China is the world’s most populous country (approximately 1.4 billion) and has the world’s fastest growing economy, having become the largest global exporter in 2010.
The Himalayan region of China, including Yunnan province, where WBH has most recently been observed, is one of China’s most biodiverse regions, particularly rich in freshwater fish, plant and bird species. This mountainous region has a lower population density than much of China, though it has a high level of ethnic diversity. It borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. Yunnan province has a strong agricultural economy, with tobacco the primary export product, and is rich in natural elements (copper, lead and zinc).
China has a history of wildlife use, both for consumption and traditional Chinese medicines. Increased disposable income has led to an increase in consumption of rare and expensive wildlife products. The government has joined global conventions and launched national initiatives to improve legislation, enforcement and compliance. Awareness raising campaigns have been designed to drive down demand.
White-bellied Heron in China
In August 2014, a juvenile WBH was found in southwest China, Yunnan Province for the first time in at least 80 years.
The bird was captured on the east side of Nujiang River (Salween) in Mt. Gaoligong NNR, Yunnan Province, China. It was being sold along the roadside around 2,500m a.s.l. although the local terrain is predominantly 800-1,800m a.s.l); it was kept for two days in a home, then reported to the authorities and transported to Yunnan Wild Zoo where it died within three to four days. The suspected cause of death was overfeeding, stress, and weakness.
Prior to this discovery it was thought White-bellied heron may already have gone extinct in China. This recent discovery, however, suggests birds may be resident or visiting China, possibly even breeding there.
Birdwatching has gained popularity in recent years and numerous citizens take part in bird surveys, identification and management of important bird areas. WBH is not generally recognised in China but there are on-going wildlife surveys in Yunnan province, and support from the White-bellied Heron Working Group to The Southwest Forestry University could help identify wild individuals.
Formal protection of White-bellied Heron in China
The Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Wildlife was adopted on November 8, 1988.
Due to its lack of recognition, the White-bellied Heron is not currently afforded any legal protection in China. If the birds presence can be verified, legal protection for the species under the Protection of Wildlife should be sought.
Threats to White-bellied Heron in China
China’s wildlife has suffered major losses in recent years – large-scale infrastructure development (including many dams), pollution, deforestation and associated soil erosion, as well as a decline in water resources are all major concerns. Wildlife poaching for traditional Chinese medicine and food is also an on-going challenge for conservation.
The single White-bellied Heron discovered in 2014 was in the Salween Valley area of Yunnan province. The local Lisu, Chingpaw and Nu people have a long history of wildlife hunting and still use traditional hunting practices, such as crossbows and arrows.