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South Korea destroys its most important wetland

For Immediate Release

South Korea pushes ahead with the destruction of its most important wetland

Cambridge, UK, 4th July 2003 – Despite prolonged national and international protests, South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun has announced the resumption of the highly-controversial project to reclaim the internationally-important Saemankeum wetland for industrial development. Saemankeum is one of Asia’s most important tidal wetland sites and the most vital to the Korean peninsula because of its critical importance for migrating threatened species.

Two years after work was halted on what is the largest reclamation project in the world, following warnings over resulting water pollution and damage to fisheries, construction of a 33-km dyke, already 60%-complete, has recommenced. By the time of proposed completion in 2006, 401 km2 of tidal flat and shallows, the whole of the most important shorebird site in the Yellow Sea, will be lost, with very serious consequences for eight globally threatened species dependent on the wetland.[1]

Among these, a recent count found the world’s highest numbers of the Endangered Spotted Greenshank, Tringa guttifer, which numbers fewer than 1,000 globally, large numbers of the Vulnerable Saunders’s Gull, Larus saundersi, and the Baikal Teal, Anas formosa, and an estimated 10% of the global population of the Vulnerable Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Eurynorhynchus pygmeus.[2,3] In addition, Saemankeum supports a significant proportion of the regional population of 30 species of waterbirds, including more than an estimated 80,000 Great Knots, Calidris tenuirostris . In 1999, Ramsar even asked the South Korean Government to protect the site as a Wetland of International Importance, but this was not done.[4]

“Tidal mudflats in Korea, particularly Saemankeum, are vital for the survival, not only of migratory birds in eastern Asia, but also for the marine ecosystem of the Yellow Sea,” says Simba Chan, International Co-ordinator of Important Bird Areas in Asia at BirdLife International, and an expert on Korean bird conservation.[5] “Tidal wetlands are the ecosystem facing the highest immediate threat in eastern Asia, and it is very difficult to restore them once they are destroyed.”

The South Korean Government argues that it is too late to stop the project, that local people want the wetland to be developed as an industrial zone and that planned artificial lakes and undeveloped water reserves will maintain bird populations. However, BirdLife International completely refutes these assertions. “The ecological value of Saemankeum is as a wide tidal flat comprising two free-flowing estuaries that supports an important percentage of migrating shorebirds. Artificial lakes are a completely different habitat, and threatened species such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Spotted Greenshank cannot thrive in such a different environment,” comments Chan. “Also, it is certainly not too late to abandon a 60%-completed project, and many, many Koreans, as well as all local environmental organisations are against the reclamation.”

Last year, BirdLife International’s Director and Chief Executive, Michael Rands, wrote to the South Korean government and the then-president, asking them to cancel the Saemankeum Reclamation Project, recognising their obligations to conservation and sustainable management under both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention, and is now calling on President Roh to do likewise.

BirdLife International argues that the loss of the Saemankeum tidal flats to reclamation would cause much greater expense in the long term than abandoning the project, through the loss of valuable fishery resources, increased pollution and damage to South Korea’s international image. In addition, it is very likely that in the future this globally outstanding site would generate additional wealth through its untapped tourism value.

“Destroying one of a handful of globally important sites for biodiversity conservation is both unnecessary and damaging to South Korea’s international reputation and national economy,” says Rands. “By protecting Saemankeum, South Korea could establish its place in Asia as a nation committed to the conservation of global biodiversity and environmentally sustainable development”.

BirdLife International’s call to prevent the destruction of Saemankeum coincides with a documentary on the wetland shown on the ‘Earth Report’ slot on BBC World every day for a week from July 7th.

For further information, please contact Gareth Gardiner–Jones at BirdLife International in Cambridge,

1) According to the Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Committee, 2001.
2) The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List criteria for species of conservation concern are: Critically Endangered (facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future), Endangered (facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future), Vulnerable (facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term) and Near Threatened ( close to qualifying for Vulnerable). See BirdLife International (2000) Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Editions and BirdLife.
3) Photographs of the wetland and the threatened species mentioned are available for press and media use upon request. Please use the appropriate credit.
4) The Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance arises from a 1971 convention, signed in Ramsar, Iran, providing the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources by national action and international co-operation. There are presently 136 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1288 wetland sites, totalling 108.9 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.
5) BirdLife International is a global alliance of conservation organisations working in more than 100 countries who, together, are the leading authority on the status of birds, their habitats and the issues and problems affecting bird life.

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