The world’s only natural reserve for relict gulls has lost its ecological function as a habitat for the endangered species. The reserve’s devastation has spurred finger-pointing among local authorities, with some attributing the loss to “natural disaster.”
Relict Gulls pairing up ahead of the breeding season, Hangu, Tianjin. (Photo by Birdingbeijing.com.)
Established as a sanctuary for the relict gulls in 1998 and upgraded to a national reserve in 2001, the Ordos Relict Gull Reserve (ORGR) in Inner Mongolia is one of 49 internationally recognized wetland reserves in China. Since 2000, the rare birds have been classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. Over 60 percent of the worldwide relict gull population used to breed in Ordos.
On Nov. 12, the Ministry of Environmental Protection released an inspection report criticizing the devastation of ORGR and announcing that the reserve “has lost its ecological function as a national natural reserve.” No trace of relict gulls was found in the region in 2016.
In response to the devastation, local authorities blamed the loss of ORGR on reduced precipitation.
“The region is an arid area. Without enough rainfall, the wetland here would surely dry up. The management of ORGR mainly relies on rainfall,” Miao Li, vice director of the local forestry bureau, told the Beijing News.
Miao’s claim was denounced by many experts and volunteers, who believe that the construction of dams and other human disturbance to the bird’s breeding grounds are responsible for the regional extinction of relict gulls.
According to the Beijing Times, the local government has launched several massive construction projects in the region since 2004. Even though the Conservation Regulation of Wetlands in Inner Mongolia stipulates that such projects should only be approved if intended to provide emergency rescue or disaster relief, many dams were nevertheless built, reducing 1.5 million cubic meters of local surface run-off.
“We have drawn a conclusion about the reserve’s devastation. It doesn’t have much to do with the change in rainfall, but more with the construction of the dams,” Lou Huajun, a research fellow with the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Nature Resources Research, told the Beijing Times.
“Due to a lack of communication and coordination, local government sectors only care about their own business, making it impossible to solve the dam problem,”said Xing Xiaojun, director of ORGR.
In addition to the construction of dams, excessive ecotourism has also disrupted the breeding of the rare birds. In 2002, Shizhen Garden, an ecotourism resort, was established near ORGR. The resort installed a network of Mongolian yurts on the reserve to accommodate hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
He Fenqi, a research fellow on relict gulls protection, told the Beijing Times that at least 1,000 relict gulls had abandoned their nests due to human disturbance in 2004.
“Though we were strongly against the establishment of the resort, local authorities insisted on building it … We have no authority over the management of the resort, and our complaints went unheard,” Xing said.
Due to the declining population of relict gulls in the reserve, local ecotourism has also taken a beating. The resort was closed in 2006, before the birds had fully abandoned the area.