Safe haven for swans

Updated: 2013-01-17 07:29

By Han Bingbin (China Daily)

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 Safe haven for swans

Whooper swans spend the winter at the coastal wetlands of Rongcheng, Shandong province. Ju Chuanjiang / China Daily

Thousands of swans winter in the coastal wetlands of Shandong each year, and every effort is exercised to make sure these migratory birds have a comfortable refuge. Han Bingbin visits the swan lakes.

Some of China's rare lagoons lie along the relatively unpolluted coastline from Weihai to Rongcheng in Shandong province. Thousands of whooper swans migrate across borders for their annual winter stay here, attracted by the good supply of fresh water and aquatic plants, as well as sparsely populated coastal plains.

These lagoons with their winter population of swans have earned Rongcheng fame as the "home of swans".

An estimated 8,000 swans set up home each year at the wetlands here, for about five months from November to April, after which they fly back to Siberia and Mongolia for the breeding season. In the following years, some of them may make the return journey with their cygnets.

This year, two of the swans that had been previously tagged returned again to Rongcheng, and one has been returning for at least six years.

With encroaching urbanization, there have been tangible fears that the environmentally sensitive birds may face threats to their wintering habitats.

To ensure that the birds will never run short of good fresh water, the local government has embarked on a determined campaign to preserve their quality of life. Landfills nearby were shutdown, and three water-treatment and sewage plants established.

The attention to details has been extended even to controlling the amount of dust in the air, and unsurfaced mud tracks have been resurfaced.

In addition, a group of cleaners is employed to make sure that litter and waste left by sightseers are disposed of, and do not threaten the swans' safety.

High voltage cables that used to entangle and kill the swans in flight are now buried underground. The government even promises to compensate villagers whose wheats are eaten by the swans.

In fact, everything that can be done has been done to make sure the swans are safe, settled and happy.

Having said that, there are some threats that seem to be beyond the government's most enthusiastic efforts. One problem is the slow but inexorable disappearance of eel grass, one of the swans' favorite staples.

The seaweed's decline has started from the 1970s, with the rapid expansion of shrimp farming.

To facilitate that industry, a dam was built at the harbor entrance. Since then, tidal water has been greatly reduced and as a result, much sludge began to form. Seaweed and seashells were the first casualties.

The situation is such that the swans are now fed tons of bird feed every year, instead of foraging for themselves. Experts say the worst scenario is that the lagoons will dry up and the swans will disappear.

In its tough battle against ecological degradation, the local government launched a remedial project worth more than 60 million yuan ($9.65 million) in 2011. One of the first projects was to demolish the harbor front dam and to dredge off the sludge that had accumulated.

The project will clear sludge in a 400,000-square-meter area that will make room for the eel grass to grow again.

Supported by the Ocean University of China's artificial planting technologies, the Rongcheng government has sown about 50 kilograms of eel grass seeds and put in another 1,000 kg of baby clams to kick start the ecological transformation.

Once the habitats of the eel grass and clams are established, conservationists can reduce the amount of bird feed by at least 10 tons, starting from this year.

Fish-farming, the main source of income for residents of the area, will also be severely restricted in certain stretches.

But the residents seem confident that their sacrifices will pay off.

In 2002, an award-winning photo of a mother swan spreading its wings to protect its baby sparked an online sensation. Since then hundreds of photographers, from as far as South Korea and Japan, have congregated at Rongcheng each year hoping to take an even better picture.

Qu Xuerong, 61, started his hostel around the time the first group of photographers arrived. He partitioned his bungalow into about a dozen cozy cubicles for rent, and immediately reaped an income of 4,000 yuan the first year.

In the past decade, Qu has seen the number of tourists increase in tandem with his business. By 2010, after adding another two-story building to expand the family hostel so it can receive more than 400 visitors a year, Qu now has an annual income of 30,000 yuan.

In Qu's village alone, at least 30 households offer family hostels, a profitable business that frees them from the fetters of hard labor in the fields.

As a major tourist attraction, official statistics state that the Rongcheng swan lakes bring in about 200,000 visitors a year to the county-level city, with about 280 million yuan in revenue that accounts for 60 percent of total tourism takings in an otherwise slack winter season.

"People say swans are auspicious birds. They bring fortune and fame. Otherwise nobody would ever get to know such a remote village as ours," Qu says.

The new prosperity and an even newer respect for nature and its creatures reflect the villagers' changing attitudes.

They were shooting the swans in the 1970s and '80s, says Yu Zhuangzhi, a conservation officer with the swan lakes, designated a national nature reserve in 2007.

When people came across an injured swan, Yu remembers, they would take it home and eat it. But now, they call the conservation center or try to take care of the bird themselves.

Sun Maozhen, 65, is one of those who choose to work at the swan protection stations after his retirement. In his daily patrols, he records the number of swans, their time of arrival and departure, and the amount of bird feed given.

When a swan is injured after hitting a wire or being tangled in fishing nets, Sun would sterilize, dress the wounds and splint its broken wings or legs.

Being able to save a swan is a surprising source of glory for the villagers, and tales of "warmhearted villagers and injured swans" abound, although it may not be immediately apparent to visitors.

The one thing they get to see is how the villagers volunteer to feed the swans when the lakes freeze over.

As time goes by, Qu notes, the swans are no longer as afraid of people as they used to be. After living so many years right beside these little creatures, Qu says that they have become a part of his life. "It used to bother me a lot when they whooped at night. But gradually I got used to it, just like I got used to my wife's snores. The funniest thing is, every time they fly back home, I actually miss their whoops and find it hard to fall asleep," he laughs.

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Ju Chuanjiang contributed to the story.

(China Daily 01/17/2013 page18)