Across China: Endangered birds find home in once polluted "coal city"

Society 42

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HARBIN, Sept. 22 (Xinhua) -- For 56-year-old Zuo Yutao, protecting endangered birds has become a top priority at work in his home city of Hegang, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.

As the director of a national-level terrestrial wildlife epidemic monitoring station, Zuo spent a lot of time in the past summer reinforcing the nests of oriental storks on the Dulu River nature reserve, as the vast wetland within is now an important habitat for the endangered birds.

With a global population of less than 3,000 mature individuals, the oriental stork is under first-class national protection in China. In 2017, oriental storks were spotted on the nature reserve for the first time with their number exceeding 100.

"We were very surprised as oriental storks are quite picky about their living environment, and the discovery reflected the improvement of the environment on the Dulu River," said Zuo.

Zuo wanted these birds to stay, so he turned to other nature reserves to learn from their experience. Among the key things he learned was how to build artificial nests to attract oriental storks to settle in.

In early 2018, braving freezing weather in China's northernmost province, Zuo and his colleagues struggled to build 20 nests. "I doubted whether it would be useful until three nests were occupied by oriental storks later that year," said Zuo. "They even gave birth to baby birds there."

Today, the nature reserve is home to more than 50 such nests, in addition to some 10,000 nests of other species of birds. This year, about 300 oriental storks spent spring and summer here, according to Zuo.

Previously, this would have been unimaginable for Hegang, a major coal-producing city that was notorious for its history of pollution. However, besides the efforts of animal protectors like Zuo, the advances in green development have reshaped the city landscape.

Over the past few years, the city has released more than 100 documents on ecological and environmental protection, treated abandoned coal mines, transformed shantytowns into parks, and cleared city waterways, among other measures.

A total of 46 coal mines have been shut down since 2012. As a result, the skies are no longer grey. According to the Hegang municipal government, the ratio of days with good air quality hit 98.6 percent in 2021, and the average level of PM 2.5 dropped by 39 percent compared with 2016.

Meanwhile, about 4,000 hectares of farmland have been returned to wetlands and 9206.67 hectares of reforestation was completed in the past five years, said Yang Guanghui, director of Hegang's ecological and environment bureau.

Remarkable achievements have also been made in the new energy industry. By the end of this year, the installed capacity of new-energy power generation in Hegang is expected to reach 1.5 million kilowatts, accounting for 50 percent of the city's total, said Liu Lei, director of the development and reform commission of Hegang.

Zuo finds encouragement in the improvements to the environment in Hegang and the achievements of his job. "We will try to seek funding to upgrade the nests so that more birds can have comfortable homes," he said. ■