The slaughter of migratory birds in Hunan

Yan Jiawen and Li Feng undercover the shocking killing of migrating birds in Hunan province, south China

The article won the prize for Biggest Impact at chinadialogue’s China Environmental Press Awards, and lead directly to a huge nationwide “let the birds fly” campaign.

Their report revealed the shocking slaughter of migratory birds and led to three key counties signing an agreement on joint protection of the birds and the formation of a joint force to patrol the borders between them. Hunan Forestry Police cracked down on hunting in seven cities and prefectures, while the State Forestry Administration dispatched a working group to coordinate the fight against bird hunting.

The Luoxiao mountains in Hunan province rise to over 2,000 meters at their peak. From autumn the strong mountain winds make a thick jacket essential. But the mountain air is clear and on a good night the sky is full of stars. Autumn also brings the spectacle of huge flocks of migrating birds heading south through the mountain passes.

But what should be a path to warmth and food becomes death for countless birds. The passes of China’s second most important route for migratory birds are now slaughtering grounds, filled with illegal hunters and their guns and nets.

Bird-hunting is popular in Guidong and Yanling counties, and everyone knows it goes on. In the past hunters would burn wood or tyres to light up the mountain side in order to attract the birds. Today they use powerful LED lights for better range. Rain and fog are the best weather for the hunters.

In September, 2012, on our first trip as “hunters” into the mountains we found around a hundred of them sitting in holes dug for shelter. With no guns or other equipment, we would have aroused suspicion, so we stayed a safe distance away.  In October, we took infrared cameras so we could get closer. This time we masqueraded as buyers, carrying large bags through the hills.

The hunters work in groups, with a clear division of labour: light-operators, shooters, and collectors. There are also outsiders in expensive cars who come to shoot the birds for fun.. One hunter said that on October 3rd, 2012, a single group of hunters had collected over one tonne of bird carcasses.

Early on the 10th of October we visited the Guidong market as buyers. More than ten traders quickly surrounded us hawking their wild birds. One trader said that people sell birds almost every day, at up to several hundred yuan per bird. The sellers also said they could arrange for swans to be supplied at request. Alongside the live birds, dried meat was also for sale. Most local restaurants sell bird dishes, ranging in price from tens of yuan to the hundreds. Cost is determined by how protected the bird is – the higher the level of protection, the more expensive.

We immediately reported this to the Guidong Forestry Bureau, who visited the market the same day – somehow the traders who’d been present a few minutes previously had suddenly disappeared. The authorities were able to confiscate three birds left behind.

For the birds, surviving being shot is just the start of an even worse fate. Their beaks are bound, their feathers plucked one by one. There’s a local belief that blood taken from a live bird is highly nourishing. The only time the locals stopped eating birds was during the bird flu scare.

“The slaughter would stop if there was no business to be done. Such hunting will eventually lead to an imbalanced ecology,” said one ornithologist.

Deng Xuejian, a professor at Hunan Normal University, investigated the problem and came up with a bold solution: designate the area an international bird-watching reserve. He thinks the locals could then make money from tourism, spurring the local economy and improving living conditions. “When people realise the birds attract tourists and provide a living, do you think they’ll still hunt them?”