Published: 09:58, March 24, 2023 | Updated: 17:00, March 24, 2023
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Devotion to ducks earns man a protector's badge
By ​Chen Meiling in Beijing and Liu Kun in Wuhan

Crayfish farmer in Wuhan takes action after finding critically endangered species, Baer's pochards, nesting in his pond

Zhu Xiangneng, a crayfish pond owner in Wuhan, Hubei province, goes on patrol to protect Baer's pochards. (YAN JUN/FOR CHINA DAILY)

Holding a green bamboo pole, Zhu Xiangneng carefully punted a tiny skiff across a pond filled with lush water plants, like in a scene from a martial arts film.

Much like characters in films who discover a secret martial arts manual and then become superheroes — a common trope — the 39-year-old discovered by chance that Baer's pochards, a critically endangered species of diving ducks, were living in his crayfish pond, turning him into a hero dedicated to their protection.

In 2010, Zhu rented a 13.3-hectare pond near Baoxie Lake in his hometown of Wuhan, Hubei province, after quitting his job elsewhere. He raised fish until a flood destroyed his business, and then decided to start raising crayfish instead in 2016, as they were in demand on the local market.

Over time, he started noticing ducks hanging around the pond that he'd never seen before. One day, he struck up a conversation with members of the Wuhan Bird Watching Association, who happened to be observing birds in the area, and asked them what species the ducks were.

He found out that they were Baer's pochards, a species under first-class State protection. Less than 2,000 of the birds are estimated to exist.

Zhu's pond is an important breeding area for the species in Wuhan. It's possible they are attracted by the depth and quality of the pond's water, its plants and plankton, as well as the lotus leaves under which they can hide, the bird watchers told him. To date, 10 nests have been found.

A Baer's pochard, an endangered species of diving duck, swims in Baoxie Lake in Wuhan on June 7. (YAN JUN/FOR CHINA DAILY)

The association asked Zhu whether he would agree to let them install surveillance cameras and infrared cameras to record the birds.

"I was worried he would say no, because the ducks could compete for food with the crayfish and affect his earnings," said Yan Jun, president of the association.

But Zhu immediately agreed, saying that the birds "only eat a small amount of food and the loss is acceptable".

As a child, he used to shoot birds with a slingshot, but now, as a member of the bird-watching association, he observes and takes photos of Baer's pochards every day, and has developed a deep affection for them.

He logs the camera results in a notebook: "On May 21, a mother duck played with 10 ducklings and rested on lotus leaves"; "On June 2, a mouse attempted to steal eggs from a nest but failed"; "On June 4, a yellow weasel ate the only two eggs left in a nest".

"It's a shame that the eggs were eaten, but this is natural law and we shouldn't intervene," Zhu said, adding that he was also impressed by the sight of ducklings hatching.

During last year's breeding season between April and August, the birds built 10 nests and laid 99 eggs. In the end, 73 ducklings were born, and Zhu now checks the area in the morning and at night to make sure no one hunts or disturbs the ducks.

He added that they have begun to lose their fear of people after staying there for so long, although they still fly off if he gets within 100 or 200 meters of them.

Baer's pochards fly above Baoxie Lake on June 7. (YAN JUN/FOR CHINA DAILY)

Zhu now devotes most of his time to the birds, sometimes carrying out observations with the association.

"It's much more interesting than playing mahjong," he said.

The association gave him a telescope and camera, and taught him how to recognize birds and take photos of them.

"Some of my photos have been given a thumbs-up by friends and netizens, which gives me a sense of achievement," Zhu said, adding that he can now recognize 50 kinds of birds.

"They have been to Siberia and India, and now they're here with me. I feel like my connection with the world has grown closer," he said.

According to Yan Jun, Baer's pochards have been seen in 12 Wuhan wetlands, and their breeding grounds have expanded in recent years. About 110 volunteers from the association work toward their protection, he said, adding that the extremely endangered species plays an essential role in global biodiversity.

He added that he is pleased that Zhu is willing to participate, as some pond owners don't cooperate because the ducks can affect their businesses.

"He is willing to accept new ideas and likes to watch nature documentaries. This is because of the national promotion of environmental protection," Yan said. "It's only through the participation of more people like Zhu that the environment will improve."

Zhu said he doesn't want the Baer's pochard to disappear.

"I hope future generations will be able to see it, too."

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