A Remarkable Achievement for Wetland Conservation in South Korea | International Crane Foundation

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A Remarkable Achievement for Wetland Conservation in South Korea


Travels with George

At the Festival of the Reeds at Suncheon Bay, thousands of visitors enjoyed the wetlands
At the Festival of the Reeds at Suncheon Bay, thousands of visitors enjoyed the wetlands
Hooded Cranes
Hooded Cranes
Black-faced Spoonbill
Black-faced Spoonbill

Current Trip: Travels with George, Fall 2007
Entry October 24

A Remarkable Achievement for Wetland Conservation in South Korea

October 24 November 4, 2007

For thousands of years, sea travelers have undoubtedly found refuge in Suncheon Bay. It’s bordered by two peninsulas of high hills on the rugged south coastline of the Korean peninsula. And perhaps for an even longer period, the endangered Hooded Cranes have found sanctuary in winter on the mudflats and sedge marshes on the upper reaches of this productive estuary of the Dong River.

It was not until 1995 that a pro-democracy activist and student, Kim Kyungwon, having spent almost a year in prison for his political protests, found inspiration from the wide expanses of the dense reedbeds that swayed with the winds beside Suncheon Bay.

A year later Kyungwon met ornithologist, Dr. Kim Sooil, at a meeting about wetland conservation in Seoul. In one of Kyungwon’s panoramic photographs of the Suncheon wetlands, Sooil pointed out seven species of shorebirds that Kyungwon had not noticed. Kyungwon was amazed! Finally he had found a mentor.

Soon the new friends were exploring the wonders of Suncheon Bay. Sooil was thrilled to find South Korea’s only wintering population of Hooded Cranes and other rare birds such as the Oriental White Stork, Black-faced Spoonbill, and Saunder’s Gull. But the local people had taken the birds and the wetlands for granted. They were more interested in development than conservation.

Sooil and Kyungwon were committed to saving the cranes and their habitats. In 2002, they convened in Suncheon Town, a workshop that included crane specialists from neighboring nations. International Crane Foundation’s, Jim Harris, also participated. A proposal was advanced to the government to declare Suncheon Bay a protected area and a Ramsar site of international importance.

The Ramseur Convention for the Protection of Wetlands, asks governments to list and protect the most important wetlands vital to threatened aquatic birds. These wetlands are recognized internationally as Ramsar sites. Soon Suncheon Bay became both a reserve and a Ramsar site thus providing long-term protection for a plethora of wildlife.

The leaders in Suncheon Town were inoculated with a growing interest in their newly-discovered treasure. A large headquarters building with office space for staff and a museum for visitors was constructed near the river. An arched bridge over the river led visitors to an elevated long and convoluted boardwalk through the reed beds and over the mudflats to a neighboring hill where steep stairs led to a trail along the hilltop to an observatory with a commanding view of the Bay. Kyungwon and Sooil’s dream was a reality!

October 26-28, 2007, I participated in a meeting of crane specialists and officials at Suncheon Bay organized by South Korea’s leading conservation organization, the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM) and the local government.

The dates coincided with the Festival of the Reeds. Dozens of vendors of food and art set up booths, thousands of visitors enjoyed the museum, the boardwalk, the observatory, and special excursions by boat down the river and close to a diversity of colorful birds on mudflats. Gorgeous weather, dramatic landscapes, the plethora of plants and animals, hordes of happy visitors, and the kindness of our Korean hosts blended to create memories to be treasured.

Colleagues from China, Germany, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the USA presented excellent reports about the status of cranes and other rare aquatic birds such as the Crested Ibis and the Black-faced Spoonbill. The presence and participation of the outsiders reinforced to the local residents the international importance of Suncheon Bay.

But there was also work to do and the Hooded Crane was a focal point for conservation action. There are three major wintering areas for these east Asian Cranes; the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in China (app. 1,000 birds), Suncheon Bay (app. 300 birds), and Izumi, Japan (app. 10,000 birds).

The huge flock in Japan increased from about 300 after the war as a consequence of feeding programs sponsored by the government throughout the winter. With this abnormal concentration of cranes at and near the feeding stations near the town of Izumi, there are concerns that an epidemic such as avian flu, might lift its head to destroy a major portion of the cranes.

Consequently, the delegates at the workshop proposed a sister relationship between Suncheon and Izumi to develop a management plan for the Hooded Cranes. They also recommended that research be undertaken using satellite telemetry to determine the nesting area of the Suncheon’s Hooded Cranes in the wide expanses of Eastern Siberia. Such a discovery might lead to a sister nature reserve for Hooded Cranes in Russia.

Dr. Victor Degtyaryev, a Russian ornithologist from Eastern Siberia who attended the meeting, now hopes to join forces with South Korean colleagues to discover the breeding area of the Hooded Cranes that spend the winter near Suncheon Bay.

A decade ago a new friendship between Sooil and Kyungwon, and their shared concerns about the survival of wetlands that started at Suncheon Bay, influenced Kyungwon to travel around South Korea to study wetlands and promote their conservation as a volunteer for KFEM.

It was in part Sooil’s knowledge, commitment and enthusiasm that influenced Kyungwon to dedicate his life to the conservation of wetlands. Sooil was an advisor to KFEM and eventually Kyungwon was employed by KFEM’s wetland conservation program, a position now shared with a gifted lady, Ms. Sunyoung.

To the great loss of all, Kim Sooil passed away in 2005 at young age after suffering a stroke. His legacy, however, continues through the work of Kyungwon, Ms. Sunyoung and the many colleagues, students and others that Sooil inspired. One of the suggestions of those gathered for the recent meeting in Suncheon is that Dr. Kim Sooil be recognized in a memorial at Suncheon Bay to honor a great man and to encourage future generations of Koreas to follow their dreams.

The remarkable win-win for nature and for the local people at Suncheon Bay, provides an example for conservation worldwide.

And in particular, this success suggests that in like manner following the dreamed-of reunification of the two Koreas, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) might also be protected by the example of Suncheon Bay to the benefit of all Koreans.

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