Visiting Chongming Dongtan Nature Reserve, Ramsar Site no. 1144

Visiting Chongming Dongtan Nature Reserve, Ramsar Site no. 1144

10 September 2015

A motorway from Shanghai Pudong airport, a long tunnel, then an even longer bridge brings us to Chongming Island.  Many high-tech windmills are turning lazily in the light breeze, everywhere I look, and it’s a perfect warm day (27 degrees C). The island lies in the mouth of the Yangtze delta, north of the city of Shanghai, currently the largest city in the world with over 24 million people.  

am heading for a Ramsar site that is well known as the number one spot in Shanghai for birdwatching, together with Liu Jieyun from WWF Shanghai and Cao Jian Feng from the Office of Fisheries for the Yangtze River Basin.  Chongming Island, with its extensive marshes and mudflats, is a staging post for migratory birds, flying from Australia up to Siberia and back each year.  The eastern part of the island is the Dongtan National Wetland Park, visited by thousands of tourists from Shanghai on the weekends, while the extreme end of the island and the surrounding tidal mudflats are a protected nature reserve and a Ramsar site: the Chongming Dongtan Ramsar Site, designated in 2002.

Jieyun and Jian Feng in front of the tourist centre in the Dongtan National Wetland Park, which relies solely on green energy from its roof made of solar panels.

Jieyun tells me that shrimp farming is allowed in the nature reserve itself, according to the Ramsar principle of the wise use of wetlands.  "About 500 Whiskered Terns were foraging in the shrimp ponds and eating the shrimps. The shrimp farmer got upset and told WWF : your birds are eating my shrimps! But the shrimp farm is in a nature reserve so he should expect this!"   The wetland supports many waders, eg. Kentish plovers, curlews, whimbrels, greenshanks, sandpipers, egrets, herons.  Parrotbills are breeding in the reeds.  More than 20 species of birds can easily be seen on the mudflats on any given morning, with over 290 species altogether visiting the wetland over the year.  WWF is currently working with the fishermen and shrimp farmers, helping them to adopt organic approaches to make their livelihoods derived from the wetland to be more sustainable.

Wetland Education centres and conference rooms located in the wetland, linked by wooden walkways through the reeds.

Hundreds of parrotbills are cheeping and breeding in the reeds

The nature reserve works closely together with Jin Weiguo who is known as “the golden whistle of Dongtan” –a former bird hunter turned conservationist, his bamboo whistle can produce 30 different bird calls. Sometimes as many as 500 waterbirds can be caught and ringed in one morning when he calls them.  See the following article for more detail on the birdman of Dongtan.

Many people used to hunt birds and catch snails in the reserve, and this is occasionally still an issue with some of the local villagers.  There are also Chinese alligators in the wetlands – however these are not aggressive towards people so they don’t pose a problem, and they are rarely seen in the rushes.


Jieyun using a mobile phone together with binoculars to get a long range photo of four black swans"The black swans are not native, they shouldn't be here in the wild, they must have escaped from a park", she says. The nature reserve staff later confirmed that the swans have come across from the adjacent wetland park, and are being monitored.


Clearing Spartina which is an invasive in the park, using boats, and drones.

The drone takes aerial photographs each month, to track the rehabilitation work of clearing Spartina, and landforming to create islands for birds in the midst of the restored area. The work is being done together with the nature reserve staff, along the lines of the Mai Po model of wetland restoration, carried out by Lew Young in Hong Kong.

I leave Chongming Island much impressed by the ecological approach being taken, and on the way out we drive past a zero carbon agriculture project.  Adjacent to a city of 20 million people, Chongming Island is a signpost to the future. 

To learn more about the Chongming Dongtan Ramsar Site click here.  

Author: Ania Grobicki, Deputy Secretary General Ramsar Secretariat