XINJIANG: Saving a rare duck

Chinese Culture

Yan XiYan Xi is a conservation volunteer in Urumqi.

From the series XINJIANG: Exploring China’s new frontier

Urbanization often pits development against the environment. And in Xinjiang, one of the victims is the white-headed duck. Its numbers are decreasing globally. A small number are found at a small lake, just ten kilometers from the regional capital Urumqi. As a part of our series Xinjiang: Exploring China’s New Frontier, reporter Han Bin meets a group of conservation volunteers. Their struggle with local developers and ordinary people, will decide the fate of this endangered species in China.

Hidden among the densely populated urban areas, is a small patch of wetland. The lake is home to some one hundred species of birds. At least one of them is under threat.

“The white-headed duck is on the world’s list of endangered species. It’s not been registered in China, so cannot be protected by law,” said Yan Xi, a Urumqi wildlife volunteer. “It’s also a star species, as it’s the prototype of Disney’s Donald Duck.”

This habitat provides the ducks with the resources to reproduce. But someone else wants their home. Construction is rapidly eroding the wetland.

Yan Xi and Da Xiang belong to a group of local volunteers who have appointed themselves the ducks’ protectors. Their short-term goal is to have all 24 ducks make it to migration season at the end of October. Yan Xi says the challenge is enormous.

“On summer weekends, so many people come to swim or have barbecues. In spring, many people come to steal the eggs. We have confiscated 43 eggs during our inspections. Only 3 were able to hatch, because most embryos stop growing at low temperatures. Sometimes, when we stop the egg thieves, they throw the eggs into the lake or reeds. And we can’t report it to authorities because they’ve destroyed the evidence.”

white-haired duck

The white-haired duck is near extinction.

It’s a race against time, as more and more buildings go up.

“On the east shore, we found this little duck dying in water that had been polluted with oil. I took it home for dissection, and found that its organs were all filled with oil. That’s what killed it. I preserved it as a specimen,” said Xi.

“This little duck was from the smallest of the 8 eggs we confiscated. But it was the first to pip. We named it Hope. We hoped that all eggs could hatch; we hoped all ducks could go back to nature, we hoped they could come here to breed every year. But when it was found dead, we were so sad and some cried.  We felt as though all hope was gone. ”

China’s rapid pace of urbanization has reached remote/isolated areas in its far western Xinjiang. It’s taken its toll on this unique habitat, sending much of the wildlife to the brink of extinction. Many say urbanization should not come at the cost of the ecology. Much needs to be done to control the process.

“We hope the government can work together with us, in building this lake into a park and wetland reserve, Although we can’t stop the pace of urbanization, we need to protect the remaining wetlands.”

“I hope our children can see them. But not to build a monument for the ducks, saying they once lived here before.”

Yan Xi fears humans have lost their love for nature. And he wants to turn this around.

For the ducks, for the lake… for the future.