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Role models raise environmental awareness

By HOU LIQIANG | China Daily | Updated: 2023-01-31 07:36
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Liu Detian, head of the Saunders's Gull Conservation Society, talks with a group of students during an environmental education program in June. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Editor's note: As protection of the planet's flora, fauna and resources becomes increasingly important, China Daily is publishing a series of stories to illustrate the country's commitment to safeguarding the natural world.

Liu Detian compares solving environmental problems to saving someone who has fallen into deep water: it's necessary to shout for help, but if no one responds, the person will drown.

As an environmentalist, the 72-year-old from Panjin in the northeastern province of Liaoning has been a "shouter" and "doer" for more than 30 years.

Before he retired, Liu worked as a newspaper reporter, making full use of his post to deter developments that could potentially jeopardize the habitats of birds. He also started the country's first environmental NGO, motivating thousands of people to act to save the environment.

Thanks to the efforts of Liu and many other people, the number of Saunders's Gull — aka the Chinese black-headed gull — in Panjin rose from about 1,200 in the 1990s to 9,896 in 2018.

The bird was once a mysterious species. It is named after a French missionary who collected a specimen in Xiamen, Fujian province, in 1871. For more than 100 years, though, researchers failed to identify any breeding areas in the world.

Despite being placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, the gull did not feature on China's roll call of wildlife under national protection when it was released in the 1990s. It was first mentioned when the list was republished in 2021, after a break of about 20 years.

After Chinese researchers discovered the species' nests and eggs in 1984, a group of experts from the World Wildlife Fund arrived at the Liaoning Shuangtai River Estuary National Nature Reserve in Panjin to conduct a field survey in 1990.

The survey, lasting more than 100 days, concluded that the coastal area of Panjin was home to about 70 percent of all Saunders's Gulls around the globe, and was therefore the bird's biggest breeding ground.

As a reporter who followed the group of experts, Liu never expected that his life would later become closely linked to the bird.

His first sight of the gull, through binoculars, remains fresh. Fascinated by the bird he describes as "an adorable elf with a clear call that can be heard from far away", he was determined to help protect the species. In April 1991, Liu started the Saunders's Gull Conservation Society, which was the first independent environmental NGO to be registered in China.

Researchers examine a gull at a nature reserve in Liaoning province in June. PAN YULONG/XINHUA

In 2019, China Environment News described Liu as "a smart environmentalist who is good at using the power of the media, environmental experts and the government to protect the Saunders's Gull".

The society is allowed free permanent use of an office in the Panjin environmental protection bureau, and the Chinese characters on the association's wooden plaque were written by Qu Geping, who was chairman of the Environmental Protection and Resources Conservation Committee of the National People's Congress when the NGO was established, the newspaper noted.

In an article about his bird-protection story that Liu shared on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like platform, he stressed the importance of government support for his organization in times when people had no clear understanding of environmental protection.

"Back then, a civilian organization sounded strange, especially in a small city like Panjin. As something new, the association had neither power nor money, so its voice could hardly be heard," he said.

In 2011, after learning that a company had illegally built a number of garages in an area named Nanxiao near a river that is a key habitat for the Saunders's Gull, Liu exposed the violation in Panjin Daily, his employer. The company demolished the garages immediately after the report was published.

In 2014, when Liu discovered that the local government was planning to introduce a project that would cover 20,000 hectares of wetland, he invited the head of the Panjin environmental protection bureau and a number of journalists to visit the area. Eventually, the project was abandoned.

He has also undertaken environmental education. The NGO's related programs have benefited more than 160,000 school students, according to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, which named Liu as one of China's 100 model environmental protection volunteers in 2019.

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