Planned Red River Dam Threatens Endangered Pheasants
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2017-03-23 11:48:32

An ongoing hydropower project on a river in southwestern China will drastically reduce the already-limited habitat of the endangered green peafowl, environmental activists say.

The Jiasa River hydropower station, first planned in 2006 and originally named Sanjiangkou station, is currently under construction near Yuxi City in Yunnan province. The hydropower dam threatens to raise the shallow waters that the large terrestrial pheasants call home.

“River shoals are important for the breeding of green peafowls,” Han Lianxian, a professor of zoology at Southwest Forestry College in Kunming, the provincial capital, told Sixth Tone. “The bird needs open ground to show off its plumage in a courtship display.” And because it’s relatively large bird, he added, it also needs open space to protect itself from predators.

The green peafowl, a type of pheasant so named for its bright-green neck, has been designated “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2009. Its population declined dramatically during the last century, and the bird has already gone extinct in several Asian countries, including Malaysia, Bangladesh, and parts of India and Thailand. In China, green peafowl can mostly be found in Yunnan, where they are “first-class protected animals.”

“An optimistic estimate is that China now has fewer than 1,000 green peafowls in the wild,” said Han “A pessimistic estimate is fewer than 500.” According to the IUCN, undisturbed rivers and wetlands see the highest densities of the species. However, the dam’s construction means the species’ waterfront habitat along the Jiasa River will soon disappear.

The construction site of the Jiasa River hydropower station in Jiasa Town, Yunnan province, March 2017. Courtesy of Xi Zhinong/Wild China Film

The construction site of the Jiasa River hydropower station in Jiasa Town, Yunnan province, March 2017. Courtesy of Xi Zhinong/Wild China Film

The local government has designated a conservation area for the green peafowl along the Jiasa River. But when the power station’s reservoir starts accumulating water, its artificial lake will have a water line of 675 meters, submerging the area reserved for the birds, which currently lies at 623 meters.

“Construction of the station will probably force this species to give up foraging sites close to the river,” said the environmental impact assessment of the Jiasa River station project in 2014. But it argues that because human interference is already significant in this area, the construction will not affect the living and breeding of the species. Both the company that carried out the assessment and Yuxi’s municipal environmental bureau could not be reached on Thursday.

Previous research also shows that the local government reduced the size of the conservation area for the green peafowl three times already, between 2008 and 2010, when three hydropower stations were being constructed.

Jiasa River station, with a total investment of 3 billion yuan ($435 million), is one of 11 power stations planned in the river basin. Jiasa River is the Chinese name for the upper-middle stretch of the Red River, which flows from Yunnan province through the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, and into the Gulf of Tonkin.

In a similar case last year, experts warned a planned floodgate would submerge the wetlands that surround Poyang Lake in eastern China, a crucial fueling station for migratory birds.

Green peafowl inhabit the Lancang River Basin in Yunnan province, 2000. Courtesy of Xi Zhinong/Wild China Film

Green peafowl inhabit the Lancang River Basin in Yunnan province, 2000. Courtesy of Xi Zhinong/Wild China Film

To environmentalists, the story of the Lancang River — the Chinese name for the Mekong — serves as a cautionary tale. The exploitation of hydropower on the Lancang, which lies to the east of the Red River, has inundated many green peafowl habitats.

Xi Zhinong, a wildlife photographer and founder of China Wild Photos, a nonprofit wildlife protection organization, told Sixth Tone that he has not seen a green peafowl in the Lancang basin since 2000. “After the completion of the Xiaowan Hydropower Station in 2010,” he said, “they just disappeared.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Green peafowl inhabit the Red River Basin in Yunnan province, March 2017. Courtesy of Xi Zhinong/Wild China Film)