Our team included Chinese, Russian and Australian members and was initially formed in 2006 by an international cooperative effort involving AusAid’s “Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development” program, local authorities of Eerguna District of Inner Mongolia, Daurian International Protected Area (DIPA), WWF Amur/Heilong River Basin Programme and North-East Forestry University. We were brought together by common desire to bridge discrepancies in river management and biodiversity conservation in the Daurian "Global 200" ecoregion – magnificent steppe and wetland area that spans China, Mongolia and Russia. We focused on Eerguna/Argun River –source of the mighty Amur, that has tremendous global biodiversity values and ecological significance, but is virtually unknown by world conservation community. Charismatic birds breeding in the region –Red-Crowned and white-naped cranes, Great Bustard, Swan Goose and Greater Spotted Eagle were flagspecies in our filed surveys and communication activities.
Bird survey was carried out in China in April-May, June-July and September and in Russia in June and August, covering Middle Erguna and 4 comparative sites in Dauria. Although we counted zillions of birds, main findings was that in dry phase of drought cycle birds that seemingly were preparing to breed in Argun-Erguna wetlands in April May did not succeed and mostly left the area or stayed in non-breeding groups. Besides obvious lack of suitable wetland habitat in comparison with previous more wet years, bird breeding was influenced by intensive grazing of wetlands, direct egg collection, hay cutting, fishing and harassment from active development of roads and other infrastructure.
In May and July in Erguna Midflow we conducted socio-economic survey. 8-12 member teams conducted interviews with local villagers and carried out direct objective survey of land-use and major impacts on bird habitat in the same areas. We extended work to Moergol tributary where we found previously unknown important bird habitat.
From the investigation, it is clear that the environmental situation in Erguna valley is very alarming. The livelihoods of the majority of Erguna’s population depend upon the raising of livestock in and around wetlands. Numbers of fish in this area have also decreased rapidly due to the lack of protection of this resource. The protection of other species, including birds and mammals, is also inadequate and as a result many animal populations are now threatened or locally extinct. This can be attributed, in part, to illegal hunting, but more so to the destruction of important habitat.
Through the use of a questionnaire, the attitudes of local villagers’ toward the management of land use, developing economic patterns and the degrees of protection of focal species were explored. It was concluded that local practices, including grazing, fishing, reed and willow cutting etc. greatly affect key bird habitats. Large scale construction projects are also especially evident when considering habitat fragmentation and alteration. A prime example of this is the international highway #301 near Zhalainor City that dissects Erka wetland where thousands of geese and ducks stop on migration. All human impacts in this area are exacerbated by a multi-year drought, with massive desertification affecting the grasslands along the Erguna River and consequently more and more cattle are relying on wetlands for grazing from summer to autumn.
Studying pressures that this river faces we realized that it is sentenced to death by water authorities of Inner Mongolia by means of planned water transfer into Dalai Lake. The natural Dalai lake biosphere reserve ecosystem is also likely to be severely altered and harmed by water transfer.
Heading to the field in April we prepared colorful booklets with photos and descriptions of key wetland bird species and recommendations how to protect them. These leaflets served us well throughout the project and many local government outfits, village elders, teachers and individual enthusiasts requested and were given a supply of such hand-outs. Social survey as such happened to be most appropriate means of community outreach, since it allowed us go door to door and discuss with hundreds of local people their knowledge and attitudes towards birds and wetlands. Largest discrepancy to be bridged somehow by environmental education is that between local traditional knowledge on alternating pressures on surrounding land in time of draught (with nomadic migration being best example) and government resource conservation policies that put a halt right on these traditional adaptations to variating climate conditions (fencing, resettlement, establishment of model farms, encouraging immigration of outsiders, etc.)
In the course of the project team-members took part in several high-profile forums, where we used early findings of our project to lobby for implementation of practical conservation measures in Argun-Erguna Valley and for the halt of Hailar-Dalai water-transfer project:
- First meeting of Sino-Russian biodiversity working group, Harbin, China
- 9th International Riversymposium in Brisbane, Australia
- Far East Economic Development Forum in Khabarovsk, Russia
- “Cooperation in nature conservation between Chita Province and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.” October 29-31.2007. Chita 2007.
Resulting conference resolution strongly emphasize need for development nature reserve network in Argun-Erguna Midflow wetlands and necessity to assess and avoid threats associated with unsound water management projects. And so far the earth works on water-transfer project scheduled for May 2007 have not started, Sino-Russian talks on environmental impact were initiated instead.
Further directions of our work
1.Developing monitoring system to understand ecosystem dynamics.
To this end we enlisted support of Transparent World NGO (Moscow) and Scanex Satellite Imagery Company to provide us with means to conduct such analysis: time series of satellite images and initial methods to analyse them. Simultaneously we urged DIPA to start a network of comprehensive monitoring plots in key wetlands of Dauria. In 2008 we should have some rough model of Middle Argun valley dynamics for last 20 years. To the extent possible we will try to incorporate habitat requirements of Japanese Crane and Swan Goose into such analysis and compare results with limited data on population dynamics we collected by now.
2. In depth analysis of limiting factors and measures to mitigate them.
Some factors such as wildfires require wider analysis in the whole Argun valley and comparative wetland sites. This will be facilitated by use of MODIS satellite monitoring system, which fortunately includes most of eastern Dauria steppe. The same imagery will help to analyse flooding patterns from 2002 on. This should be complemented by field observations on actual changes in local bird populations and bird behaviour in selected model plots. We also need to address some acute factors influencing local bird populations immediately, bird egg collection and poisoning being the finest example. We collected enough local evidence to be able to design and implement a set of preventive measures before April 2008 when next round of poisoning will start. We also need to plan presence of our observers and education teams in the area in early spring.
3. Support to ecological network establishment.
So far we surveyed territory of 3 protected areas in China (Erka, Huliyetu and Erguna Wetlands) and one proposed protected area in Russia ( Middle Argun Wetlands). We also “discovered from space” and explored Moergol wetland, that has similar conservation value and is not protected even on paper. We collected enough evidence on steady environmental degradation to argue that all those areas presently lack adequate protection measures. In Russia our most important task for the whole 2008 is assisting negotiations on nature reserve establishment with local district governments and collective farms. Another important way open to us is to prepare and deliver report on ecological network development in Middle Argun to China-Russia working group on Biodiversity.
Finally we should incorporate reserve management needs into monitoring system design, which will be helpful not only to paper-parks along Argun, but firstly for already functioning nature reserves Daursky, Dalaihu, and Huihe.
4. Address impacts from infrastructure.
Infrastructure and mining require quite different specialized interventions and intensive communication with responsible agencies. So far we established working relationships with China-Russia working Group for Biodiversity, Chita Regional Government and Inner Mongolia Environmental Bureau to facilitate and inform bilateral dialogue on these issues.
5. Local environmental education.
Public outreach activities and communication program should address key discrepancy in perception of draught-related problems by general public and responsible officials. Wetland birds will serve as symbols of ecosystem fragility, connectivity and dynamics.
Hailaer Student Green Frontier Union, which was conceived during this project, by the end of 2007 plans to develop an exhibit and lecture room in the first floor of Dalahu NNR. We need to continue communication with most interested informants and collaborators who were discovered in various parts of Argun valley ( local teachers, drivers, village elders, farmers, border guards and inn-owners). All of them still have our bird-identification booklets and may at least provide useful information on bird sighting and land-use activities in priority habitats.
One of immediate ways to tap this audience is to engage local children in art competition traditionally organized by DIPA and then negotiate exhibiting results in newly built Chenbaerhu folklore and history museum.
6. Raising profile of Argun wetlands
We need to establish constant communication of Erguna/Argun values and problems with broad international community and national level-audiences in two countries. Internationally we need to explore possibility of proposing some international status for the area ( Natural Heritage, International Ramsar wetland), likely in conjunction with DIPA activities. Expanding DIPA and development of joint trilateral biosphere reserve seems to be most feasible first step.
Long-term communication plan is very difficult to draft as long as it should fit both “water transfer” and “no water transfer” scenarios.
Further research and intervention in the filed of international relations, includes assistance to the following processes:
- Improving coordination and expanding cooperation in trilateral Dauria International protected Area;
- Developing joint biodiversity and landscape conservation plan for Argun River basin under agreement between Chitinskaya province and Inner Mongolia.
- Establishment of nature reserve network along Erguna/Argun and linking it to DIPA research and monitoring mechanisms, enlisting support of Sino-russian biodiversity working group in this task;
- Employing mechanisms of Ramsar convention to promote regional initiative for protection of Amur river Basin Wetlands, with Erguna/Argun being one of main focai of it.
- Building foundation for trilateral agreement on integrated river basin management in Upper Amur Basin through dialogue on Hailaer-Dalai transfer.