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Saving China's endangered duck with funny hair

By LIU MINGTAI, ZHANG YU and RANDY WRIGHT |  China Daily | Updated: 2019-06-21 10:28

A mother merganser and her chicks in the Changbaishan National Nature Reserve.  [Photo by Ding Lianguo/For China Daily]

I should be flattered that people want to take my picture. But what's in it for me? I get no royalties. I'm just another celebrity being chased by paparazzi. It scares me every time a camera shutter clicks. Can't they at least leave my kids alone?

Scaly-sided mergansers are notoriously shy. And that goes double when it comes to the amateur photographers whose interest in the rare birds has grown like a noxious weed in the last few years.

Even though photography may seem a low-impact activity, environmentally speaking, the mere presence of humans, even well-meaning ones, can work against the ducks, according to Piao Zhengji, 63, a merganser expert who has spent 32 years studying and protecting the species in the Changbaishan National Nature Reserve, about 400 kilometers southeast of Changchun.

A year ago, a bus carrying 38 photo enthusiasts from Changchun arrived at a river on the perimeter of the reserve, where some 400 of Chinese mergansers breed every spring.

"What attracted the photographers was mainly the mergansers' endangered status, along with their peculiar appearance and behavior," Piao said. "They're not like normal ducks."


Photographers are not allowed inside the reserve without special permission, but this group, after paying for the privilege to get close, hoped to catch a glimpse of any wayward birds that might have wandered across the boundary to neighboring river areas.

A photographer from Changchun may pay 100 yuan ($14) and travel 400 km to get near the reserve.

"People are making money from the mergansers," Piao said, cautioning that the birds fear humans. "They won't come next summer if too many people invade their habitat."

Worse, when people come and go, they drop trash. The duck's natural enemies are attracted by discarded food, so the danger to the birds increases.

"If people cannot hold onto the idea of protecting them and just leaving them alone, they have no future," Piao said.

An assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature said the scaly-sided merganser (Mergus squamatus) has a "very small population that's thought to be undergoing a continuous steep decline as a result of lost habitat, illegal hunting and human disturbances".

Nobody knows how long they live, but a cousin, a red-breasted merganser in Sweden, established what is thought to be a longevity record, 21.4 years, according to euring.org, a specialized birding website. Most duck species live five to eight years.

Without human help, however, the Chinese merganser's prospects for long-term survival are sketchy at best.

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