Raptor rescue in Beijing & the Kalahari
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2003:
BEIJING, China; KATHU, South Africa– Eagles, like feral
cats, are potentially fierce yet are sometimes tamed. More
accurately, they may choose to tame themselves. Many are curious
enough about humans to dwell as close to human habitation as they are
allowed, and are appreciative enough of gentle care, especially
when sick or injured, to permit judicious handling.
Though most eagles could quickly shred human flesh, even
through protective gloves, they seldom do. Some seem to consciously
decide to do no harm.
The Beijing Raptor Center has two highly gregarious resident
golden eagles, closely related to the golden eagles of North
America, and one resident steppe eagle. Too imprinted upon humans to
be released, the eagles remain in custody while Scops owls and eagle
owls, Amur and peregrine falcons, kestrels, and sometimes a buzzard
come and go.
The Kalahari Raptor Centre has black eagles, snake eagles,
and crested eagles. Some of them are also too imprinted to release.
The eagles of the Beijing and Kalahari raptor centers look as
strikingly different as everything else about the two rehabilitation
facilities. The premise of the Beijing Raptor Center is that humans
and wildlife can and must co-exist. The premise of the Kalahari
Raptor Centre is that wildlife does best in the absence of humans,
to whatever extent that can be accomplished.
The Beijing Raptor Center occupies offices and flight cage
space on the campus of the Beijing Normal University, an institution
whose main job is teaching future teachers. This is also the main
job of the Beijing Raptor Center. The center exists to help raptors
survive within the almost entirely human-created Beijing environment,
partly through healing the wounds of injured specimens, but mostly
by teaching humans to appreciate and tolerate wildlife.
The Beijing Raptor Center staff commonly see two types of
injuries: those inflicted intentionally by gunshots, traps, or
hurled stones, and those suffered by accident when the birds collide
with power lines, vehicles, or windows. The staff are encouraged
that the cases of intentional wounding seem to be relatively few,
and that even rural people with traditionally negative views of wild
predators sometimes go to great effort to bring them injured birds
they have found.
Nearly exterminated during the Mao years, wildlife in China
is beginning to recover and spread from marginal habitat into renewed
proximity to people, especially in the regions where wild animals
are not reflexively killed as alleged crop pests or to be eaten.
Modern Beijing is such a place. The official People’s Daily now
encourages positive attitudes toward wildlife, including with an
August 28, 2003 full-page feature by staff reporter Wen Jiao about
retiree Xu Yougong of Shanghai, reputedly a much less animal-friendly
city, who found and successfully rehabilitated an injured egret.
In early September 2003 the People’s Daily announced the
reinstitution of a ban on hunting in Liaoning Province, adjacent to
North Korea, which was previously enforced from 1987 to 1993.
Effective on October 1, the ban protects all land mammals, birds,
amphibians, and reptiles.
The People’s Daily also described the establishment of bird
care facilities similar to the Beijing Raptor Center at the Yellow
River Nature Reserve, the Yellow River Estuary Management Station,
and the Dawenlieu Management Station, all in Shandong province,
between Beijing and Shanghai. The first is already operating, and
the others are to open soon.
Only three years ago the Khadourie Farm nature center in the
New Territories of Hong Kong was the only avian rehabilitation center
Yet even if attitudes are transformed, wildlife eating is
stopped (as the Chinese government retreated from trying to do after
the spring 2003 outbreak of Severe Accute Respiratory Syndrome was
traced to wildlife consumption), and wildlife rehabilitation centers
emerge to cover the whole of China, human development is expanding
into many of the places where wildlife formerly found refuge,
creating new conflicts.
On August 26, 2003, for example, two days before publishing
the feature about the egret rescuer, the People’s Daily announced
that 20,000 of the estimated 70,000 wild donkeys living in the
Quiangtang Nature Reserve would be culled, along with unstated
numbers of blue sheep and wild yaks, to reduce conflicts with
herders in the Shuanghu Special Zone, a part of Quiangtang, which
is in turn a major portion of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
According to “local public security authorities,” the
People’s Daily reported, “wild yaks killed one person and injured 32
in the last 10 years while taking at least 450 domestic yaks away [to
join wild herds] and killing 23 [chiefly in mating competition] during the last 10 years.”
Zhoima Yangzom, “an official in charge of wild animal
protection with the forestry bureau of the autonomous region,”
promised that no killing would be done without a “scientific
A hint that Zhoima Yangzom was not enthusiastic about the
proposed culling came in the next paragraph: “Some experts also
proposed that herders and farmers be moved outside reserves to
concede pastures to wild animals. They also believe the number of
domestic livestock should be controlled in order to alleviate the
demand for grasslands.”
The chief obstacle to that approach, the People’s Daily
explained, is that very little of the vast Quiangtang Nature Reserve
would be any more suitable for the herders, who have nowhere else to
Earlier in 2003, a region of western China the size of
Switzerland was reportedly ravaged by mice and gerbils, after market
hunters and poachers extirpated snakes, small mammalian predators,
and raptors. The regional government hoped to combat that problem by
The China State Forestry Administration acknowledged on
October 6, 2003, that more than 300 species of land-dwelling
vertebrate animals and 410 plant species native to China should be
considered either endangered or threatened, among them 156 species
listed among the 640 species whose use in global commerce is
restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species. Since 1999 the Forestry Administration has returned more
than 33 million acres of marginal farmland to woods, but habitat
restoration alone will not be enough to save all the species in
The future of wildlife in China, if wildlife is to have a
future, must be coexistence with more than 1.3 billion people, 10%
of them within the Beijing area.
If wildlife cannot coexist with the people, especially in
Beijing, bird species may decline from Siberia to India.
“Beijing is on the migration route of many endangered birds,”
said International Bird Rescue Research Center spokesperson Karen
Benzel in October 2001, when the formation of the Beijing Raptor
Center was first announced. “As a major global transit point,
Beijing is also where hundreds of wild birds fall prey to illegal
capture, trade, and smuggling.”
The International Bird Rescue Research Center, of Fairfield,
California, trained the first five Beijing Raptor Center staff,
before the Beijing center formally opened in January 2002. Beijing
Raptor Center founder and director Dr. Song Yie received his training
earlier at the California Raptor Center in Berkeley.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare underwrote the
Beijing Raptor Center start-up, giving it until 2008 to achieve
The Kalahari Raptor Centre has had no such boost.
Self-educated in wildlife care, former attorney and sheep rancher
Chris Mercer and his partner Bev Pervan took charge of their first
birds after the local veterinarian who founded the center, at least
in name, retired to England.
Entirely with their own money, Mercer and Pervan bought the
KRC land, put up the perimeter fencing, built two spacious cage
complexes for raptors and two more for mammals, renovated a former
warehouse into an attractive home and guest quarters, added an
education center, and reintroduced springbok, wildebeest,
hartebeest, and eland to the fenced habitat.
There are more people within 10 miles of the Beijing Raptor
Center than within 300 miles of the Kalahari Raptor Centre. Few
parts of South Africa are more remote.
The Kalahari Raptor Centre goal is to return wild animals and
lightly scarred habitat as completely to nature as possible. A
century of ranching and mining have superficially changed the
landscape, exterminating large predators such as lions, wild dogs,
leopards, and hyenas, and reducing most hooved species to a fenced
existence on hunting ranches along the margins of water-filled pits
and mountain-sized slag heaps.
Small hooved wildlife such as duiker are still easily seen,
however, and careful observation can discover mid-sized predators
such as bat-eared foxes, jackals, and caracals.
Within the KRC fencelines, taking six to seven hours to walk,
with the mining communities of Kathu, Kiruman, and Hotazel
invisible over the horizon, one can easily imagine that the southern
Kalahari desert is still unsettled wilderness, but not altogether
without people. Even inside the fence far enough that it too cannot
be seen, burrowing ground squirrels, meerkats, and the occasional
aardvark have in at least two places unearthed small stone circles
which appear to be the remains of ancient campfires. The Bushmen,
possibly the oldest surviving human culture, are believed to have
occupied the Kalahari since before humans spread beyond Africa.
Bev Pervan either does or supervises most of the hands-on
animal care and education of visitors. Chris Mercer focuses on
lobbying and litigation directed at ending indiscriminate predator
control and canned hunts.
Raptors are the best-recognized part of the KRC mission, but
the name of the center has become somewhat a misnomer, since the
most original and successful KRC campaigns have been on behalf of the
midsized mammalian predators.
Mercer is best known for leading opposition to canned lion
hunts and the apartheid-era Problem Animal Control Ordinance of 1957,
which in effect declares open season on foxes, jackals, and
caracals, and compels landowners to cooperate in exterminating them.
Pervan ventured into litigation and lobbying far enough to have Cape
foxes removed from the list of target species.
Both make extensive use of the Internet, even though their
only access is through a slow and awkward satellite connection. The
Beijing Raptor Center by contrast enjoys near state-of-the-art
high-speed connections, but political activism at the KRC level
would be problematic.
Their worlds could scarcely be more different, except for
their determination to help animals. –M.C.
Beijing Raptor Rescue Center, c/o Prof. Song, Jie, Institute of
Ecology, College of Life Sciences, Beijing Normal University,
Beijing 100875, China. 86-10-62205666.