Portrait of Keith Woodley at Miranda Shorebird Centre
New Zealander, Keith Woodley – dreaming of the shorebird Holy Grail. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

A Conservation Champion in North Korea

(Part one of a two-part exclusive interview by Natural Images founder, Tony Neilson.)

 Why would any sane person want to go bird watching in a secret and repressive regime whose nuclear ambitions threaten our very existence?

Enter the tall, bearded and bespectacled Keith Woodley – a New Zealander who is among those who see North Korea as the possible source of a kind of wading bird Holy Grail.

Manager of the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre near Auckland, artist and part-time author, Woodley is one of very few foreigners to have been granted access to the ‘hermit kingdom’ to check out the shorebird situation.

Spring in the step

And after three visits in three years (during good April-May tides), he has come away with a spring in his step and an optimistic air.

“So far, we’ve found at least six sites in DPRK of international importance,” he told Natural Images. Those are sites supporting more than one per cent of a population [flocks around 22,000 at each site]. The species are mainly dunlin, eastern curlew, far eastern curlew, bar-tailed godwit and probably Eurasian curlew. But that’s just the start of it.”

Shorebirds feeding in North Korea
Red knots, bar-tailed godwits and dunlins (small, foreground) at a pool in North Korea. Photo: Adrian Riegen

With global wader numbers in free-fall – mainly through massive land reclamation and habitat destruction along the Chinese and South Korean coastlines of the Yellow Sea – there is the ever present hope among bird researchers that the ‘disappeared’ may just have moved elsewhere.

The lost legions

If they have survived the hand of man, where on the much-studied East Asia-Australasian Flyway could they be? Woodley says there are some possibilities, but he admits the chances of discovering the ‘lost legions’ are remote – in all respects.

There is not necessarily any major ‘new’ population in North Korea; they’ve probably always been there.

After numerous multi-national surveys with the help of Chinese and South Korean colleagues, Woodley says the shorebird situation along most of the coast of China and all of the coast of South Korea is well known.

Huge sand shoals

“Thus, it is highly unlikely there is a mainland [China/South Korea]coastal site holding a considerable shorebird population that hasn’t been found.

“That said, there is still a question mark over some huge [unstudied] sand shoals in the Yangtze Delta that may be holding a lot of birds.

“But the big gap is North Korea. If you study the satellite images there are huge areas of mudflats all along that coast. And there was always the suspicion they were holding lots of birds.”

Kiwi birdwatchers with scopes in North Korea
Keith Woodley (third left) with other New Zealand researchers and local officials on survey in North Korea. Photo: Adrian Riegen

The potential for a major shorebird population in the DPRK is due entirely to its social and economic backwardness. There is some reclamation, but Woodley says it is nothing when compared to the habitat loss in China and South Korea.

Unmodified habitat

“There is a lot more unmodified habitat in North Korea, and if the birds are able to find those mudflats, it may yet prove the safety valve [to extinction for some species].”

The next stage in the New Zealand Wader Study Group’s plan to determine if the DPRK has become a sanctuary for new or displaced shorebirds is now being finalised.

Having established that there are regular flock movements between China and North Korea, the next objective is to determine the extent of the transience.

A simultaneous survey in each country is scheduled for 2018 – global conflict permitting. “If we can pull it off, there will be a team on each side of the border, counting on the same tide cycle.”

Close-up of eastern curlew eating a crab
Critically endangered in Australia, the eastern curlew has been seen in good numbers in the DPRK. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The Bohai mystery

Woodley says another tantalising aspect of the research work in North Korea could help solve a mystery associated with decimated red knot populations in the Bohai Sea on the China coast.

The Broome-based Global Flyway Network led by Chris Hassell has established over about nine years that Bohai is the most important site on the flyway for red knots. “Maybe half the surviving global population has been [refuelling] there, but their favourite stopping-off place is in the midst of a massive industrial development,” says Woodley.

So if the Bohai site accounts for about half the remaining knot population, where do the rest hang out on their way to and from their northern Arctic breeding grounds?

“There may be a site off the shoals of the Jiangsu Coast of China,” says Woodley. “But it still could be that there is a massive site in North Korea supporting those numbers of red knots. And to us, that really is the Holy Grail.”

If not? “Even surveying most of the North Korean coast confirming that there isn’t such a site for red knots would be important information.”

The hermit kingdom

So how did the Kiwi researchers get into the hermit kingdom in the first place?

“During previous surveys at a reserve near the Chinese port city of Donggang, our group would often see birds leaving the mudflats and flying across the river to roost in North Korea,” Woodley recalls.

“A lot of the birds remained on the China side but there was a steady pattern to North Korea. We would look across to this other, strange country and think, gee, what if we could get in there and have a look?

Controversial politician

And thanks largely to the efforts of a controversial politician, then New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, the ornithologists got their wish.

Peters raised the shorebird subject during an official visit to Pyongyang in 2007, and the response was positive. An initial group of three New Zealand researchers ‘went in’ in 2009 and surveyed wetlands at Mundok, northwest of Pyongyang.

They found “interesting” shorebird populations. But through funding and various representation problems there wasn’t another visit until 2011. By then the East Asia-Australasian Flyway Partnership involving governments, NGOs and organisations such as the Miranda Trust, had been formed.

Flock of red knots at Miranda wetland
Keith Woodley’s ‘patch’ at Miranda still has good red knot stocks. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

The step change

For the Kiwis, that brought a step change in the level of their engagement in China and elsewhere, and the chance to formalise their visits to North Korea.

In 2014, Woodley and three other New Zealanders went to Pyongyang for three days and signed an agreement between the Nature Conservation Union of Korea and the Miranda Trust for a work program over the next five years.

Woodley says the Kiwis are the only foreign wader researchers to have gained access to North Korea. “Foreigners of any sort are few and far between there.

“The DPRK considers itself a country under siege, so their coastline is very sensitive. But we need to be on that coastline to count the shorebirds, so there is always a lot of paperwork and ‘mindering’ going on.

“But it is a bit of a privilege to be there and you’ve just got to go with what’s required,” he told Natural Images.

(In Part II of this exclusive interview (being posted in May), Keith Woodley talks about transmitters, corruption in South Korea, the Miranda Trust and his new book, ‘Godwits – Long Haul Champions’.)

©Natural Images 2017

©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.

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