Every year millions of birds fly 1000s of miles between the two hemispheres of the planet. Incredibly, there are only eight migratory routes that the birds take and three of these pass-through China. The westernmost of the three routes crosses Tianjin, making the city an important stop over between the summer breeding grounds in the north and the wintering areas of the south. It’s also the place where large numbers of migratory birds were once caught in huge numbers. Song birds are caged for their beautiful voices. Others are eaten as a delicacy, as health supplements, or in the belief that because they are wild they are healthier. Some are sold to Buddhist monasteries as part of a practice known as “Fangsheng.”
Fangsheng, translated as life release, is the traditional Buddhist practice of freeing captive creatures. The participants believe that by releasing the animals, they generate spiritual merits. Although the original intention of the practice was to show compassion to caged animals, the popularity of the ceremony has, paradoxically, fuelled the market in their capture. Before a change in the law, officials estimated around 200 million fish, snakes, turtles and birds were released each year in China.
Since 2017 new laws have been introduced to protect wildlife. This has been in response to growing public awareness and changes in attitude towards the environment. Part of that change has been facilitated by the work of an informal network of thousands of environmental volunteers and activists across China. One of the best known is Liu Yidan a former Tianjin restaurant owner. who started buying turtles and birds in the local market and releasing them in 2007. Soon, during the migrating season Liu was spending every morning at the market. She together with other Tianjin Buddhists released a few hundred birds every day, but on some day’s they could release over 10,000 birds.
They spent an estimated $150,000 on freeing birds over the next few years. Liu became well known to sellers and on arrival at the market, prices would be raised and she would be crowded by vendors who knew she would buy as many as she could. Liu understood that her actions encouraged the trade, but at that time there was little more she could do. She was also aware this was just the tip of the iceberg: there were at least five bird markets in Tianjin fed by truckloads of birds that came to the market from all over the area and the neighbouring province. The daily turnover was worth hundreds of thousands of yuan.
Changes to the law gradually brought protection to wildlife, but because of lack of enforcement it did little to reduce the traditional practice of capturing wild animals. The most common methods used for poaching birds are mist nets laid over bushes and pellets of poison or pesticides to drug them. The methods are not discriminatory over which species are caught and the effect on populations nationally has been devastating. The yellow-breasted bunting for example, was once one of the most abundant birds in Asia. A popular delicacy in southern China where it is believed to boost sexual vitality and detoxify the body, its numbers have declined by 95% since 1980. It is now classified as critically endangered, a category short of extinction in the wild. Other endangered birds like the spoon-billed sandpiper and Nordmann’s greenshank, while not directly targeted, are still vulnerable to nets.
The change in the law allowed Liu to switch from just buying the captured birds to trying to destroy the source of the trade. Liu and her action team began going out in the early mornings searching for the traps and nets. When they were found the birds would be released and nets cut up with scissors. Since then, over 10,000 bird nets and traps in the fields and forests of Tianjin and neighbouring province have been destroyed including one that was an incredible 10,000-meters long. She has also reported almost 400 cases to the police.
In the beginning it was often dangerous work. She received death threats from the poachers and bird dealers and at one point, 3 million RMB was offered for the life of ‘The Iron Bird Lady’ as she had become known. Her son quit his job and started accompanying her as a body guard when one clash left her recovering at home for a month. Many of the poachers didn’t know the law and the authorities took little action, Members of her group have been arrested or warned not to continue their activist work because it could embarrass local authorities. Some Police members just laughed because they ate the birds themselves or considered it not a police issue.
But through continuous patrolling and reporting, Liu and other volunteers gradually built up an on-line following which drew the attention to the illegal bird trade. An interview with her on the state-run national television network, CCTV, raised awareness of it as a crime and led it being taken more seriously.
Illegal poaching still continues in Tianjin, but thanks to her work its nowhere near the scale it was. Liu now spends most of her time in other parts of China where the practice is still prevalent. She is part of a coalition of over 40 groups around the country that aim to conserve birds and wildlife. It has a proactive and increasingly sophisticated network of vigilantes following in her footsteps. They monitor the countryside and animal markets all over the China combating wildlife poaching, hacking down nets, tracking poachers with drone-mounted cameras, and chasing traffickers.
One of the continuing problems faced is that while catching wild animals is illegal, breading them on farms isn’t. Birds are still a popular food in the south of China and the demand means they can still be found in markets for sale. It is estimated that 20,000 birds are brought, on average, into the affluent province of Guangdong daily, adding up to more than 7 million a year.
Domestication and breeding licenses are issued to allow the breeding of non-wild animals. But there is no way to identify whether an animal on sale is wild or farmed. Many farms are believed to be buying and catching wild animals. The bird catchers, in order to make more money, feed the birds hormones, known in the industry as “fat boosters.” Then, in order to keep the bird intact, the bird is suffocated with a snakeskin bag. It’s a simple and easy to operate business. Tens of thousands of birds can be caught at one time and there are huge profit margins to be made. A bird catcher can sell a bird for 10 RMB but it’s value can be 200 hundred times higher by the time it reaches the table.
Liu Yilan’s work has led to the forestry police raiding illegal warehouses of dead animals or rescuing live wildlife from illegal vendors. She has helped seize more than 10 tons of corpses and organs of endangered wild animals, some of which were Class I and II protected species.
Now in her 50s, with rheumatism in her hands caused by frequent sorting of frozen corpses in cold storage units, she has no plans of giving up. So long as there is a demand for wildlife, the illegal poaching will continue. Her bravery in combating poachers, dealing with local police and authorities and her tireless campaigning has saved millions of birds’ lives. Her on line blog of her success continues to raise awareness and knowledge which could help stop species from being eaten to extinction.