Flyway: connecting people and migratory waterbirds” story series #6– Interview with Dr. Nial Moores

EAAFP Secretariat started this “Flyway: connecting people and migratory waterbirds” story series, to introduce people and interesting stories along the flyway. This time we are introducing Dr. Nial Moores, Director of Birds Korea based in the Republic of Korea.

Dr. Nial Moores © Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea

EAAFP: Can you briefly introduce yourself and background?

Dr. Nial Moores: My name is Nial Moores. I migrated to East Asia from the UK in 1990, and have spent the past thirty years working for the conservation of birds and their habitats on this Flyway. After living in Fukuoka in southwestern Japan for seven years, working with the truly wonderful grassroots group Hakata Wan Shimin no Kai, I moved to the Republic of Korea in 1998, and have been here ever since. For the first couple of years, I worked with an alliance of larger environmental NGOs; then helped to co-found two small NGOs. I have been working for the second of those, Birds Korea, full-time since 2004. Birds Korea is a small organization with a truly massive mission: the conservation of birds and their habitats in Korea and the wider Yellow Sea Eco-region.

EAAFP: I heard you have lived and worked in Korea for about 20 years, is there a special reason? How did you start the career of nature conservation?

Dr. Nial Moores: I have been interested in birds pretty well all my life. I was born with a slight distortion in my inner ear which left me deaf until I was four years old when I had a simple operation. The first sounds I can remember after leaving hospital are the roar of traffic – awful! – and a few nights later, a strange, wild, kind of music which penetrated the dark of my bedroom. Being so young, and the sound being so beautiful, I thought I was hearing an orchestra of angels. A quick fact-check from my family though, and I learned they were geese. The sounds of these geese reached deep into my room, and deep into me, and they really opened up a whole new world– an imaginary and soon after a real world of birds and wetlands; and of flyways.  What a wonderful gift to get as a child!  And of course, the sounds of geese and the sight of clouds of shorebirds first enjoyed as a child have stayed with me, and they still help me to connect with that larger, living world – whether I am looking at an estuary in the UK; or am standing on a tidal flat along the edge of the Yellow Sea here in Korea.

Survey work on June 2020 ©Dr. Nial Moores

EAAFP: You’ve been doing a lot of conservation activities in your life in the East Asian – Australasian Flyway . Do you have any memorable moments to share?

Dr. Nial Moores: Too many! Some heart-achingly awful, including witnessing the degradation and destruction of some amazingly important and beautiful wetlands, like Saemangeum – devolving from one of the most naturally productive and bird rich places on Earth to a near-desert by the slow death of reclamation; and some intensely happy, like seeing a Spoon-billed Sandpiper for the first time, or watching clouds of singing buntings arrive in off the sea.

Probably all people who do this kind of work will have had similarly life-changing experiences, because it seems the more you understand about a species or an ecosystem, the more intense the joy of discovery or the more painful the sense of loss if that place or species is lost.

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of great people and groups on our Flyway, and an increasing number of success stories. For example, thinking about the progress being achieved along the Chinese Yellow Sea coast over the past few years always puts a big smile on my face; and it has been wonderful to conduct research in the DPRK and to have the results recognized formally and responded to, through designation of key wetlands as Ramsar sites and Flyway Network Sites.

Group photo during survey for Scaly-sided Merganser in the DPRK in 2019 ©Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea

EAAFP: What research/survey have you been focusing on lately?

Dr. Nial Moores: 2020 has been pretty fascinating so far, in spite of restrictions imposed by the pandemic. The year started with surveys on Jeju Island to help assess the potential impacts on biodiversity of road-widening through forest used by breeding Japanese Night Heron and on construction of a second airport; this was followed by research on the caged bird trade, fortunately still rather less of a major threat here than in many other parts of the Flyway; and has been followed by  further research and conservation actions focused in three different areas, all of which are really important for waterbirds: Baekryeong Island in Incheon; Yeoncheon County – one of the nation’s most important areas for wintering cranes, on the border with the DPRK; and the Hwaseong Wetlands Flyway Network Site, about an hour southwest of Seoul.   The work in all three areas has been comprised of bird counts, basic habitat mapping, and the development of proposals aimed at conserving birds and their habitats which simultaneously can provide benefits for local communities and the nation as a whole.

HKBWS birdwatching at Rason Ramsar site, DPRK on March 2019 ©Dr. Nial Moores

Hwaseong Wetlands Symposium ©Dr. Nial Moores

EAAFP: What’s your impression to Hwaseong Wetlands during your survey?

Dr. Nial Moores: I first surveyed the area back in 1998, when it was known as Namyang Bay, just a few years before the seawall cut off much of the bay from the sea. Most tidal areas impacted by reclamation lose much of their diversity within a decade or so, but the Hwaseong Wetlands still contain a remarkable mix of important habitats including open tidal flats, a large, shallow reclamation lake with wide muddy edges used by shorebirds and other waterbirds at high tide, and a hinterland of rice-fields and open grassy areas.  Our surveys, conducted as part of a project for Hwaseong City and the EAAFP Secretariat, continue to build on previous surveys by Hwaseong KFEM.  They confirm that the Hwaseong Wetlands are still internationally important for waterbirds as defined by Ramsar Convention criteria, with peak counts in the past few weeks for example of 2,275 Far Eastern Curlew and 254 Black-faced Spoonbill. The wetlands also continue to support fishing communities and farmers.

Following the fieldwork, our collective aim is to work with the EAAFP Secretariat and the city to try to find ways to conserve the wetlands and waterbirds, while helping to support local livelihoods – in part through proposing restoration of some areas, and by realizing more of the area’s untapped ecotourism and environmental education potential.

Hwaseong Wetlands Symposium ©Dr. Nial Moores

EAAFP: We’ve heard you published a report on the ecological / economic value of Incheon Baekryeong Island as a habitat of birds/other species . What brings you to the island?

Dr. Nial Moores: Along the Flyway, there are still massive information gaps that get in the way of effective conservation. In Korea, almost 90% of bird species are migratory, but we still have very little information on migration timing, ecological requirements of key species during migration, and even on numbers. Without baseline data, how can we start to measure the success or failure of any conservation intervention or even identify what some of the problems are?

Baekryeong Island is hugely important in its own right, and is also perfectly located for research because it sits close to the shortest sea crossing for birds migrating across the Yellow Sea, between Shandong in PR China and Hwanghaenam in the DPR Korea. Habitats on the island are therefore used by a wonderful mix of species, including some which are only present in spring and autumn (including flocks of Critically Endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting); some which nest on the island, like the Black-faced Spoonbill; and some which winter on the island, including hundreds of geese and a small number of Oriental Stork.

Like elsewhere, we intend that our research will help to encourage and shape local conservation actions; and also help to make some of those big information gaps just a little smaller!

Black-faced Spoonbill ©Dr. Nial Moores

EAAFP: We have found that you put quite a lot of effort to run online channels, such as Birds Korea website, Facebook, and Hwaseong Wetlands Page on Facebook. Would you explain why you think these communication channels are important?

Dr. Nial Moores: Please just take an honest look around: everywhere around us there is already clear evidence of accelerating biodiversity decline and of climate change. Yet most of us behave like this is unimportant or that we are powerless to do anything about it.  For us to win as conservationists, we need more than good scientific papers and data sets. We need to help everybody to make different choices: to reduce our consumption and to support conservation, to get involved. This requires us to communicate whenever we can: not just data, but honest information and images that give context and help people to connect emotionally, intellectually and even morally to a species, to a place and to an issue.

EAAFP: What is your ultimate goal on birds conservation?

Dr. Nial Moores: Bird conservation is the best way for me personally and for Birds Korea as an organisation to try to contribute to that shapeless, boundless thing called the greater good.  In the short term, the goal is to try to help reduce the rates of decline in bird species both rare and still-common: to work with others to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper from extinction and to ensure that future generations can marvel at flocks of birds and enjoy beautiful, healthy ecosystems.  To do that, we need good science of course, and also a willingness to communicate: to hear peoples’ concerns and to seek out and share solutions.  But ultimately it will need much more still of course, because if we are to avoid the worst of the biodiversity and climate crises, we also need to understand bird conservation as being one step of several on a long road toward genuinely sustainable development. And genuinely sustainable development will require nothing less than all of us becoming better as people; for our species as a whole to practice environmental, economic and social justice; to embrace peace and tolerance; to evolve beyond our current destructive human-centric world view.

EAAFP: Is there any other things you want to tell young people who want to work in the field of nature conservation?

Dr. Nial Moores: If you already feel a deep connection with, and dependence on, the natural environment then there is nothing more important that you can do than to work for environmental conservation. And fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get involved and to contribute, because conservation is an immensely wide and complex discipline. There is a need for ecologists and for social and political scientists; for artists, planners and designers; for educators, administrators and activists; for everyone to bring their own strengths and insights together for the greater good.

Conservation needs commitment. So please keep asking yourself, “how can I best contribute?” And please listen to your own inner voice, so that you can build your own role, your own niche.  Some people get into conservation through university research; some by joining large organisations; some by building up their own networks. Only you can decide what works best for you.

And, finally, because conservation is much less of a sprint and much more of a marathon or a relay, please keep on investing the time to find inspiration in the world around you, and in the actions of others.  Stay strong, stay true and keep on evolving!

Dr. Nial Moores ©Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea

Click [here] for Hwaseong Wetland Facebook page, and [here] for Birds Korea homepage.

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