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INTERVIEW: ‘You have to keep doing what you think is right’

Chieh-te Liang, a Taiwanese wildlife cinematographer and filmmaker whose work has appeared on television networks around the world and garnered Golden Horse nominations at home, has spent the past three decades following and filming the Spoonbill-faced black, an endangered migratory wading bird that winters at your doorstep.

The result, a feature-length documentary titled “Caring for the Black-faced Spoonbill Together,” is an impassioned call for governments and communities to do all they can to preserve the wetland habitats that are so crucial to the survival of the species. birds.

Much of the footage was shot in Taiwan, which welcomes the world’s largest population of spoonbills each winter, where they grow and breed, before returning to Korea and northeast China for the summer.

“The most important thing for them is the habitat,” Liang told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview. “If there is no habitat, they are like human beings without a home.”

He cites South Korean ornithologist Kisup Lee’s recent habitat restoration project, in which local conservationists piled leaves and branches on an artificial island to encourage birds to nest there.

In recent years, the site has become home to more than 100 breeding pairs, he said.

“The black-faced spoonbill population will grow steadily now, and that’s partly due to Dr. Lee helping many birds that had nowhere else to breed,” Liang said.

Conservation Success Story

To some extent, black-faced spoonbills have been a conservation success story. In the 1990s, there were less than 300 of the species in the world, while in 2022 more than 6,000 were recorded. However, the bird is still on the red list of the most threatened species.

Lee has been a loyal fan of the birds’ camps for 30 years, reaching out to observe and film them in South Korea, Japan, China, Macao, Hong Kong and Vietnam, among other places.

“Basically, when you’re photographing birds, it all depends on the weather,” he said. “(Also) there must be no man-made disasters.”

Taiwanese eco-documentary director Chieh-te Liang (left) follows the migration of black-faced spoonbills, reflecting on issues such as habitat protection and the peaceful coexistence of humans and birds through the lens. Credit: Caichang International Media

That may mean throngs of tourists, or even other birders, which increased in numbers once news of the black-faced spoonbill’s plight became more widely known, he said.

“There were about four or five pairs of black-faced spoonbills (on Xingrentuo Island),” Liang said, referring to a small island off the coast of Xulingzhen, about 140 kilometers (87 miles) southwest of the city of Dandong, near the border with North Korea.

“But then a lot of people started going to the island and disturbing the birds, and then we found that there were basically no birds breeding there anymore,” he said. “But the black-faced spoonbill population gradually recovered, and last year there were more than 140 on that island.”

Protection of breeding habitats

Liang began observing the black-faced spoonbill in 1992, when he had a job as an assistant to Liu Hsiao-ru, a zoologist at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, who brought together experts from around the world to devise a plan to protect the birds in their winter breeding habitats.

“It made sense to protect the black-faced spoonbill, a migratory bird, where it winters, its breeding grounds,” Liang said.

“The coast of China is very densely populated and was under large-scale development (at the time), and had lost a lot of wetlands and other habitats,” he said. The species also relies on very little habitat in the winter months, she added.

“More than half of the world’s black-faced spoonbills (winter) along the southwest coast of Taiwan,” he said. “If that habitat had disappeared, there would have been nowhere for them to go.”

In the past, crowds of tourists have disturbed black-faced spoonbill rookeries, causing the endangered species to leave the area until it calms down again. Credit: Wang Zhengji

Taiwanese conservationists have risen up to oppose development after development threatening the spoonbill’s breeding grounds ever since, Liang said, helping establish Taijiang National Park in 2009 to further protect them.

The plan appears to be working, with Taiwan recording a record 3,824 black-faced spoonbills on its territory in 2022.

filming the spatula

Liang’s film offers an intimate look at the breeding patterns of birds, showing males and females taking turns sitting on eggs, as well as laying the eggs first, filmed at the Xingrentuo site on the coast of the Northeast China.

Each winter, the black-faced spoonbill migrates to Taiwan from Xingrentuo Island, traveling thousands of miles round trip between the two locations. Credit: Wang Zhengji

Filming may have been on his doorstep, but it was never easy, requiring over 10 trips just to get the footage for that section of the movie.

“There is often a lot of thick fog in April around that area, and we had thick fog several times, so we couldn’t even set off,” Liang said. “Getting there was a lot of trouble.”

“First I took a car from Dalian to Zhuanghekou, then a boat to Shicheng Island, then another boat from there to Xingrentuo,” he said.

While numbers are recovering, new threats to bird habitats are also emerging, including “green” energy installations, tidal flat reclamation and climate change, he said.

In their native Taiwan, the shift from fishing to fish farming has affected spoonbills’ access to some of their favorite foods, such as milkfish. Conservationists have persuaded some fish farmers to use shallower ponds to give wading birds a chance to catch some of the fish, and to set aside fish waste to supplement their diet, Liang said.

solar panel projects

Solar panel farms have also intruded on bird habitats in the Yentian Wetland in Chiayi, he said.

“We are not against green energy, but if solar panels are installed in inappropriate places, they can endanger bird habitats,” Liang said. “The birds completely disappeared from (the area) after they put the solar panels there, because the habitat changed completely.”

In Chiayi’s Yentian Wetland, solar panels devour the habitat of migratory black-faced spoonbills. Credit: Caichang International Media

Since then, the Taiwan Ornithological Society has negotiated with the government to suspend more solar power projects in wetland areas and has now taken over habitat management, Liang said.

“I learned persistence from everyone who cares about black-faced spoonbills,” Liang said. “You have to keep doing what you think is right.”

“We birders have a saying that what affects birds today will affect people tomorrow,” he said. “We should all pay more attention to the creatures around us…because the changes there are closely related to the future of humanity.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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