The wilds of eastern Siberia are an avian paradise. Seeds, berries, grubs and water in abundance and barely a human in sight. But the winters are notoriously harsh and so come September, a great migration south begins.
Some of the migrating birds fly to India, others to Southeast Asia or on as far as Australia. But wherever their destination, they have to pass over Chinese territory.
In fact, three of the world’s major north-south routes for migrating birds pass above China. And yet, birds are not a common sight. In the countryside around Beijing, people will often comment if they see anything other than a sparrow or a crow, underlining the relative rarity of these sightings.
China, of course, has a somewhat checkered history in its relations with birds. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao ordered people to shoot sparrows on sight “because they starved the people of the fruits of their labour” (they ate seeds). Later, when the Great Leap Forward ended in disaster and famine followed, people turned to trapping and eating birds to survive.
So no surprise that China’s indigenous avians tend to keep a low-profile. The migratory birds have yet to do likewise – to their cost.
This has become evident in a new 12 minute documentary The Shameful Slaughter of Birds on the Millennium Skyway.
Shot by Li Feng, a young journalist from Changsha in the central province of Hunan, it shows how China’s newfound prosperity has led to an increase, rather than a decrease, in the capture and consumption of wild birds.
Working under the cover of darkness, poachers erect large nets between trees and then use bright lights and flares to drive birds into them. The documentary shows how one gang bagged over a tonne of birds in a single night.
Hunan is particularly good for trapping birds because the Millennium migratory route narrows at this point, creating a greater concentration of migrants, Xinhua comments.
The birds are then sold on to restaurants around the country. A poacher in the video is heard saying that swans, egrets, owls and herons fetch the best prices.
Feng made the film – which is shot rather amateurishly – in September and October this year and uploaded it to the internet two weeks ago. But it has already been viewed almost 300,000 times and sparked a passionate debate about the poaching activity.
“Do not hunt migrant birds any more. If this goes on birds will not fly through China, we will see even fewer birds in our sky…” warned one Sina Weibo user.
Some went back to history, with the recollection that plagues of locust followed in the wake of the mass killing of birds in the late fifties. Others suggested that eating wild birds could lead to the creation of a new diseases such as SARS and avian flu.“Saving them is saving ourselves,” one weibo user claimed.
Younger Chinese have become more concerned with animal rights in recent years, with campaigns to curtail the sale of shark’s fin soup, the farming of bear bile or the sale of dogs for meat.
The outcry over the bird video has also forced the Hunanese provincial authorities to take action. On October 22 the State Forestry Administration issued an emergency notice saying that it will punish those found to be killing and trading in wild birds. Xinhua also reported on Saturday that two poachers had been arrested, with state radio suggesting that the authorities in the southern province of Guangdong had also arrested 12 poachers and confiscated 9,800 wild animals, including migratory birds.
Demand for wild bird meat is particularly high in Guangdong, where locals refer to rice birds – wild birds that feed on paddy fields – as “flying ginseng” because of their supposed health benefits.
Back in Hunan the police took to social networking sites to remind people not to eat wild bird meat. But many on weibo claimed that it isn’t ordinary people who drive the trade.
“It should be easy for government officials to protect these birds” wrote one use. “All they have to do is stop eating them themselves!”
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