A white-tailed sea eagle tries to fly from Guanting Reservoir in Beijing on December 31 last year.
By Liang Chen
It was a brown blob huddled on the white carpet of Guanting Reservoir. They never expected the pathetic, shivering creature on ice would turn out to be a white-tailed sea eagle.
As bird-watchers Liu Mengrong and husband Zhang Yong approached to within 10 meters, the once-majestic creature weakly flapped its wings and made to escape, but then fell heavily back to earth a few meters farther on.
"Evidently she was deeply hurt and I have no idea how many hours she had been lying on the ice in such freezing weather," Zhang told the Global Times.
It was about -10 C on December 31 at the junction of Yanqing county, Beijing, and Huailai county within the prefecture-level city of Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province.
"She was just so fragile, all trembling," Liu Mengrong said.
"But as I embraced her in my arms, I could feel this enormous craving for life. I made a pledge there and then I would do anything I could to save this creature any way I could."
Carrying the bird back to their car, they spotted another prone eagle about 100 meters away.
"We contacted the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) Beijing Raptor Rescue Center immediately and decided to take them separately to make sure at least one might survive," said the couple's friend Yi Hechuan, who had come along in his own vehicle for their photographic birding trip.
The second eagle died on the 40-minute drive to the rescue center at Beijing Normal University. Established by IFAW and Beijing Normal University in December 2001, the center rescues, treats and rehabilitates birds of prey for release back into the wild.
Liu posted "The fate of the white-tailed sea eagle" on Beijing-based bird lovers' website www.birdnet.cn and 12,596 web users read the post, with 294 replies.
A common comment: Why?
Yi Hechuan, an experienced bird-watcher, brings the eagle to the IFAW Beijing Raptor Rescue Center on December 31 last year.
"We believe the eagle was poisoned," said Li Ying, a rehabilitation therapist at the center, "as its head was trembling, the feet twitching and its wings drooping."
They also found corn, sorghum and wild duck feathers in the vomit of the two eagles.
"They never eat plants so we think they must have been poisoned by eating poisoned ducks," Li said.
Center staff had the eagle ingest 500 millimeters of saline that induced vomiting.
"The usual way for villagers to make money is to poison the ducks and chickens first and then to capture and sell the birds of prey after they have eaten up the poisoned ducks and chickens," said Yang Zhihua, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Landscape and Forestry.
Since January 18, Yang's division has stepped up supervision and inspection in conservation areas and the Beijing forest police have cracked down on restaurants, markets and vendors on the Jingshi Expressway between Beijing and Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province.
"People in Yanqing are hunting or poisoning birds to meet a boom in countryside tourism," said Qi Jinsheng, a fanatical bird-watcher and also a director of Beijing branch of birdnet.cn, "and tourists here want a taste of wild game."
Yang Yushang, a 6-year-old boy from the county-level city of Anda within the prefecture-level city of Suihua in Heilongjiang Province, was paralyzed by eating a poisoned wild animal in 2008, according to China Central Television.
"People might not fall ill right away after eating poisoned birds or other wild animals, but the toxins can lie in the body and expand from the blood to the muscle, causing severe diseases after some time," Wang Henggen, a professor of wild animals at Heilongjiang Bayi Agricultural University, told the Global Times.
Villagers and bird lovers both complain wild birds are growing increasingly scarce, according to Qi.
"We used to see sea eagles, saker falcons and owls in the Wild Duck Lake every year, but these lovely birds have rarely appeared in recent years," Xie Yuming, another member of the birdnet.cn, told the Global Times.
"The number of birds of prey has declined sharply in China, due to commercial exploitation and the narrow habitat for birds, with acceleration and expansion of urbanization and industrialization," Liao Xiaodong, an expert on zoology of the Guangdong Institute of Education in Guangzhou told the Global Times.
Hunters plant traps and nets at strategic locations along the birds' migration routes: Shenzhen, the prefecture-level city of Zhanjiang in Guangdong Province and the prefecture-level city of Beihai in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, according to Mr Chen, a Guangzhou bird-watcher who asked not to be fully named.
Dong Yi, director of the Daqing Wildlife Conservation Association has confiscated more than 3,000 iron bird traps in three years.
"A large number of wild birds are being shot, captured or poisoned," Dong reportedly told the Beijing Science and Technology News himself with a trembling voice.
"How can human beings be so wicked?"
Rescue center raptor rehabilitators infuse fluid into the poisoned eagle on January 2, two days after it was rushed to the center.
Birds are traded for eating, hunting and breeding, Liao said. The ancient Chinese liked breeding these birds, especially eagles. Peasants who brought eagles to the palace even enjoyed preferential tax policies. Houyingfang alley in Xizhimen area of old Beijing was once used for training eagles.
"Of all wild creatures, the Cantonese most love eating birds of prey," Guangzhou bird-watcher Chen told the Global Times.
Hard-to-find restaurants in remote areas serve game, he explained.
"The rich and officials, eager to demonstrate their status, are the guests of honor at these kinds of restaurants," Chen said.
Exploitation originates in Chinese culture and history, Liao Xiaodong argued.
"First in Chinese culture comes food, the most important necessity. Next we have traditional Chinese medicine that believes wild means powerful and strong, rich in nutrition, best for health.
"The Chinese – especially Cantonese – are cult followers of traditional medicine."
Now economic development, Liao believed, had enabled people to pursue these pet nutritional superstitions.
"The Cantonese are crazy for wildlife," he said. "Some friends of mine never stopped eating wild animals even when SARS was wrecking China and the virus was believed to have jumped from civet cats to humans."
On January 12, Liu Mengrong (right) and rescue center staff free the eagle they rescued from poisoning. Photos: IFAW Beijing Raptor Rescue Center and birdnet.cn
Smugglers target the common kestrel, goshawk and saker falcons, He Yong, special assistant to IFAW's Asia regional director, told the Global Times.
"Some bird markets such as Hongyan Birds Market, the biggest in Beijing, used to sell these types of birds of prey," he said.
Training saker falcons is a popular pastime in some Arabic countries and a lucrative market for smugglers.
"In the late 1990s, smuggling of saker falcons was common in China," Grace Ge Gabriel, IFAW's Asia regional director, told the Global Times. "I remember Beijing Customs confiscated over 400 saker falcons en route to the Middle East in just one instance."
Smugglers packed the birds tight into a suitcase inside special nylon socks that prevented them from making noise and covered their eyes, she said.
"Smuggling of saker falcons from China to the Middle East has been rare in the recent decade because our department has intensified the crackdown on smuggling and smug-glers have adapted their methods," a director of Beijing Customs surnamed Lei told the Global Times.
But after intercepting, Customs cannot release the birds. Inspection and quarantine procedures require the birds remain caged for long, fixed terms. Customs cooperates with the Endangered Species Import and Export Management Office of China to "send out these birds to zoos or free them as soon as we can, under the direction of the office," he said.
Twelve days after the blob, rescue center staff and 10 members of birdnet.cn drive 30 minutes out to Shidu in Fangshan district, Beijing.
Mountains surround the Juma River where the crisp, clean air echoes to the babbling of running water. A couple of black storks stroll by on the horizon, searching for food.
"The food chain here is abundant," Qi Jinsheng smiles.
The eagle might hesitate, a rescue staff member warns the Global Times.
The cage opens at 11 am. Out steps the inhabitant and immediately extends her 2-meter wingspan. Without a moment's hesitation, the eagle takes off into the azure.
"I kept my promise," Liu Mengrong mutters to herself.
"This is the happiest day imaginable," Yi Hechuan says to friends, gripping hands tightly. "I finally get to see a healthy eagle fly away. I feel complete."
"Wish you a healthy life in the wild!" Liu shouts after the dot.
"Look after yourself!"
Her words echo in the hills and linger in our ears.
Fast facts: raptors
All birds of prey are either first or second-degree nationally protected animals in China. Killing, hunting and smuggling can theoretically be punished by years of prison or fines of up to tens of thousands of yuan, according to Chinese law.
Raptors include eagles, hawks, kites and harriers. They top the food chain by hunting for food primarily on the wing, using their keen senses, especially vision. Their talons and beaks tend to be relatively large, powerful and adapted for tearing and piercing flesh. Females are usually considerably larger than the males.
The white-tailed sea eagle, also known as the erne, is the fourth-largest eagle in the world, 69-92 centimeters (27-36 in) long with a 182-244 cm wingspan.
IFAW Beijing Raptor Rescue Center www.brrc.org.cn 86-10-62205666 Shenzhen Bird-watching Society 0755-83713418, 13798355583