KIWIS DISCOVER NORTH KOREA’S FEATHERED HEAVEN
Kiwi birdwatchers ignored the bureaucrats and travelled from the Firth of Thames into North Korea. Mark Crysell went along.
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.