Event aims to raise environmental awareness among school pupils
Bird watching appears to be in vogue in China. A dozen "international" birding events have been held across the country already this year, and several more are on the horizon.
Aside from promoting the hobby, which is popular in many Western countries, the main aim of these events is to attract tourists to some of the country's less-visited scenic areas. Jingshan county, in Hebei province, has even lobbied to be called "China's Hometown of Bird-watching", for example.
But the 5th Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden Bird-watching Festival, which took place earlier this month, is an exception.
Nestled on a river island near the small town of Menglun, the botanical garden has long been a major tourist attraction in Yunnan province's Xishuangbanna prefecture.
Therefore, boosting tourism has never been the annual event's main aim, said Wang Ximin, head of the botanical garden's science communication and training department, who has helped organized the festival since it began in 2011.
"Above all else, we are a research institution, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences," said the expert on environment education, who is also an experienced birder.
By promoting bird watching as an environmentally friendly recreational activity among students and visitors, he said the garden hopes to "raise their environmental awareness and help protect the region's degenerating tropical ecosystem".
"We want to have an impact on the local communities," he said. "The children's participation is truly a priority for us."
As a result, no grand opening or closing ceremonies were held during the festival and no officials were invited. The main participants were members of domestic bird-watching societies, conservationists from domestic and international environmental NGOs, scientists from universities and hundreds of students from Menglun's primary and middle schools.
A friendly bird-spotting race saw teams of enthusiasts attempt to record as many species as possible in one 16-hour period, from 6 am to 10 pm.
Zhao Jiangbo, one of the managers in Wang's team and a fellow ardent birdwatcher, said the race was informal and noncompetitive.
"It was the first time we had ever arranged such a race during our festival," he said. "I prepared no prize for the winners. They just watched the birds and presented their lists at the end for fun."
Despite the lack of a competitive edge to the event, it did result in grey bushchat, a small song bird, being added to the garden's watch list.
More than 250 species have now been spotted in the garden, Zhao said.
Another major aspect of the festival was its retail area, where participating organizations sold books, souvenirs and equipment related to bird watching.
Telescopes were on display, giving interested visitors a chance to try them out, while a ceramic whistle maker performed various bird songs on his products to attract potential customers.
Among the more popular items on offer were soft dolls and key chains made to look like a group of rare birds known as pitta, which were also recorded in the garden.
"We gave away or sold more than 300 dolls and 400 key chains," Zhao said.
Liu Yang, an ornithologist from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, gave a lecture to more than 70 students from Menglun High School on the morning of Nov 5, and Zhu Lei, a professional bird-watching guide with a PhD in ornithology, followed with another to about 70 students from Menglun Primary School.
Liu said he was impressed by the paintings that had been done by members of the middle school's bird watching club.
"A lot of their work is surprisingly vivid and bears a striking resemblance to the birds," Liu said. "I hope the students can become a force for conservation in this area, with its fragile ecosystem and extremely rich biodiversity."
Zhou Bo, the high school's headmaster, said attendance at the event had been limited to 10 pupils per class, "so we considered it a chance to encourage good behavior".
He said bird watching has become a popular extracurricular activity in the school, with some pupils using binoculars donated by the botanical garden.
"They are residents of the area, and they need to know the richness of our homeland so as to protect it for the future," he said.
Some students have already tried to effect positive changes to their environment.
"My mother asks me to watch birds and write compositions about my bird watching," said Yi Lahan, a 14-year-old student of the Dai ethnic group from the school. "I have also asked my dad to stop hunting birds."