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The Story of the Relict Gulls and Thoughts on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework

Monday, November 25, 2019

Nametso Matomela

PhD Candidate, University of Science and Technology, Beijing

Alice C. Hughes

Associate Professor, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Tang Ling

Deputy Director of Research, CBCGDF

Zhou Jinfeng

Secretary General, CBCGDF

Niu Jingmei

Senior Editor, CBCGDF

In May 2019, Baguatan beach in the city of Tianjin, China, became a sudden and an unforeseen target of clam digging. Videos of people picking clams in Baguatan started trending on popular social media platforms, bringing further attention and more visitors to the beach. During the first half of the month, an average of 2,000 people visited the beach each day to dig for clams. The vistors, however, likely didn’t know that the clams are a major food source for the endangered “relict gull” (Ichthyaetus relictus), and that their claim digging was essentially depriving the gull of its primary food source. 

Photo credit: CBCGDF volunteers

Despite apparent significant progress on Aichi Target 11 on area coverage, many of these new PAs are not representative of the diverse ecosystems that exist in China, especially tropical and coastal systems. The Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework should attach importance to biodiversity representativeness in PA implementation to ensure that PAs provide protection across different biomes and ecosystems. Establishing large PAs does not necessarily indicate comprehensive biodiversity conservation. Rather, ecological representation across habitat types is needed to ensure comprehensive conservation.In 2010, members of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity established 20 targets, know as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, to curb biodiversity loss within a decade. With approximately 18% of its terrestrial land designated as protected areas (PAs), China has met Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 (to have 17% of each state’s terrestrial land within PAs). Many of China’s PAs were created to conserve key protected species, which are generally large, “charismatic” temperate living mammal species. This has had the unintended consequence of neglecting ecosystems that do not house such species, such as forest or coastal areas, that are still considered critically important. As a result, areas such as Tiaozini, an essential intertidal wetland for the critically endangered spoonbilled sandpiper, and many coastline areas have seen drastic declines. In fact, China’s coastal PAs have declined by 27.8% since 2007.

Photo credit: CBCGDF volunteers

The “ecological redline” is China’s new environmental strategy aimed at balancing economic development and ecological and environmental conservation nationwide. Dr. Zhou Jinfeng, CBCGDF’s Secretary-General, recommended the inclusion of essential wetlands in the ecological redline to protect them from being altered or destroyed. Undoubtedly, ecological redlines are an excellent approach to conservation, and their implementation will help maintain ecosystem service provision and biodiversity. However, the development of ecological redlines sometimes neglects various habitats and less “charismatic” species. Small ecosystems are vital to some species and should not be overlooked during environmental conservation planning.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of threatened species classifies the relict gull as a vulnerable species. The bird is also listed as a first-class protected national animal for China. Its breeding sites are limited to a few wetland areas located in arid regions that are susceptible to human disturbance and vulnerable to climate change. The birds also depend on intertidal habitats during non-breeding periods, and for this reason, the increasing reclamation of coastal wetlands may drive future population declines. Because roughly 90% of the global population of the relict gull overwinter in Tianjin Baguatan beach, food source deprivation due to human clam exploitation could reduce this relict gull population considerably and threaten the future survival of the species.

Photo credit: CBCGDF volunteers

The China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF) and its China Conservation Area (CCAfa) project teams worked tirelessly to halt excessive clam-digging at Baguatan beach and even invoked the intervention of relevant authorities. CBCGDF also recommended that relevant government departments amend the Tianjin Maritime Functional Zoning, which regulates the use of sea areas, to protect the marine ecosystem as serving a function rather than just as a leisure area, and stop the execessive digging of the clams at the beach. It also sent volunteers to erect posters around the beach, urging people to refrain from clam picking. 

As illustrated last spring at Baguatan beach, social media can have negative or positive impacts on biodiversity conservation, depending on its usage. CBCGDF tried but failed to add biodiversity conservation provisions to the E-Commerce Law, which regulates online social media activities and came into effect in January 2019. CBCGDF’s legislative proposal included authorizing the government to request social media platforms to block or remove content that directly or indirectly encourages biodiversity loss. CBCGDF’s efforts brought attention to the impact that the online world can have on the environmental challenges in the real world.

Photo credit: CBCGDF volunteers

Community involvement in biodiversity conservation is indispensable. CBCDGF established the CCAfa initiative to promote civil society and private-sector engagement in conservation. Since its inception, CCAfa has proved an efficient complement to China’s existing national PA systems. Civil society participation is encouraged to develop effective measures to bridge fragmented habitats, protect endangered species, fight illegal wildlife trade, and advance sustainable livelihoods. This story of the relict gull demonstrates the need for strategic PA planning, combined with the use of social media and community participation can work together to conserve biodiversity.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.