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January 16 2006: "Birdwatch Day for Saemangeum"

There are probably almost as many reasons for going birding as there are birders, but how about going birding next month to help researchers and conservationists prevent further destruction of the Yellow Sea's remaining shorebird staging sites?

Apart from my important, bill-paying work serving tea and coffee at 39000' and working ridculously long hours on this blog, I co-founded an organisation called Birds Korea with my brother Nial, Park Meena and Kim SuKyung (colleagues in Korea) that is dedicated - as our website states - to " the conservation of birds and their habitats in South Korea and the broader Yellow Sea Eco-region".

A key area of concern of ours is the catastrophic (and there's really no other word for it) reclamation of 40100 ha of tidal-flats and estuary on the South Korean west coast, known as the Saemangeum Reclamation Project. To put that many hectares in perspective it equates to 400sq km, or to an area two-thirds the size of The Wash (UK), or is equivalent to four times the tidal flat area of Farewell Spit, North-west Nelson, and five times the area of the Firth of Thames - New Zealand's two intertidal Ramsar sites. Saemangeum (actually the confluence of the Mangyeung and Dongjin Rivers, and which used to form an even bigger super-system with the neighboring Geum River) is used by around 400,000 staging shorebirds a year - including rapidly disappearing species such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann's Greenshank, and more than 100000 Great Knot (an estimated 40% of the global population): in fact 27 - 30 species of waterbird occur at Saemangeum in internationally important concentrations (according to Ramsar criteria, to which South Korea is - incidentally - a signatory).

This huge area is in the process of being closed off by a 6 metre high sea-wall. There will be no habitat left when "Saemangeum" is dried out, despite "plans" to build a 300ha "marsh": a totally unsuitable habitat for tidal-flat, saltwater specialist feeders. In just a few years time 400,000 birds will have lost the most important staging area in the Yellow Sea. Add Saemangeum's destroyed tidal flats to the huge reclamations that have already happened in Korea and China - and try to work out how these species are supposed to survive the 21st Century (we're trying to, but it's not easy is it?).


The fight to stop the Saemangeum Reclamation has been long, rocky, and bitter - and it has just reached yet another critical stage. On December 21st a Korean court overturned a previous decision that had halted the development, saying that it could now re-commence: developers say that they will begin filliing the last few gaps in the sea-wall in March...


We (and other Korean NGOs) have fought very hard to get this project stopped, but the forces stacked up against us are rich, powerful, and influential. They may not have science on their side, but they have the impetus of a region that is developing without much regard to the environment whatsoever. Ask them to justify wiping off the map such an important staging area, and they counter - I'm paraphrasing here a little - with "Why not?". An argument that the pro-reclamation camp has always used is that there is insufficient scientifically-valid data to show that a) the number of shorebirds using the area is as high as we know it to be, and that b) no-one can say for sure - despite it being obvious to anyone but a complete idiot - that reclaiming 40100ha of prime shorebird habitat will actually impact on the birds (I know, staggering, but any port in a storm of criticism...).

Despite what we feel about the absurdity of this position we have to admit they have a point: no-one has provided that data and someone - and it may as well be the tiny, unfunded Birds Korea - needs to.

For the last six months Nial (in particular) has been working endlessly to set up what we originally dubbed "The Saemangeum Monitoring Programme". Our idea is to bring an internationally-recognised group of researchers and ornithologists to South Korea. Along with other Korean researchers we then aim to survey Saemangeum rigorously and collect the data using respected count methods (to a standard that can be considered by the courts: essential when you remember that larger domestic NGOs are appealing the court decision to allow the reclamation to continue). We aim to show just how many shorebirds stage here, when they arrive and when they leave, and what species are involved. And we aim to do it this year, and every year that we can. We expect what we'll be showing is the downward spiral of the some of the world's most threatened shorebirds: but we need the data. We need to be able to say - "Look, this is what happens when you do this - and this is what WILL happen when you do it again somewhere else". Will it be enough to guarantee that birders all over the world - let alone Korean ones - can still hope to someday find a Spoon-billed Sandpiper on their local patch? Who knows...


Juvenile Spoon-billed Sandpiper, South Korea, September 2005. Photo Nial Moores/BirdsKorea


So far the response to our plans has been good. A team of researchers is being put together, and the count methodology is being determined. One sticking point - isn't there always a sticking-point? - is the need to raise funds to offset the overseas' team's expenses once they arrive in South Korea. We've been applying for grants, but we do NEED HELP.

What we've come up with is a truly simple idea that we hope birders will support: a "Birdwatch Day for Saemangeum". If you're going birding anytime over the weekend of Feb 4th or 5th (and if you're looking at this blog chances are that you're a fairly active birder) would you consider "doing it" for Saemangeum? Could you get together a team of birders (or a team of just yourself!), get some friends to sponsor you (per species, a set amount - it's up to you), and help us support the research team? It doesn't matter where you live, where you go birding, what species you see - we just need some support, and we need it right now...

To help make things even easier and "above board" we've created a very basic sponsorship form you can print off and we've set up a fully auditable Korean bank account run by one of our members:
        Kookmin Bank, Swift Code CZNBKRSE
        Account Number: 114001-04-033214
        Name: Chon Hyon ae (Saemangeum).


I'm happy to admit I'm not very good at this sort of thing: I hate asking for money off anyone when there are so many competing demands (international membership of Birds Korea is free partly for that reason), but this is incredibly important to me, to Nial, and to everyone involved with Birds Korea or we wouldn't be asking. We have to do something constructive to - at the very least - counter the claims that "the birds will go somewhere else", or that "we don't believe birds will be affected by this development". We feel the publicity that can be gained - South Korea is hosting the Ramsar Forum Conference in 2008 - and the international co-operation that can be forged by the "The Saemangeum Monitoring Programme" is the most constructive thing that we can do...so, please, have a look at the links above, mail me with any questions you need answering, but when you go out birding on the first weekend of next month - do it for Saemangeum!



A huge and heartfelt thanks to the following excellent bloggers and/or website owners who have written about, or linked to, this post:

Mike at 10000birds.com

Michael at rivertyde.com

Clare at The House & other Arctic musings

Jason at Beakspeak.com

Katie and Darren at Not Very Big Year

Pamela at Thomasburg Walks

John at A DC Birding Blog

Trix at WhipPoorWill

Bo at FatBirder.com


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