Flat wetland with lillies and pylon

NGOs help protect vital Asian wetland

NGOs have worked together to influence national and international actors to protect an important coastal wetland.

The Chinese coast of the Yellow Sea was always a likely candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Status. The mudflats are vital for millions of migratory birds; they are essential feeding places on the difficult journeys–the birds there often are flying to or from places like the Russian Far East, Australia, and the Bay of Bengal.

In a region with high coastal development and shipping needs, parts of the Yellow Sea had become oases for the birds. Flagship species that depend on it include the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.  

Then, a few weeks before UNESCO was due to confirm the latest batch of World Heritage sites, conservationists were blindsided: the official recommendation was that the Yellow Sea should not be put forward as a candidate, for another five years.

Wetland scientists immediately approached the interested NGOs, both in China and abroad. As a network, this quickly reached many people and in a few weeks they had prepared a letter with more than 60 signatories for the UNESCO World Heritage Centre asking that rather than waiting until it was too late, they should inscribe the mudlfats on the World Heritage list now.

Once they had distributed the letter to the powers that be, it was an anxious wait.

Then on Friday morning, the news came through: the cooperation had worked. UNESCO officially made the migratory bird stops into World Heritage Sites!

Some conservationists had been fearful of the consequences of missing this opportunity for official protection and tourism investment. With it in place they can be more confident in saving species such as the spoon-billed sandpiper from extinction.

While there is still a lot of work to be done for these wetlands, the story so far is an encouraging case-study of how NGO networks can amplify their voice and get closer to their goals, by engaging in networks.

Chinese media reports the story in more detail; see also the participants including the Paulson Institute.