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Jeju’s avian habitats under threatOlle, golf courses, and other tourist staples may dissuade endangered fowl from wintering here
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승인 2011.01.16  20:09:16
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▲ At left, the Black-faced Spoonbill. Photo by Kang Chang Wan. Center, the Fairy Pitta. Right, the Black Paradise Flycatcher. Photos by Kim Young Ho.

Jeju Island is a stunningly beautiful place; anyone who’s been there can attest to that. The local flavor of the people, landscape, wildlife, and flora combine to produce an iconic and singular corner of Korea that millions flock to every year. Unfortunately, much of this natural beauty is under threat from aggressive development based around the tourism industry. I talked about the threats facing Jeju’s natural heritage with Kang Chang Wan and Kim Eun Mi at the Jeju Wildlife Research Center (JWRC), where they work monitoring wildlife migration and habitats.

The Jeju Wildlife Research Center was started in 2003 by bird lovers uniting to share a common passion and by 2007 the center had incorporated the knowledge of several fields and experts, combining research on Jeju’s birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and vegetation. Their common goal is the protection of habitat for all of Jeju’s wildlife.

The Center is not an activist group that fights for habitat by butting heads with officials or those that have a financial interest in Jeju’s wild habitats. Rather, they fight for Jeju’s wildlife and threatened habitats by steadily building up a body of solid scientific data about the effects of development and offering their expert opinions on the issue.

One important tool for protecting Jeju’s threatened wetland habitats is the Ramsar Convention on wetlands. The Ramsar Convention is, in the words of its Web site, “an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of
International Importance and to plan for the ‘wise use,’ or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories.”
It would seem natural for Jeju residents to be supportive of protecting local wetland habitats under Ramsar. Unfortunately, many locals and many in the Jeju government are not generally in favor of having threatened habitats protected or recognized by Ramsar.

The Jeju government wants to develop Hado, a prime location for thousands of overwintering migratory birds, by building more hotels and a ‘water sports complex.’ At nearby Ojori Lake, also a key overwintering spot, there are similar development proposals. An ill-advised plan is on the books to divide the area into three equal parts – one for birds, one for hotels, and one for a speed boat course.

▲ A White-backed Woodpecker. Photo by Kim Young Ho

This idea makes very little sense from a conservation standpoint but a lot of sense from a financial one. The JWRC suggested that the vital bird habitats of Ojuri and Hado would be much easier to protect if they weren’t largely privately-owned. There is often little that can be done to prevent private land-owners from developing (some might say destroying) pristine habitat to make a profit.

Jeju’s Gotjawal forests, known as the “The Lungs of Jeju,” have remained untouched by development for many years due to their rocky composition. The forests are scattered around the island and are home to many threatened and unique bird species like the Fairy Pitta and the Black Paradise Flycatcher, as well as a unique variety of other wildlife and vegetation.

In addition, the spongy aquifer that underlies the Gotjawal forest is the sole source of water for 500,000 Jeju residents. This aquifer also qualifies the Gotjawal Forest for recognition as a crucial wetland that should be protected under Ramsar, and there are several groups fighting to help make this happen.

Yet the battle to keep developers away from Jeju’s Gotjawal forests is an uphill one. Besides the fact that a confusing dispute between governmental departments is underway over how best to conserve the Gotjawal forests, much damage has already been done. Several golf courses have been built in former Gotjawal forest areas, and the Kyorae Gotjawal is under imminent threat from a new golf course that has just been approved by the provincial council.

Additionally, an MBC drama shot in Kyorae Gotjawal proved to be very destructive to the forest.
A poignant symbol of Jeju’s threatened wetlands is the Black-faced Spoonbill. With its large spatulate bill and gangly gait, the Spoonbill is a strangely majestic bird and has been recognized as Korea’s National Monument No. 205. The Black-faced Spoonbill is also endangered, with an estimated worldwide population of perhaps less than 2,400. The Spoonbills that inhabit the wetlands of Jeju’s northeast coast are the only ones that regularly rest and overwinter in Korea. As such, their habitat is in need of protection.

Kang Chang Wan of the JWRC is very worried about the current situation of these crucial habitats, and his organization has been monitoring them closely. In 2009, the Olle trail that wends its way through the Seongsan area was found to be disruptive to Black-faced Spoonbills that roost nearby.
In an effort to mitigate disturbance to the overwintering birds, many signs and fences warn Olle hikers to stay out of these areas.

Despite this, a large percentage of Olle hikers disregard the warnings and tramp through sensitive areas, repeatedly spooking waterfowl, including the Spoonbills.

Many birds, including Spoonbills, are extremely sensitive to repeated disturbance, and the stress can cause them to leave their roosts. Researchers have seen a shift in the number of Spoonbills staying near the trails as a result of the disruption caused by the Olle hikers. The Spoonbills have been favoring smaller and less ideal sites nearby, sites that aren’t subject to as much human intrusion as their favored habitat.

The JWRC feels that if the Olle in question remains operating as it is, the Black-faced Spoonbill could very well disappear from Jeju for good. The Center initially requested that the Olle be temporarily closed during the crucial October to April winter roosting period, but after further research they now feel that the route will have to be changed, or the Spoonbills could be disturbed to the point where they won’t return.

Kang feels that many of the Olle trails were set up too quickly, with little environmental consultation beforehand. He believes that some of the trails and the human traffic they attract are contributing to habitat destruction in many areas, and he wants people to keep asking tough questions about the trails and about what the term ‘environmentally friendly’ actually means.

▲ The White Eye. Photo by Kim Young Ho

Olle trails were created with the admirable goal of helping people slow down and enjoy Jeju’s natural beauty. If the Olle trails are really to be one of Jeju’s strengths, a better way of keeping the rising numbers of Olle hikers out of off-limits areas and increased coordination with groups such as the JWRC, are necessary.

Jeju is an island that lives and breathes tourism and has been so for some time. That is never going to change, but surely a balance can be reached. ‘Slowing down’ is definitely a notion that should be heeded when it comes to development on Jeju. Money talks, but in the long run, building speed boat tracks and more golf courses on Jeju doesn’t seem as important as keeping Jeju beautiful.

I asked Kang if he was hopeful or pessimistic about the future of Jeju's species and habitats that are under threat from development. I asked him if he was worried that when his young son grows up, he would ask questions about pictures of birds, and indeed of a Jeju that no longer exists.

He took a deep breath and looked out the window of the Wildlife Center at Jeju’s impossibly green and rolling hills for a long and quiet minute before giving me his answer with a downcast look. I didn't need the translation.

For more information:

(Interpretation by Hyun Hee Weon)

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