Undisturbed reed bed along Dazhi River at Cape Nanhui, 28 Nov. 2016. Photo by Craig Brelsford.

The Case for Conserving Cape Nanhui

Editor’s note: This tranquil scene is from Iron Track (31.003613, 121.907883), home of Reed Parrotbill and dozens of other species, and part of the large reed beds on the Dazhi River at Cape Nanhui. In the face of manic development, and in spite of being under no protection, Cape Nanhui conserves the best reed beds on the Shanghai Peninsula as well as mudflats critical to tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds. To save these treasures, Shanghai people must act now.

by Craig Brelsford
Founder, shanghaibirding.com

Who will save Cape Nanhui? Not foreigners like me, but the people of Shanghai. We foreigners are numerous in Shanghai and are disproportionately represented among the birders here. We can offer valuable perspectives. But if the people of Shanghai themselves do not wish to ensure a bright natural future for Cape Nanhui, then there is little that anyone can do.

I think that the people of Shanghai are ready for real conservation on the Shanghai mainland. Basic conservationist ideas have broad appeal, and an easily accessible, world-class, “people’s wetland reserve” at Cape Nanhui is a basic conservationist idea.

If I were Chinese and were arguing for a people’s wetland reserve for Cape Nanhui, then I would bring to light the following points.


Shanghai Peninsula
The largest component of the city-province of Shanghai is the Shanghai Peninsula, a projection of land between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. Cape Nanhui is the tip of the peninsula, is a critically important stop for migrating birds, and is completely unprotected. A nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a third ‘stepping stone’ for birds crossing the mouth of the Yangtze, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha. (NASA/Craig Brelsford)

Shanghai “市” isn’t really a city or a “municipality,” as 市 is often translated. It is a city-province, accountable to no government but the national government. The city-province is vast, covering an area greater than the U.S. states of Delaware and Rhode Island. Shanghai is twice as big as Luxembourg, half as large as Northern Ireland, and a third the size of Wales.

From a conservationist’s perspective, it is important to view Shanghai as a province and not a city, because cities are not usually thought of as being responsible for maintaining large nature reserves within their borders. Provinces, by contrast, are large enough to accommodate nature reserves.

I propose that, where workable, we stop referring to Shanghai as a city or municipality and start applying to it the more accurate label of city-province.


Reed Parrotbill
Reed Parrotbill is a a symbol of Shanghai and candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird. Nowhere do the people of Shanghai have a better chance of seeing this Near Threatened species than in the reed beds at Cape Nanhui. Protection of the reed beds at Cape Nanhui would send a message to the world that Shanghai takes conservation seriously. (Craig Brelsford)

Any jurisdiction covering an area the size of a small country would be expected to conserve substantial amounts of its area. In the case of Shanghai, the call to conserve is even louder, because the area it occupies is unusually important for conservation. The Shanghai Peninsula is situated between the mouth of Asia’s greatest river and Hangzhou Bay. It is on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and attracts tens of thousands of passage migrants representing a few hundred species.

Cape Nanhui is the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula and attracts passage migrants and winter visitors such as the Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. Its large reed beds are the final stronghold on the Shanghai Peninsula of Near Threatened Reed Parrotbill, a candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird, as well as Near Threatened Marsh Grassbird.

At the defunct nature reserve at Cape Nanhui, an abandoned sign about Ruddy Turnstone has been turned into a wall for a fisherman’s shack. (Craig Brelsford)

Cape Nanhui is completely unprotected; indeed, an attempt at a small wetland reserve has been shut down. The boardwalks and signs of the defunct reserve are crumbling, and the backhoes are standing by, waiting for the green light to smash what remains.


No one is saying that Shanghai, a city-province of 26 million people, needs to create a Yellowstone. Any reasonable person understands the pressures the huge population of Shanghai puts on its natural resources.

Also, it must be pointed out that in the far-flung areas of the city-province, Shanghai has made an attempt at conservation. Chongming Dongtan preserves the eastern nub of Chongming Island, and Jiuduansha covers intertidal shoals near Pudong Airport.

Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Nanhui, Shanghai, 10 April 2016.
Marsh Grassbird performing song flight at Cape Nanhui, April. The reed bed over which this grassbird was displaying is the largest at Cape Nanhui. It measures 1.4 sq. km and has its center at 30.876060, 121.945305. This reed bed is one of the last places on the Shanghai Peninsula where the song flight of Marsh Grassbird can be seen. (Craig Brelsford)

But Shanghai under-performs overall. Nowhere is the poor conservation performance more evident than in Pudong, the coastal city-within-a-city. Pudong is nearly double the size of Singapore and is half the size of Hong Kong. Yet the district contains zero wetland reserves on its mainland. Both Singapore and Hong Kong manage to hold in reserve significant portions of their territory.

The southeastern tip of Pudong is Cape Nanhui, a place that despite being under no protection still brims with natural treasures. No place on the Shanghai Peninsula has as many reed beds. The projection of land attracts birds making the long journey across Hangzhou Bay and the wide mouth of the Yangtze.

Moreover, Cape Nanhui is easily accessible to common people. It would be the perfect place for a world-class wetland reserve on the model of Sungei Buloh in Singapore and Yeyahu National Wetland Park in Beijing.


Craig talks to Pudong TV about the opportunities for conservation at Nanhui. Photo by Elaine Du.
In November I was interviewed by Pudong TV about the opportunities for conservation at Nanhui. (Elaine Du)

On shanghaibirding.com I have addressed the issue of conserving Nanhui:

Save the Nanhui Wetland Reserve! (cri de coeur plus call to action)
Remnants (preparation for probable demise of Cape Nanhui)
Reed Parrotbill, Symbol of Shanghai (naming Reed Parrotbill Provincial Bird of Shanghai will send a message about the importance of the reed beds such as those at Cape Nanhui)
Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Nanhui (proof of yet another endangered species using the defunct wetland reserve at Nanhui)
Will the Spoon Survive? (Nanhui is not the only area under threat. You ought to see the mess at Yangkou, Jiangsu. Conserving Nanhui will offset the losses elsewhere on the Chinese coast and will put a conservationist feather in Shanghai’s cap)
Meet Kai Pflug, Nanhui’s Mr. Clean (tribute to a birder doing his small part)


We foreigners have had much to say about the future of Nanhui. I would like to hear more from Chinese. Is the case for a world-class wetland reserve at Nanhui convincing to you? If so, then what do you propose to do to bring it about?
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Craig Brelsford

Craig Brelsford is the founder of shanghaibirding.com. Brelsford lived in Shanghai from 2007 to 2018. Now back home in Florida, Brelsford maintains close ties to the Shanghai birding community and continues his enthusiastic development of this website. When Brelsford departed China, he was the top-ranked eBirder in that country, having noted more than 930 species. Brelsford was also the top-ranked eBirder in Shanghai, with more than 320 species. Brelsford’s photos of birds have won various awards and been published in books and periodicals and on websites all over the world. Brelsford’s Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of China, published in its entirety on this website, is the most Shanghai-centric field guide ever written. Brelsford is a graduate of the University of Florida and earned a master's in business administration at the University of Liege, Belgium.

2 thoughts on “The Case for Conserving Cape Nanhui”

  1. I am Jianbin Shi, responsible for the wetland conservation program at the Paulson Institute in China. Thanks for your care for saving Cape Nanhui.

    As you may know, together with our partners, we have conducted an assessment of coastal wetlands in China, and Nanhui Dongtan in Shanghai (I assume the Cape Nanhui is the same as Nanhui Dongtan) has been identified as one of the 11 key habitats for migratory waterbirds that need to be protected urgently. The project recommends to set up a new nature reserve or expanding existing nature reserve to protect the Nanhui Dongtan wetland.

    You provided very detailed information about Cape Nanhui which is useful for next step. I admit that the importance of protecting coastal wetlands has not been realized fully by the Shanghai city government, although it is one of the most developed places in China and in the world. Much needs to be done to protect coastal wetland there, including developing and implementing a regulation on wetland protection in Shanghai. Working together may make a difference!

    1. Thank you for reading shanghaibirding.com. Action on Cape Nanhui is needed very, very soon. Critical reed-bed habitat could be lost in a matter of months. A year from now, you and I could be talking about a very different Nanhui.

      I use “Cape Nanhui” over the Chinese “Nanhui Dongtan” because non-Chinese speakers don’t know what Dongtan means, and because calling Nanhui a cape accentuates its importance for conservation. Cape Nanhui is the southeastern-most point of Pudong and the city-province of Shanghai and is most definitely land jutting into the sea. And as the amazing Paulson Institute report that you sent me points out, Cape Nanhui is a vital staging area for birds migrating along the Chinese coast.

      I am convinced that a well-run wetland preserve at Cape Nanhui would become internationally famous and give Shanghai much face. Shanghai children whose parents do not drive a car could visit the preserve on a Sunday and the next day at school be telling their friends about the amazing birds they saw there. A well-done reserve at Cape Nanhui would affect human beings in a way that no other wetland reserve can, because Nanhui is so close to a major world city, where tens of millions of human beings live. A well-run reserve could fulfill a two-pronged core mission of protecting endangered birds while serving as a gateway to the world of conservation for millions of Chinese.

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