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Vital Shorebird Habitat on China’s Yellow Sea Gains World Heritage Site Status

By Elizabeth Serrano
Spoon-billed Sandpiper and shorebirds and Gerrit Vyn
Shorebirds foraging along the Yellow Sea coast, including an endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper (left). Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

From the Autumn 2019 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

The intertidal mudflat areas of China’s Yellow Sea Coast—vital stopover habitat for more than 50 species of shorebirds that migrate along the East Asian–Australasian Flyway—gained another layer of protection against development, thanks to a new declara­tion of World Heritage Site status.

The declaration came out of the 2019 United Nations World Heritage Com­mittee meeting in Azerbaijan in early June. The nonprofit conservation group Birdlife Australia worked with govern­ment partners to secure this new World Heritage Site designation.

“The Australian government should be congratulated for playing a significant leadership role in ensuring this World Heritage listing,” said Birdlife Australia CEO Paul Sullivan. “China has shown real global leadership by announcing a moratorium on coastal reclamation and [now] securing World Heritage listing for the Yellow Sea ecosystem.”

The moratorium announced by the Chinese government in 2018 placed re­strictions on land reclamation along the Yellow Sea coast to protect intertidal habitat. According to conservation ex­perts, the World Heritage Site declara­tion is another positive sign of China’s emerging conservation commitment to these threatened mudflat habitats.

“Even if a World Heritage listing it­self is more of an honor rather than a legal requirement or management tool, since it represents China’s image on the international stage, the Chinese govern­ment will pay great attention to how the World Heritage Sites are managed to meet the UNESCO criteria and require­ments,” says Rose Niu, chief conserva­tion officer of the Paulson Institute, a global think-tank founded by former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. to strengthen U.S.–China relations.

Since the 1950s, two-thirds of the Yellow Sea’s mudflats in China have been dredged and filled in reclamation projects that transformed these habitats into salt ponds, manufacturing com­plexes, and chemical factories. These mudflats are critical stopover habitat for some of the world’s most endan­gered birds. Due largely to Yellow Sea habitat loss, Far Eastern Curlews have suffered more than an 80% population loss in the last decade, and the global Spoon-billed Sandpiper population is down to fewer than 500 birds.

The future may finally be looking brighter for the Yellow Sea coast and its shorebirds, say experts.

“I believe this is the beginning of conservation efforts made by the Chi­nese government to fill the conservation gaps that have existed for past decades,” said the Paulson Institute’s Niu.

“We hope the [Chinese Yellow Sea Coast World Heritage Site] decision will also help to expedite the inscription of other important sites in South Korea next year, China in 2022, and hopefully, North Korea.”

Elizabeth Serrano is a student editorial assistant. Her work on this story was made possible by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communication Fund, with support from Jay Branegan (Cornell ’72) and Stefania Pittaluga.

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