The important post on Baer’s Pochard and conservation approaches contains a diagram showing the location of the “Suncheon Bay WWT Wetland” within Suncheon City’s Eco-Geo park (“Ecogeo”), an area constructed to host the 2013 international garden expo.
The post also includes the comment that the Suncheon Bay WWT Wetland is “stocked with flamingos and pinioned Whooper and Black Swans”. As a Korean bird and habitat conservation organisation, Birds Korea has therefore already contacted with several leading staff at the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), in emails and by telephone. This was to confirm WWT’s role in the wetland; to discuss context; and to express some concerns. At the appropriate time, we will also convey our concerns to those in Suncheon City. As such we believe it helpful at this time to express some of our concerns publicly, for consideration by our members and by other organisations. We welcome feedback, corrections and additional information.
Ecogeo lies close to Suncheon Bay which, as most Birds Koreans and visitors to our online media know, is one of the nation’s most important wetlands for waterbirds. The Bay itself supports internationally important numbers of several species, including the nation’s largest wintering concentration of globally Vulnerable Hooded Crane Grus monacha. These Hooded Crane feed mostly in the rice-fields (increasingly on artificially-provided food) and once disturbed fly to the tidal-flats for roosting. The cranes are less shy than a decade ago. However, most still suspend feeding and even take flight when people approach within ~150m.
A visit to Suncheon Bay and to the new Ecogeo visitor’s wetland centre by a core Birds Korean (Andreas Kim) in August and a series of images taken at the time led to an internal discussion on whether this could really be a wetland and waterbird collection sanctioned by the WWT. The WWT has a long and excellent record in waterbird conservation, with much expertise too in habitat creation and management. They also have several large waterbird collections in the UK.
Online sources soon confirmed that the Suncheon Bay WWT wetland was constructed throughconsultancy with the UK-based WWT. Several emails and a phone call on August23rd with a leading WWT staffer further confirmed that the WWTadvised on the wetland construction, and off-the-record clarified that the WWTwas not involved in stocking the wetland with captive waterbirds.
Birds Korea does what our limited capacity allows to export and import best information relevant to bird and habitat conservation in Korea and the wider Yellow Sea Eco-region. Based on our assessment of domestic conservation needs, we have several interrelated concerns about the waterbird collection in the Suncheon Bay WWT wetland.
The WWT has created and restored several excellent wetlands overseas, and we are deeply encouraged that the WWT might be starting to import some of their expertise to the ROK. However, nationwide, there are already multiple wetland and eco-centres, many of which have been constructed close to sensitive wetland habitats. These include one at Suncheon Bay constructed only a few years ago (see e.g. http://www.birdskorea.org/News/Members_updates/BK-MU-2010-03.shtml).
We also already have many eco-parks (many extremely poorly-designed, and constructed as part of the ecologically-disastrous Four Rivers project).
We agree that well-designed wetland centres and eco-parks can be valuable, but our nation urgently needs to move away from construction of yet more large buildings and controlled environments towards habitat management and habitat restoration. And we need wetland parks to enhance areas that were of low ecological value, not to replace habitat within or close to already internationally important wetlands.
Initially concerned that the role of the WWT was misrepresented in the diagram, we were reassured to learn that the WWT did not advise on the waterbird collection. However, we remain concerned that the Suncheon Bay WWT wetland holds a waterbird collection – containing a motley mix of species, some of which are pinioned.
Pinioning is the permanent removal of the end of a bird’s wing. We do not believe that pinioning is appropriate for bird conservation work in the ROK: rather it is both a serious welfare and conservation issue. We had not seen this approach in the ROK before, and therefore expect that pinioning was unwittingly imported to Suncheon by visits to wetland centres and waterbird collections outside of the ROK, quite likely including WWT centres. As an organisation, our views on pinioning are very similar to those expressed in the Bear’s Pochard blog-post referred to above.
The waterbird collection in the Suncheon WWT wetland undermines ongoing conservation work focused on species and their habitats in a number of ways. Many sensitive sites in the ROK (including Suncheon Bay) are threatened by infrastructure development, increased disturbance and lack of appropriate management. Biodiversity at many wetlands is also threatened by invasive alien species.
The centre and WWT wetland aims to be a gateway to Suncheon Bay wetland and to educate people. The present waterbird collection, however, is wholly unrepresentative of the ROK as it contains several exotic species not found naturally in East Asia (e.g. Black Swans and Flamingos).
By containing birds that cannot fly away, the collection sends a strong signal to human visitors that waterbirds are not easily disturbed. However, research by Birds Korea in addition to scientific publications made available to us identify disturbance as a potentially major conservation issue that can affect a broad range of species (including cranes in some areas).
A waterbird collection at this wetland contributes to the mindset that nature exists solely for people – and can be easily experienced and easily controlled. The waterbird collection therefore fails to provide a conservation-driven “informative experience” aimed at by the WWT consultants.
There is a further deep, long-term concern that arises from this “nature-should-be-controlled” mindset: why work to conserve habitat and try to address multiple threats to migratory waterbirds when instead you can buy birds and hold them captive for people to see up-close and personal?
If the Suncheon WWT waterbird collection proves popular, other cities and eco-parks will likely want to have their own collections too. Some, undoubtedly, will want to stock their wetlands with more “valuable” and “representative” species. At a meeting in Seosan in late 2011, a staffer at Seosan’s Birdland talked eagerly about having captive Oriental Storks Ciconia boyciana in their artificial wetlands. The Oriental Stork is a globally Endangered species that has been extirpated nationwide as a breeder and if present trends continue looks likely to be lost as a regular winter visitor to the ROK in the near-future.
While there are many excellent scientists in the ROK (several of them Birds Koreans), we believe that conservation science still has far too little influence over domestic development policies and wetland projects. This has contributed to the green-washing of many ecologically-destructive projects and to inappropriate conservation responses during much of the past decade. For example, brochures for the “environmentally-friendly” Saemangeum reclamation depicted Snow Geese and warm-water corals while those for the Four Rivers project had depictions of flocks of Flamingos, along with domesticated ducks and Whooper Swans (oddly similar to the present waterbird collection at Suncheon). And at Upo Ramsar site, efforts have been made since the mid-2000s to breed Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon in captivity, to restore a Korean breeding population to the wild. However, historically Crested Ibis was never recorded in the ROK (or DPRK) during the breeding season: it was a winter visitor. The project therefore entails an attempted introduction of an exotic breeding species into a protected wetland area and Ramsar site, in an area without the quality of habitat that the species needs.
And now look carefully at the diagram of the small Suncheon Bay WWT wetland, constructed in an area that was once rice-fields. You will see it depicts a group of Hooded Cranes, wading in water close to a viewing platform and some toilets...
We therefore need to ask: Where in this representation or in this waterbird collection is the science and the deep understanding of ecology essential to effective long-term conservation of birds and their habitats?
© Andreas Kim / Birds Korea
A sign of things to come?