Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hong Kong: Yuen Po Street Bird "Garden"

On our way home from Malaysia, Eileen and I spent a few days in Hong Kong. There are wild areas in Hong Kong, and very interesting and important ones too, but on my first day I took a couple of hours to explore a much more urban wilderness.

The Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is one of the touted tourist attractions of Kowloon. It is not, however, a garden. It is, instead - despite its description by the Hong Kong Leisure and Cultural Services Department as a "Chinese-style theme park" - a walled-in open-air market where cage birds are bought and sold, built in the 1990s to replace the old Hong Lok Street bird market I visited back in 1968.

Yuen Po is certainly a fascinating place, and the tourist sites make it sound quite idyllic.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board describes it as a "charming Chinese-style garden... the favoured gathering place of Hong Kong's songbird owners, who carry their beloved pets around in intricately carved cages. All manner of beautiful birds can be seen here, as well as a selection of traditional bird-keeping paraphernalia".

After that, it is illuminating to turn to a study of what really goes on at Yuen Po. I have worked on international wildlife trade issues for many years, and I certainly wanted to know more. For that, I turned to a 2006 thesis by Chan Sin Wai entitled Religious Release of Birds in Hong Kong [the link takes you to a Hong Kong University request form you must submit to get access to the document].
Cage birds in Hong Kong are not merely - or even primarily - valued as pets. A great many are bought to be released as part of a merit-gaining, primarily Buddhist ritual. Chan notes that "this is a traditional practice in much of Asia, but in some areas it has become commercialized, leading to large-scale trapping, trans-border trading and the release of huge numbers of birds into novel environments." The numbers involved are vast. As many as half a million to a million birds may be released in Hong Kong each year, a great many of them passing through Yuen Po. Most reach Hong Kong illegally, smuggled in by sea from China along with other birds, valued for their song or their plumage, that their new owners have no intention of releasing.

Buying birds for release is not as benevolent an activity as it might sound. Chan tested 512 birds of 13 species sold for release for physical condition, and 281 for avian influenza. "Ninety-nine percent had visible feather damage, injury and/or sickness. No influenza A virus was detected but other viruses were. Five Eurasian Tree Sparrows, four Light-vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus sinensis) and three Red-whiskered Bulbuls (P. jocosus) sold for release were radio-tracked. Half died soon after release. Most birds sold for release are packed 50-100 together in flat bamboo cages stacked on top of each other, thus maximizing the risk of disease transmission between individuals and species, and to people who handle the cages." NB: Most of the birds in the photo are Oriental Magpie Robins (Copsychus saularis), a species not sold to be released, and kept one to a (tiny) cage in the market.

There are, supposedly, laws governing all this; Chan sets them out, including the Convention on Illegal Trade in Threatened and Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the chief focus of much of my work over the past twenty-five years. CITES, however, covers very few songbirds. Officially, the birds imported from China are supposed to come from from two
registered pet bird farms in Guangdong Province, but it seems hard to believe that many of the birds I saw on sale - flycatchers, larks and other birds not at all easy to keep and breed in captivity - are truly captive-bred.

There are some odder uses for the birds at Yuen Po; these Hwa-Meis (Garrulax canorus), though fine singers, are apparently trained for bird-fighting.

Chan makes a number of sensible recommendations for dealing with all this, including improved public education. A telling recommendation is a call for "a complete ban on the import of wild caught birds into Hong Kong. The border control should also be tightened to prevent smuggling or unchecked imports... Since birds imported from China were claimed to be captive-bred by registered pet bird farms, all captive-bred birds imported should be required to be fitted with closed rings that can only be fitted on chicks". I can only, full-heartedly, agree.

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