Fighting Bird Poachers at China’s Poyang Lake

Stopping illegal bird hunting in China’s largest freshwater lakes is an uphill battle.

Every day the inspectors at poyang lake nature Reserve in southeastern China follow the same routine: Walk the shores. Find the mist nets. Free the living birds. Chop down the nets.

Poyang is a crucial stopover site on the East Asian flyway and a mecca for 400,000 breeding waterbirds, including egrets, spoonbills, cranes, storks, swans, geese, and ducks. Some visitors are endangered species that flock to the lake in high concentrations: More than 50 percent of the world’s rare swan geese and 98 percent of Siberian cranes winter here. Not surprisingly, the rich birdlife makes Poyang a popular site for poachers, too.

If the inspectors’ task seems Sisyphean, that’s because it is. The reserve they patrol is 86 square miles; the lake, China’s largest, spans 2,400 square miles. They intensified their inspections in October 2013, but new mist nets, most of them the length of a football field, still appear each day.

Cutting down the nets alone won’t solve the problem. “Another part of the solution is to stop the sale of wild birds in markets and restaurants,” says Jim Harris, senior vice president of the International Crane Foundation. “Unfortunately, eating wild birds is still popular.” And as population growth intensifies in China’s southeast, its most rapidly urbanizing region, demand will likely increase even as more habitat disappears.

If it does, the inspectors will be there, doing their utmost to hold the line against illegal hunting, one swing of the machete at a time.

This story originally ran in the May-June 2014 issue as "China Syndrome."