Nial Moores, Birds Korea, June 13th 2019
Birds Korea strives to avoid disturbance to birds. We therefore have, since our foundation in 2004, refused to post images of birds at the nest; and purposefully made vague the location of sites supporting threatened bird species – unless considered absolutely necessary to their conservation.
This note includes sensitive information. This is because the research in full will be made public anyway; the issue is a high-profile issue on Jeju Island, and increasingly nationally, being covered extensively by media; and because local activists are present in the area all day and night, and will take immediate action to prevent any unnecessary disturbance being caused to local wildlife.
Jeju Island in the far southwest of the Republic of Korea is the nation’s largest island. With a mild climate and a landscape comprised of extinct volcanic cones (or oreum), forests, beaches of white sand and black lava-reefs, the island is one of the nation’s top tourist destinations – initially for honeymooners, then also for weekend trippers and recently for an increasing number of overseas visitors too. Tourism on such a large scale needs good infrastructure. There has therefore been a decades-long development boom, with many new hotels and restaurants being built and an ever-expanding road network. Some roads are new; many are being widened to accommodate the increasing number of tour buses and cars. And one of the roads targeted for widening is a 2.94 km long stretch called “Bijarim Ro”: a potential test site for recent revisions to the national environmental assessment process.
Mindful of Jeju’s image as an island of beautiful nature, the two-lane, single carriageway Bijarim Ro was formally designated a “Beautiful Road” in 2003. Nonetheless, in 2014, or thereabouts, a decision was taken to widen this road, to make it two lanes in each direction; to add a wide central divide; and to link it to other stretches of road that were also being widened. In this way, there would be an additional wider highway (22m in some parts, 32m wide in other stetches of the Bijarim Ro) for traffic from the northwest to access the southeast of the island, where a proposed second airport is also being planned. As part of this widening, an environmental assessment was undertaken.
In accordance with existing statutes at that time, the bird part of the assessment was confined to 50m either side of the road. And although said to be year-long, the research on birds was – according to the published report – undertaken in just two days: June 18th and 19th 2014. Without providing any supporting details of time spent in the field, or of areas that were assessed, the bird expert(s) found only 16 species of bird, none of which were listed in the report. Based on this very limited input, the report therefore concluded that,
“Most of the birds using this area are resident species which are widely distributed throughout Jeju. As they will flee nearby, any impact (of the road-widening) would be insignificant.”
Some environmental groups and the Jeju Green Party opposed the road-widening, raising their concerns through media, and petitioning authorities. In 2019, work started on the widening with several thousand trees cut along the road.
On April 8th, the “Citizen’s Alliance Taking All Measures to Oppose the Road” communicated their opposition to the road-widening project, citing environmental damage and excessive costs, and calling for the fuller acceptance of diverse needs of citizens. On April 18th, the Jeju Docheong (responsible for the project) defended the project, stating that, “We are planning to carry out expansion work as planned while minimizing damage to the surrounding environment”.
A few weeks later, on May 21st, local nature-lover Kim Kimi found a nationally Endangered Fairy Pitta in the area.
A week later, a nationally Endangered species of Dung Beetle was also found close to the road. Both species are Nationally-listed as species of special concern – either being Endangered, Protected or listed as National Natural Monuments. National authorities responsible for preserving Natural Monuments therefore stated on May 30th that more research was needed, and the southwest regional office in charge of overseeing aspects of the project called a temporary stop to construction.
Citing important recent legal changes to the process of environmental impact assessment (made in 2017 or 2018), this regional office also expanded the scope of the assessment to two bands: one out to 150m and the other out to 500m either side of the road. They also set the end of June this year as the deadline for receiving more information on the project. This has been taken by most parties to mean that research and discussion on mitigation, plan modification or cancellation based on this research needs to be concluded within this month.
It was also decided that the reassessment of the project should be performed by eight independent experts to look at vegetation, insects, birds and ecological aspects of the area, four of which were to be selected by Jeju authorities and four from outside of Jeju to be selected by those opposed to the road-widening. All would be paid a minimal per diem for research and expenses by Jeju authorities.
On June 3rd, I was invited by Ahn Jae Hong of the Jeju Green Party to join the research team to survey birds along the Bijarim Ro. After a few days of discussion between various parties, including with representative Kim Sunae of the “Citizen’s Alliance Taking All Measures to Oppose the Road”, I flew to Jeju to take part in a planning meeting on June 10th.
En Route to the meeting, we met up with former Formal Advisor to Birds Korea Ju Yong-Ki together with Kim Kimi and a local bird researcher. Within 30 minutes of in-the-field discussion, I logged 18 bird species within 50m or so of the road– more than reported during the two full days of survey for the 2014 assessment.
At the meeting, the four Jeju experts (including Jeju’s Kang Chang-Wan, widely respected as one of Korea’s top field birders) and two from outside of Jeju (myself and Dr Kim Dae-Ho of the Ecoist Institute in Suweon) met to hear more details of the process to date and to agree research protocols.
Based on a review of the literature (which suggests that impacts from roads can extend out to 500m for some species, and disproportionately affect ground-nesters) and extremely helpful advice received from Martin Sutherland, a professional environmental consultant in the UK and an international Birds Korea member, I proposed eight days of bird survey.
This was based on a coarse division of the target area into 32 blocks of 200m x 500m, with two hours allocated to each block; and enough time to revisit bird-important blocks if any were found. In mid-summer, birds tend to be most active close to dawn; and briefly again in the evening. Research on each date would therefore be largely conducted between 4AM and 10AM each morning; and from 4PM to 8PM in the evening. This proposal was accepted.
Preliminary Research: June 10th & 11th
In order to get a better feel of the area, we chose two areas to visit during the afternoon of June 10th: a patch of promising-looking forest; and part of a stream. We found 30 bird species within 500m of the road, including 8-11 Fairy Pitta (five of which were seen) and eight singing Black Paradise Flycatcher. Kang Chang Wan even found and photographed an active Paradise Flycatcher nest, visible from the road.
On June 11th, we reached the survey area at 04:10. Walking along the road in darkness, I heard a rhythmic booming: Japanese Night Heron. This globally Endangered species is also listed as a Second Level Endangered species in the ROK, with only two ROK breeding records: once on Jeju Island (perhaps in Jeju City?) in 2009, and once in Busan. One or two booming individuals were located here, with the first bird estimated to be only 100m from the road. The same patch of forest – different from that visited the previous day – also supported several more Fairy Pitta, Black Paradise Flycatcher and Lesser Cuckoo (another Nationally-Listed species). Forest on the other side of the road held more Fairy Pitta and Black Paradise Flycatcher and two Tiger Shrike territories – one outside and one inside of the 500m research boundary.
Table. Minimum numbers of birds counted / estimated within 500m of the Bijarim Ro on June 10th and 11th , including only once those birds suspected to have been counted / estimated on both dates.
| June |
| Min. |
|2|| Eastern Spot-billed |
|4|| Japanese |
|5||Oriental Turtle Dove||멧비둘기||7||13||20|
|11|| White-backed |
|15|| Black Paradise |
|20||Eastern Great Tit||박새||7+||4+||11|
|23|| Japanese Bush |
|24||Far Eastern Cisticola||개개비사촌||1||0||1|
|26|| White-cheeked |
|30|| Yellow-rumped |
|31|| Eurasian Tree |
|32|| Grey-capped |
|34|| Yellow-throated |
- *Seen and photographed shortly before my arrival
- The 34 species logged on June 10th and 11th (many of which were poorly sound-recorded – only one of which was photographed!) is more than twice the number of species recorded during two days of survey in June 2014 conducted as part of the process of permitting the road-widening;
- Probably half of these 34 species are likely to be summer visitors to the site (not residents), with perhaps eight of these only locally distributed on Jeju in summer (Mandarin Duck, Japanese Night Heron, White-backed Woodpecker, Fairy Pitta, Tiger Shrike, Black Paradise Flycatcher, Far Eastern Cisticola and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher);
- Five of the species (Mandarin Duck, Japanese Night Heron, Lesser Cuckoo, Fairy Pitta and Black Paradise Flycatcher) are Nationally-listed as species of conservation and cultural concern.
Moreover, correspondence with leading Fairy Pitta expert Dr Lin Ruey-Shing in Taiwan included his opinion that:
” ‘14+ vocalizing Fairy Pittas within 500m of 1.5km of the road’ indicate the density there is extremely high, and it means the habitat is extremely good for Fairy Pittas.”
(Dr Lin Ruey-Shing, June 12th 2019).
Further intensive survey will be conducted from June 14th to 20th. And a summary report will be shared with all interested parties by June 24th, in time for the second meeting, as proposed on June 26th.
It will then be up to decision-makers to decide. This for Birds Korea is the crux of this issue – one that is hugely relevant to the nation as a whole as the world struggles to meet the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets and to combat climate change :
Is the presence of an exceptional number of threatened species sufficient to maintain the road as it is now, with additional safety measures put in place?
Having spent tax payers’ money to conduct research that proves beyond doubt the importance of this area, will the decision still be taken to continue on with road-widening as already proposed?
We will see.