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Yellow River birds saved by 'Swan Dad'

China Daily | Updated: 2023-11-02 10:01
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ZHENGZHOU — For 60-year-old Gao Ruyi, the proudest achievement in his life is not measured in accolades or riches but in the wings of over 1,000 swans he has rescued.

Gao, former director of the wildlife rescue station in Sanmenxia, Henan province, has guarded swans and the ecosystems they inhabit for almost four decades.

His efforts have earned him the sobriquet "Swan Dad".

Gao grew up near the Yellow River, China's second-longest river. He graduated in 1983 with a veterinary medicine degree and later worked at a zoo in Sanmenxia.

He had little connection to swans until the winter of 1988 when one day the serenity of the riverside was disrupted by gunshots. Rushing to the scene, he found that someone had opened fire on the swans. The heart-wrenching cries of four wounded swans left an indelible mark on him.

"They lay mutilated on the ground. We saved two of them, but the other two succumbed to severe injuries that very night," he said.

Since then, Gao has become a guardian of swans and a witness to the swan protection efforts along the Yellow River.

The endeavor is not without its challenges, such as poor public awareness of wildlife protection and environmental pollution.

Gao started working at a wildlife rescue station in the Yellow River wetland in Sanmenxia in 1994.Despite their efforts, illegal activities persisted.

One such tragedy happened in 1998. Several wild ducks and swans were poisoned. Gao immediately called the police and provided treatment for the feathery victims.

"Swans have memories," he said. "Since the incident, nobody saw swans in the area for many years."

Still, Gao's passion for swan protection has never waned. He and his colleagues often visited nearby villages to educate residents about wildlife conservation, and encouraged them to bring sick or injured wild animals to the rescue station.

In October 2009, a swan patrol team was formed. Gao and his team started 24/7 shifts to protect swans from any potential distress or harm.

Now, more people have become "swan dads" and "swan moms", Gao said. "They rescue and treat injured swans, spread knowledge about swan conservation, and foster harmonious coexistence between humans and swans."

Another challenge for the birds came from the environment. Swan populations in Sanmenxia were limited in the 1990s due to severe pollution caused by mining and industrial development, said Gao.

Monitoring data indicated that in the late 1990s, pollution intensified in the Yellow River, with the volume of pollutants entering the river far exceeding its environmental capacity. About 40 percent of the river's mainstream had water with a quality classification of "extremely poor".One-third of the original 16 aquatic species in the river became extinct.

In the past decades, however, China initiated extensive efforts to combat pollution in the Yellow River basin, and gradually, swan populations in the Sanmenxia section began to increase.

Between October and March, over 16,000 swans have been migrating to the Sanmenxia section of the Yellow River to spend the winter, signaling a heartening transformation.

Dozens of swans have "flown back home" from distant northern regions to Sanmenxia in recent days. Tens of thousands more swans are expected to join, marking the start of "swan season", as the locals affectionately call it.

Gao is busy once again, equipping some swans with tracking collars to record their migratory routes and movements, contributing essential data for research on swan behavior.

"Swans remember everything, and they use their wings to cast their votes," Gao said.


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