Kiwi bird­watch­ers ig­nored the bu­reau­crats and trav­elled from the Firth of Thames into North Korea. Mark Cry­sell went along.

Sunday News - - FRONT PAGE -

WITH hu­man rights abuses, famines, ex­e­cu­tions, nu­clear threats, North Korea is con­sis­tently rated as one of the world’s most re­pres­sive regimes – but it’s also the des­ti­na­tion for a group of hardy Kiwi bird­watch­ers

When we de­cided to ac­com­pany the group from the Puko­rokoro Mi­randa Nat­u­ral­ists’ Trust, the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs ad­vised us against go­ing and For­eign Min­is­ter Win­ston Peters said he could do ‘‘very lit­tle’’ is we found our­selves in trou­ble.

New Zealand has no di­plo­matic ties with North Korea. We last sent a diplo­mat there in 2014.

As Adrian Riegen, the group leader puts it: ‘‘These birds recog­nise no bor­ders, they don’t recog­nise any of those po­lit­i­cal struc­tures we put up . . . They go where there’s food in the mud flats. They don’t care which coun­try it’s in.’’

Shore­birds, in­clud­ing the bar-tailed god­wit or kuaka, are in se­ri­ous trou­ble.

The god­wit has the long­est mi­gra­tion of any bird, all the way from New Zealand to the Arc­tic ev­ery year with a stopover in the vast mud­flats of the Yel­low Sea for a month to re­fuel. Ev­ery year, more and more of that habi­tat is be­ing gob­bled up by China and South Korea’s ram­pant eco­nomic growth.

Since the early 2000s, Mi­randa bird con­ser­va­tion­ists have wit­nessed first-hand the dra­mat­i­cally de­clin­ing num­bers of shore­birds ar­riv­ing in China and South Korea and won­dered if the birds were find­ing shel­ter in North Korea.

Keith Wood­ley, the man­ager of the Mi­randa Shore­birds Cen­tre on the Firth of Thames thought: ‘‘This could be the safety valve. This could be the place where these birds may find a refuge on their mi­gra­tions.’’

The Mi­randa group made their first visit into North Korea in 2009 and have been six times since. Adrian Riegen has led ev­ery visit. This year he took Keith Wood­ley and David Melville, a world-renowned shore­bird ecol­o­gist now semire­tired in Nel­son. And,

Mark Cry­sell went to North Korea – the realm of despot Kim Jong Un – to look for birds. And he dis­cov­ered a ver­i­ta­ble god­wit Utopia, above.

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