one of the most endangered species in the world. In the 1970s, there were around 2,000 to 2,800 of them, but habitat loss and poaching have decimated the population.