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December 24, 2010

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Avian avengers save the birds

I gripped the two short daggers at my side as a dark, vague human figure emerged from desolate woods and moved toward us. Night was closing in and dry leaves crackled underfoot.

We took cover behind bushes, nervously forming a semi-circle. We were breathing hard, from anger and fear. Had he seen us? Did he have a hunting rifle or shotgun?

It became utterly silent. My heart was in my throat. My comrades gripped their knives and clippers.

We knew what we were facing - a determined and highly skilled bird hunter who, with others, had set up more than 50 nets in these empty woods on Chongming Island. The death nets snare and entangle everything that runs into them - and there are thousands of nets across the island; our leader estimated 5,000.

For decades many Chongming hunters have been trapping wild birds, and though hunting and trading is against the law, there is little enforcement for lack of resources. For some, it's a livelihood and they know special bird calls passed down through generations.

Our goal was to destroy the nets and free the birds. I said I was a college student, so that I could join the sortie.

Chongming is known for its shorebirds and wetland birds. Every year more than 3 million migratory birds from more than 200 species stop there. The Dongtan wetland is home to more than 120 species of birds, some rare and endangered, such as white geese and green heron.

A prime hunting spot is the woodland at Qianshao Town near Dongtan, around 6.5 hectares on islands near the Yangtze River and the East China Sea. And that's where we undertook this mission, in a marshy area crisscrossed by streams, stagnant, smelly ponds and dangerous, hidden mire.

Possibly this hunter, whoever he was, and others like him, had stitched up the eyes of trapped goshawks and other birds of prey, darkening their world and selling "quiet" birds to rich men for pets. Blind birds are sold in some Shanghai markets for more than 1,000 yuan (US$146).

But the fate of small ordinary birds is worse. Hunters break their necks, pull off the feathers, dump them in sacks and sell them to restaurants. Turtledoves, tree sparrows, blackbirds and other are prey.

In eight hours, we destroyed 38 nets, 30-50 meters long and 7-10 meters high, made of fine nylon and wire that even eagles' eyes cannot detect. We could only see fluttering feathers seemingly suspended in the air.

We imagined our opponent to be shrewd and brutal, his hands stained with blood. It would be reckless to risk a head-on encounter, but when I thought of all the birds - blinded, dying, dead, some eaten by worms (others by gourmands), I knew confrontation was inevitable.

Our leader Jiang Long took a step forward and shone his flashlight right into the hunter's face.


Flashback to eight hours earlier.

When I set out that morning I thought bird rescue would be an exciting camping trip and a chance to make friends.

I met the bird saviors, a batch of volunteers from a non-governmental organization, Shanghai Green Oasis Ecological Conservation and Communication Center. The young leader of my volunteer group was Jiang, a short and thin accountant by day, a nondescript fellow.

I laughed at him for wearing a cheap, old camouflage army uniform. But at the end of the operation I regretted not wearing the same since all my clothes were filthy. Jiang just threw his away.

The volunteers came from various cities and walks of life. There were IT geeks, a camera salesman, office workers, and an attractive young outdoors woman and determined cyclist who calls herself Green Bird. The most intriguing bird rescuer was a middle-aged man from Hubei Province who said he used to be a hunter and for two years killed wild boar. Once when he faced two wolves, he scared them off by roaring and bellowing, he said. Now he's sick of the killing and says he wants to atone for "past sins."

We left Shanghai from Pudong New Area early in the morning and arrived at Qianshao Town on Chongming Island after taking the subway, the bus and finally a "black cab," an illegal taxi.

We noted the police station and the hospital with its morgue. "That's where they will take our dead bodies," Jiang said in grim jest.

It wasn't a joke. We all knew avian influenza is carried by some wild birds; those who handle dead and dying birds could be at risk. We wore gloves and respirator masks. The mission was recorded on camera and GPS was used.

To my surprise, the young men pulled out blades and daggers, net and wire clippers, plus medical supplies. I wondered how they managed to escape the security checks at Metro stations.

Once on the island we realized that the huge nets we were determined to destroy were important to the livelihood of poor people. Each net costs around 40 yuan to make and hunters didn't expect vigilantes to destroy their private property, on public land.

Fights are common when villagers or hunters catch bird rescuers wrecking webs and traps. Sometimes it gets rough, sometimes the volunteers retreat and call police.

Jiang handed me two 5cm-long blades, saying "Better than empty fists." We spoke in low voices.

Blood and feathers

"There it is," hissed a volunteer nicknamed Sharp Eye after we had walked for a few minutes. It was a relatively small nylon net, 20 meters long and 3 meters high. Even sharp-eyed birds flew or hopped into it.

With every move they made to free themselves, the birds became hopelessly enmeshed in the hunters' spider webs.

Right in the middle of the web, I saw a small victim, a dead island thrush with beautiful black and white feathers. It had recently died.

"It struggled hard until it broke its neck. It was a quick death," said Sharp Eye. The bird's neck hung at an angle, bones protruding.

We cut down the web, tore it up and threw it into a black stream. We placed the small bird in a plastic bag and took it with us, so a hunter couldn't sell it.

For eight hours, we slashed through webs, freed strugglers and collected victims as we moved into the heart of the woods. There we saw huge nets, 100 meters by 10 meters, connecting with each other and rising into the evening sky. All over the nets were tufts of feathers and some dead birds - the hunters were late in collecting their prey.

We considered the bold and skillful hunters, elaborately setting their traps and constructing simple plank bridges across wetland streams.

And now, one of the hunters was standing in front of us, caught in the flashlight.

Old man

We were stunned, as we took in the figure before us.

This wasn't the monster we had imagined: he was an old man, weathered, wrinkled and weak-looking, wearing a shabby coat.

In one hand he held a piece of net we had torn and tossed into a dirty black pond. Eyeing the knives in our hands, the old man cast the net away and whispered, "I'm just here to collect some garbage."

An old man venturing into the woods at dusk for garbage? Unlikely. But no one made a move. We just watched him shuffle away.

"What's wrong with you guys? You actually believe him? That's a bird murderer and we are not turning him into the police," I shouted to the leader. He said nothing.

Instead, we followed the man to a narrow dirt path where he had parked his bicycle. Our leader opened his backpack and took out some bird-protection leaflets. Then he opened the box on the rear of the old man's bike and took out some dead birds (they were headed for a restaurant), replacing them with the leaflets.

"Now go home and please get another job," Jiang told the man. We watched him ride away.

We could not turn him in, Jiang said, because we didn't catch him setting up nets and we didn't have photos as evidence.

But the old hunter was at the lowest end of the bird-killing business chain.

He was paid a pittance to trap birds. His bosses were more dangerous and reckless; they might be shooting endangered animals.

All the volunteers can do is disrupt operations and try to educate the hunters and villagers. Law enforcement is difficult because police and wildlife officials seldom get evidence and probably take pity on poor old villagers.

So it's a running battle between bird hunters and volunteers. Every time the nets are cut down, the hunters set up more webs.

Other organizations, such as Wild Bird Association and bird protection websites, also arrange search-and-destroy missions to Chongming.

"This is long-term education," says Jiang. "We invite new volunteers to join us and save the birds."

Law seldom enforced
Hunting wild birds is illegal in Shanghai - and specifically in Chongming County. So is selling birds as pets and serving them in restaurants as delicacies.

But enforcement is difficult, and in many cases nonexistent, due to lack of resources and staff. A lot of protection work is left to volunteers flying under the radar.

According to an official of the Shanghai Wild Animal Protection Association, who declined to be named, some small restaurants are illegally serving bird dishes, but the practice is impossible to stop at this time. "We have to seek cooperation with the city's commerce and industry department, the food and drug administration, the police and many other sectors of the government," he said. "Otherwise, there's no law enforcement power to suspend their business licenses."

The association lacks enough people to venture into the Chongming woods, as the volunteers do, to cut down nets.

The Chongming Woods Protection Team has only six members and five of them have to take care of the woods - only one is dedicated to bird protection, according to Jiang Long, our team leader and a member of the non-governmental Shanghai Green Oasis Ecological Conservation and Communication Center. "What they can do is very limited so volunteers are needed to fill the gap," Jiang says.

But an inconvenient truth is that after local media disclosed what Jiang and the center were doing on Chongming Island, the animal protection association told the center to "stay low" - probably because of public outrage at the bird killings and praise of the volunteers.

Li Bing, director of the NGO, declined to authorize a Shanghai Daily reporter to follow the volunteers. He posed as a college student to join the avid volunteers.

Violators caught with prey on Chongming face a fine equal to eight times the value of the prey; those caught without prey will face a fine of 2,000 yuan.

Those who hunt protected animals will face jail or a fine of as much as 10,000 yuan.

Violators caught with prey will face a fine equal to eight times the value of the prey; those caught without prey will face a fine of 2,000 yuan.

Those who hunt protected animals will face jail or a fine of as much as 10,000 yuan.


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