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Birdwatch for Saemangeum

Reclamation has just reached yet another critical stage?

There are probably almost as many reasons for going birding as there are birders, but how about going birding next month to help researchers and conservationists prevent further destruction of the Yellow Sea's remaining shorebird staging sites?

Birds Korea is an organisation dedicated, as their website - http://www.birdskorea.org - states, to " the conservation of birds and their habitats in South Korea and the broader Yellow Sea Eco-region" - is looking to help finance a monitoring programme of shorebirds using the critically-important Saemangeum Estuarine system on South Korea's west coast. This huge area (40100ha or an area equivalent to two-thirds the size of The Wash or four times the tidal flat area of Farewell Spit, North-west Nelson, and five times the area of the Firth of Thames - New Zealand's two inter-tidal Ramsar sites) is in the process of being closed off by a sea-wall. Used by around 400,000 staging shorebirds a year - including rapidly disappearing species such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Nordmann's Greenshank, and more than 100,000 Great Knot (an estimated 40% of the global population) - 27 - 30 species of water bird occur at Saemangeum in internationally important concentrations (according to Ramsar criteria, to which South Korea is - incidentally - a signatory).The fight to stop the Saemangeum Reclamation has been long and bitter - and it has just reached yet another critical stage. On December 21st 2005 a Korean court overturned a previous decision that had halted the development, saying that it could now re-commence: developers say that they will begin filling the last few gaps in the sea-wall in March…

Birds Korea and other Korean NGOs have fought very hard to get this project stopped, but the forces stacked up against them are rich, powerful, and influential. Developers may not have science on their side, but they have the impetus of a region that is developing without much regard to the environment whatsoever. Ask them to justify wiping off the map such an important staging area, and they counter with "Why not?". An argument that the pro-reclamation camp has always used is that there is insufficient scientifically-valid data to show that a) the number of shorebirds using the area is as high as shorebird researchers know it to be, and that b) no-one can say for sure - despite it being obvious - that reclaiming 40,100ha of prime shorebird habitat will actually impact on the birds. Despite the absurdity of this position pro-reclamation supporters have a point: no-one has provided that data and someone needs to.

For the last six months Birds Korea has been working hard to set up what was originally dubbed the Saemangeum Monitoring Programme. Their idea is to bring an internationally-recognised group of researchers and ornithologists to South Korea. Along with other Korean researchers they then aim to survey Saemangeum rigorously and collect the data using respected count methods (to a standard that can be considered by the courts: essential when you remember that larger domestic NGOs are appealing the court decision to allow the reclamation to continue). They aim to show just how many shorebirds stage here, when they arrive and when they leave, and what species are involved. And they aim to do it this year, and every year that they can.So far the response to the plans has been good. A team of researchers - from both within Korea and from overseas - is being put together, and the count methodology is being determined. One sticking point - isn't there always a sticking-point? - is the need to raise funds to offset the overseas' team's expenses once they arrive in South Korea. Birds Korea has been applying for grants, but they do NEED HELP.

What they''ve come up with is a truly simple idea that they hope birders will support: ”Birdwatch Day for Saemangeum". If you're going birding anytime over the weekend of Feb 4th or 5th would you consider "doing it" for Saemangeum? Could you get together a team of birders (or a team of just yourself!), get some friends to sponsor you (per species, a set amount - it's up to you), and help support the research team? It doesn't matter where you live, where you go birding, what species you see. What matters is that you get into the field and support the efforts to save Saemangeum. To help make things easier and "above board" Birds Korea has created a very basic sponsorship form you can print off and has set up a fully auditable Korean bank account run by one of their members to collect any money raised:
Kookmin Bank, Swift Code CZNBKRSE
Account Number: 114001-04-033214
Name: Chon Hyon ae (Saemangeum).

As Charlie and Nial Moores of Birds Korea say: "This is incredibly important to everyone involved with Birds Korea or we wouldn't be asking for help like this. We have to do something constructive to - at the very least - counter the claims that ‘the birds will go somewhere else’, or that ‘we don't believe birds will be affected by this development’. We feel the publicity that can be gained - South Korea is hosting the Ramsar Forum Conference in 2008 - and the international co-operation that can be forged by the ‘The Saemangeum Monitoring Programme’ is the most constructive thing that we can do…so, please, have a look at the links above, mail us with any questions you need answering, but when you go out birding on the first weekend of next February - do it for Saemangeum!."

Will it mean that birders - in Korea or anywhere else - can still hope that a Spoon-billed Sandpiper might one day turn up on their local patch? Who knows - but without your help right now, the chances look a great deal slimmer.

4th July 2014