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Enforcement curbs illegal bird trade

Study reveals fewer wild birds in pet markets following government action

By CHEN LIANG | China Daily | Updated: 2024-06-11 09:31
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A pair of Chinese mergansers swim in the river. [Photo provided to CHINA DAILY]

Wildlife enforcement actions have played a vital role in combating the illegal wildlife trade in China. While the effectiveness of the conservation measures has garnered significant research attention, there remains a lack of comprehensive national-scale assessments.

To systematically evaluate the effectiveness of enforcement measures, a group of Chinese researchers evaluated the nationwide Protecting Migratory Birds Special Action.

The initiative was launched by the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, formerly the National Forestry Administration, in October 2016 to combat the illegal bird trade and safeguard migratory birds and other wildlife species. It mobilized efforts to thoroughly inspect key areas where migratory birds make stopovers during their flights, aiming to disrupt illegal trading networks.

"By analyzing changes in pet bird markets nationwide before and after this special action, our research aimed to reflect the efficacy of protection enforcement," said Liang Zhijian, a doctoral student from the School of Ecology at Sun Yat-sen University in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, who is the first author of a paper on the study published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer reviewed scientific journal of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, with the title of Law Enforcement and Pet Bird Trade in China.

The study investigated 221 pet bird markets across the country and selected 73 of them for comparative analysis, he said, documenting 346 species from 16 orders and 48 families, comprising 140,723 individual birds.

According to the paper, the study revealed a significant decrease in the number of birds in markets nationwide following the special action. Specifically, the number of individuals of protected bird species exhibited a notable decline, dropping from an average of 443 individuals per market to 242 individuals, while the number of artificially bred birds, such as parrots and finches, saw a significant increase. Meanwhile, the number of wild bird species native to the country witnessed a marked decrease.

Further analysis identified protection level as the most critical factor explaining changes in the number of individuals traded.

"We found that songbirds were the most traded taxonomic group, accounting for approximately 90 percent of traded native wild bird species," said Liu Yang, a professor at the School of Ecology at Sun Yat-sen University, who is one of the article's leading authors.

"But about one-third of the native songbird species sold in markets were not listed in the National Key Protected Wildlife List or the National Protected Terrestrial Wildlife List of Significant Ecological, Scientific and Social Value. It means a lack of timely protection attention to species facing trade threats."

The study suggested that the effectiveness of enforcement and public awareness of conservation are closely related to species protection levels, underscoring the need to scientifically evaluate the design of protection lists based on species' trade situations to prevent endangered species threatened severely by trade from facing extinction risks.

Following the adjustment of the National Key Protected Wildlife List in 2021, Liu said the protection coverage of songbird species threatened by trade significantly improved.

Seven of the top 10 traded native wild bird species in pet bird markets across the country have been included in the revised list, such as the Chinese hwamei, chestnutflanked white-eye, Mongolian lark, red-billed leiothrix, common hill myna and Siberian rubythroat. The trade and conservation dynamics of these songbirds merit further research, Liu said.

Based on this study, enforcement actions have proven effective in conserving protected bird species.

Part of the research was based on national surveys of bird markets in the autumn of 2016 and the spring of 2017 conducted by China Birdwatching Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting bird-watching and the conservation of birds, and supported by the Society for Entrepreneurs and Ecology Foundation, Liang said. The surveys involved experienced birdwatchers who investigated the trade situation in more than 200 pet bird markets across the country.

"Large-scale market surveys conducted by bird-watching volunteers nationwide provide valuable data support for evaluating the effectiveness of conservation policy," Liu said.

According to a 2023 survey, there are about 340,000 bird-watching enthusiasts on the Chinese mainland.

"Our study suggests that future research should focus on promoting the participation of citizen scientists, such as bird-watching enthusiasts, in conservation efforts, encouraging their involvement as volunteers in bird surveys and protection actions," Liu said. "Our research findings highlight the collaborative efforts of researchers and organizations in advancing wildlife conservation in China."

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