Editor’s note: In recent weeks, Shanghai has had extraordinary visits by three species of crane. Since 12 Nov., 3 Siberian Crane, a Critically Endangered species, have been recorded regularly in a reclaimed area of Hengsha Island (photo above, left). On 10 Dec., Endangered Red-crowned Crane made the first recorded visit by that species to Cape Nanhui (top right). Also since 12 Nov., Vulnerable Hooded Crane has been recorded regularly at Cape Nanhui (bottom right). Before 12 Nov., Hooded Crane had never been recorded on the Shanghai Peninsula. (Craig Brelsford)

by Craig Brelsford

The appearance on 10 Dec. of 2 Red-crowned Crane at Pudong’s Cape Nanhui was more than just a historic, first-ever sighting. It was a message. The endangered cranes, as well as the Siberian Crane on Hengsha Island and Hooded Crane at Cape Nanhui, are telling us that habitat is steadily disappearing elsewhere along the Chinese coast, particularly in Jiangsu; that the habitats in Shanghai are some of the best that remain; and that those habitats require world-class protection. The most pressing need is the creation of a world-class, small to mid-sized wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui.

Siberian Crane
Siberian Crane in flight, Hengsha Island. (Craig Brelsford)

Errant cranes migrating along the Chinese coast may once have settled for a while somewhere in Jiangsu. Every year, however, cranes migrating along the coast of that densely populated province find fewer and fewer places suitable to them. My wife Elaine Du and I have surveyed the Jiangsu coastline from Qidong on the Yangtze River 250 km north to Yancheng National Nature Reserve. We have seen with our own eyes the dramatic transformation of the Jiangsu coast. Even areas in Jiangsu receiving considerable international attention, such as Yangkou and the coastal areas of Dongtai, are under threat.

Cape Nanhui may not seem like a first-rate natural area, but it is in better condition than almost any place I have seen between Qidong and Yancheng. I say, therefore, that the recent crane sightings in Shanghai have come about in large part because elsewhere so much has been lost. The cranes have nowhere else to go.

Shanghai birders
Shanghai birders search for the Hooded Crane sojourning at Cape Nanhui, 10 Dec. The new city of Lingang, which did not exist 10 years ago, looms in the background. (Craig Brelsford)

And that is why conserving Cape Nanhui is so important. Shanghai is facing a crisis, a “danger-opportunity” (危机). The 危 or danger is that amid the wholesale destruction of so much coastal habitat elsewhere, Shanghai will follow suit and destroy its remaining good habitat. The 机 or opportunity is for Shanghai to gather into its bosom the birds ejected from Jiangsu—to be not only the economic but also the conservationist leader on the Chinese coast. The creation at Cape Nanhui of an easily accessible, world-class, small to mid-sized wetland reserve along the lines of Sungei Buloh in Singapore would be a way of avoiding the 危 and seizing the 机.

The case for an easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could scarcely be more clear-cut:

(1) Cape Nanhui is of extraordinary environmental importance. The tip of the Shanghai Peninsula between the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay, Cape Nanhui is a stepping stone for birds migrating across those bodies of water. Cape Nanhui also holds large reed beds, habitat critical to Reed Parrotbill and other species at risk.

Shanghai Peninsula
Cape Nanhui is the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula, a headland between the mouth of the Yangtze River and Hangzhou Bay. As the satellite image above illustrates, a nature reserve at Cape Nanhui would form a ‘stepping stone’ for birds crossing the Yangtze Delta, joining the reserves at Chongming Dongtan and Jiuduansha as well as the largely undeveloped reclaimed land on Hengsha. (Newly reclaimed land on Hengsha not shown in this 2005 image.) (NASA/Craig Brelsford)

The 2 Red-crowned Crane this past Saturday were the latest in a parade of endangered birds that I and other birders have noted at the Cape over the years. Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper uses Cape Nanhui, as does Endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. Around 2 percent of the world’s Endangered Black-faced Spoonbill are dependent on Cape Nanhui for several months each year. Large reed beds remain at Cape Nanhui and are the final strongholds on the Shanghai Peninsula of Near Threatened Marsh Grassbird and Near Threatened Reed Parrotbill. The latter species, a candidate for Shanghai Provincial Bird, will virtually disappear from mainland Shanghai if the reed beds at Nanhui are destroyed.

(2) Shanghai is clearly under-performing on the conservationist front. More must be done, and a good place to begin is Cape Nanhui.

Hen Harrier (top) and Eastern Marsh Harrier
Hen Harrier (top) and Eastern Marsh Harrier, Cape Nanhui. These photos show both the threats to the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula and the environmental opportunities still there. On the one hand, buildings and roads continue to encroach on the reed beds; the large farm building in the bottom photo was completed only in the past year. Further encroachments will erode the quality still further and deprive species such as Reed Parrotbill of even more habitat. On the other hand, habitat good enough to attract harriers remains. In the bottom photo, the harrier is flying directly over the reed bed (30.929492, 121.960314) adjacent to the defunct wetland reserve. This reed bed covers a square kilometer, is untouched, and provides habitat critical to species dependent on reeds, such as Near Threatened Marsh Grassbird and Japanese Reed Bunting. In the top photo, the untouched reed bed is visible in the mid-ground, with the harrier making use of adjacent rice fields. Even small reserves can be effective, especially if bordered by agricultural areas. If managed correctly, a small to mid-sized reserve at Cape Nanhui would cost little, deliver much, and give environmental face to Shanghai. (Craig Brelsford)

Nature reserves have been established only on the extreme fringes of the city-province (which is a third the size of Wales). There are no reserves in mainland Pudong, a giant coastal district nearly twice the size of Singapore. Nowhere in this megalopolis can residents without a car enjoy the natural side of Shanghai, a city with an extraordinarily rich natural heritage. There is no known plan to conserve any of the dozens of square kilometers of reclaimed land on Hengsha.

(3) Because it is in the back yard of Shanghai, a city-province of more than 25 million people, a well-run, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could be the match to light the fire of conservation across all China.

Shanghai birders in defunct reserve
Shanghai birders in defunct wetland reserve, Nanhui, 10 Dec. The people you see in this picture are the Johnny Appleseeds of birding and nature appreciation in China. Though still few in number, people such as they are laying the foundation for a future in which more Chinese cherish the natural environment. In Shanghai living standards have attained those of Western countries. Shanghainese such as these birders now possess disposable income and leisure time. Increasingly, these middle-class people will demand places for rest, relaxation, and nature appreciation. Shanghai, a city-province half as large as Northern Ireland, currently has such places, and the most easily accessible of them is Cape Nanhui. In the face of unremitting development, and despite being under no environmental protection, the tip of the Shanghai Peninsula still holds considerable reed beds and attracts many endangered migratory birds. With proper management, Shanghai could preserve and showcase the wonders of Cape Nanhui, giving future generations of Shanghainese a gift that will never stop giving. L-R: Zhāng Huá (张华), Zhāng Xuěhán (张雪寒), Lán Bāngxiàn (蓝邦宪), Lán Xī (兰溪), Craig Brelsford, Cài Jiàndōng (蔡见东), Zhāng Xiǎoyàn (张小艳), Hǎo Zhàokuān (郝兆宽), Chéng Yīxuān (程一轩), Xú Yáng (徐扬). (Elaine Du)

Hundreds of thousands of children could visit the reserve with their parents using nothing more than the Metro and a quick taxi ride and be sleeping in their own bed that night, dreaming about the wild birds they had seen that day. For millions of parents and their kids, the weekend could be “Saturday, Disney; Sunday, Cape Nanhui Wetland.” A day at a Cape Nanhui Wetland would be an early introduction to the glories of natural Shanghai and would foster an appreciation of the natural world.

If Shanghai can be a world economic center and have world-class airports and a world-class skyline and world-class entertainment such as Disney, then it can and must have world-class preservation of its priceless coastline and migratory birds.

I repeat: The case for a world-class, easily accessible wetland reserve at Cape Nanhui could scarcely be more clear-cut.

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