A flock of Eurasian spoonbills flies across the Hengling Lake Nature Reserve on the southern bank of Dongting Lake. (Photo: Xinhua)
Decades of abuse have prompted the government to launch cleanup campaigns
Many years ago, it was almost impossible for a swan to find a place to rest in Dongting Lake, China's second-largest freshwater lake.
Mei Biqiu, a former conservation official, remembers the lake's wetlands lush with black poplars, planted for timber and papermaking, depriving migratory waterbirds of their winter habitats.
"They are like water pumps of the wetlands-where they were planted, the soil dried up, the grass wilted and the birds left," said Mei, former chief of the West Dongting Lake Nature Reserve Administration.
Apart from poplars, there were seven or eight papermaking factories that reaped reeds and more than 30 sand boats and 100,000 nets that made the lake perilous for birds and fish, added the retired official.
For thousands of years, the Dongting Lake, which is along the Yangtze River, Asia's longest river, had been a thoroughfare for migratory birds with its biologically rich wetlands, but its status was tarnished amid the anti-hunger drive and economic pursuit in the last century.
It was not until recently that birds regained interest in the lake.
In 2017, a campaign was launched to chop down invasive poplars in the lake. The West Dongting Lake Reserve alone has cleared more than 6,600 hectares of poplars and it plans to complete the eradication by next year.
Meanwhile, the reserve has shut down all the paper mills and pig farms that discharge effluent into the lake and is gearing up for a 10-year fishing moratorium-effective on Jan 1-on the Yangtze River.
"Despite the old saying: 'Rely on the water for survival when there is water,' we've come to realize that a development model that depletes nature will not last long," he said.
Tang Daiqin, a fisherman in his 70s, recalled the locals' eventual withdrawal from Dongting Lake to rectify decades of abuse.
In the 1970s, when hunger and scarcity prompted China to prioritize food production, villagers inhabiting Dongting Lake zealously jumped into a dike-building drive to reclaim farmlands and fish ponds.
"Over 10,000 people gathered around the lake on the second day of the Lunar New Year in 1975, carrying sand on their shoulders and backs," Tang said. "Everyone worked from daybreak till late into the night to finish it before the water level rose in July."
While the massive reclamation driven by the survival instinct resulted in the villagers' increased vulnerability in times of floods, several rounds of the profit-driven poplar planting craze since 1977 caused greater ecological calamity.
Statistics show that the Dongting Lake area was occupied by 26,000 hectares of black poplars as of 2016. These tall, strong and fast-growing trees were blamed for killing the wetlands by hardening the soil and blocking sunlight for other plants.
In 1998, after a huge flood swept the Yangtze River, destroying houses and farms around the lake, the government decided to "return the land to the lake". Under the guidance of local governments, Tang and 5,800 other fishermen and farmers were resettled outside of the Qingshan Dyke that they had built.
It was not a smooth transition. Many villagers who failed to find other means of livelihood returned to the lake and engaged in illegal fishing and bird hunting, often by electrocuting or poisoning the water. The establishment of the reserve in 1998, and its implementation of a fishing and hunting ban, also ran into strong opposition from locals.
Return of the birds
Constant conflicts continued into the new century between the villagers and conservation officials in hard negotiations. "We eventually managed to find common ground. We fishermen didn't want the lake that our livelihoods rely on to be polluted, either," Tang said.
Since 2004, the reserve has inked deals with the fishermen's cooperatives to allow eco-friendly aquaculture activities. Fishermen agreed to refrain from using chemical fertilizers and illegal means like poisoning.
Since then, more fishermen and villagers have joined associations on environmental protection, said He Muying, a conservation personnel with the reserve, adding that they also plan to promote bird watching and eco-tourism as new sources of income for local fishermen.
The lake now is a picture of fast-recovering wetland ecology.
So far this winter, more than 30,000 migratory birds have arrived at West Dongting Lake, including 78 black storks under top-level State protection.
The Hengling Lake Nature Reserve, located on the southern bank of Dongting, has 55,000 migratory birds, already surpassing last winter's 40,000.
Zhang Xiaobo, a researcher with Beijing Forestry University who has been carrying out research in the reserve for years, praised the removal of poplars and implementation of fishing bans to improve the lake's biodiversity.
Monitoring over the years has pointed to the accelerated growth of submerged plants such as eelgrass and an increasing number of birds from white cranes to swans. "All these changes indicate that the ecology of West Dongting Lake is gradually recovering," Zhang said.