Extreme levels of hunting of birds in a remote village of Hainan Island, China

the biggest threats to
Conservation of Hainan’s Forest Birds
Extreme levels of hunting of birds in a remote village of Hainan Island, China

The College of Life Sciences at Hainan Normal University and the State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol at Sun Yat-sen University are two of the leading research institutions in China when it comes to the study of life sciences.

Located in the city of Haikou in Hainan province, the College of Life Sciences is known for its cutting-edge research and innovative teaching methods. With a team of renowned professors and researchers, the College is dedicated to advancing our understanding of the natural world and using that knowledge to improve the lives of people around the world.

Meanwhile, the State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol, located in the bustling city of Guangzhou, is a world-class research facility that focuses on the study of biological control systems. Their team of scientists and researchers are dedicated to finding new ways to control and manage pests and diseases using natural methods, helping to protect our food supply and promote sustainable agriculture.

Together, these two institutions are helping to shape the future of the life sciences in China and beyond, through groundbreaking research and innovative teaching methods. As a researcher or student in this field, there is no doubt that these institutions would provide an incredible opportunity to learn and grow in your field, while making a meaningful contribution to the world.

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Hunting is considered a significant threat to many bird species in China. However, there has been limited research conducted at a local level to understand the extent of this issue. Therefore, an investigation was carried out to study bird hunting and trade in Nanmao, a remote mountainous village on Hainan Island, during two periods – March to July 2003 and September to October 2005. The study involved visiting 86 households, and it was found that 43% of them reported engaging in bird hunting, while 91% were observed to possess hunting tools or evidence of hunting. This suggests that hunting was a widespread activity among the villagers. Most of the hunters were males between the ages of 12 and 68 years. The investigation also revealed that 78 species of birds were hunted, including two First Class and 19 Second Class national protected species. This extreme level of hunting is a significant shift from the traditional subsistence hunting practices that were prevalent until around 1980 when urban markets for wild meat began to develop. In response to these findings, a strategic plan has been developed to conserve birds, wildlife, and forest habitats in the region while also improving the livelihoods of the villagers and preserving their tribal traditions.


The rapid increase in human population and the consequent pressures on the environment have resulted in the alarming loss of ecosystems and biodiversity. Such a loss can have catastrophic consequences, as highlighted by various studies (Jackson et al. 2001; Lotze et al. 2006; Worm et al. 2006). Overexploitation, in particular, is considered a significant factor contributing to the decline of many terrestrial vertebrate species. Unsustainable offtake, for instance, is considered a primary threat to 37% of the 12% of globally threatened bird species. In China, over-hunting and wildlife trade have emerged as two of the biggest threats to biodiversity, especially in cases where commercial exploitation and international trade are involved. In fact, hunting has been identified as a significant cause for the decline of many bird species in China. The China Red Data Book of Endangered Animals lists 183 bird species as threatened, with 34 species mainly threatened by hunting and an additional 56 species partly threatened by hunting. However, there are very few studies of bird hunting at the local scale, and most existing studies focus on pet trade instead of hunting as a source of meat. This calls for immediate action to conserve birds, other wildlife, and their habitats while sustaining the livelihoods of the people who rely on them, and preserving their traditional practices.

As a photographer and wildlife enthusiast, I have had the privilege to travel to many parts of China and observe its unique and diverse flora and fauna. During my travels, I visited the island province of Hainan, which is known for its ancient traditions and cultural heritage. While exploring the island’s rich biodiversity, I learned about an interesting study that aimed to document the hunting of birds among one of the minority groups, the Miao or Hmong people, in a remote mountainous area of Hainan.

The study revealed that the economy of Hainan is less developed than other provinces in mainland China, resulting in a lower demand for pet birds. However, the demand for wild birds as a source of food is still prevalent, and the local communities possess the necessary skills to meet this demand. Hunting of birds is an ancient tradition for subsistence among the tribal minorities on the island, and as a result, they play a key role in the bird meat trade.

The study aimed to document the hunting of birds by determining the number and identity of species hunted, the prices obtained, and the hunting methods used by the Miao people. It was found that the practice of hunting has resulted in a severe threat to the island’s forest birds, as 34 species are listed as threatened mainly by hunting, and an additional 56 species are thought to be threatened at least partly by hunting.

In light of these findings, the study suggests that steps must be taken to mitigate the threat of bird hunting and improve the long-term conservation prospects for Hainan’s forest birds. The study highlights the need for sustainable hunting practices and suggests that alternative livelihood options be explored for local communities who depend on bird hunting for subsistence. Overall, the study highlights the need for conservation efforts to be mindful of cultural traditions and the livelihoods of local communities.

Study area and methods

Nanmao village is located in the southeastern part of Hainan Island, China at 19°00′N, 110°06′E (to see the location of Nanmao, refer to Fig. 1 in Gong et al. Reference Gong, Wang, Shi, Song and Xu 2006). The climate is characterized by distinct seasons: a rainy period from April to October, and a dry period from November to March. The annual rainfall is approximately 2,300 mm, and the average annual temperature is 22°C. The region is dominated by natural secondary forest, with broad-leaved species prevailing at elevations of 800–1,100 m. Monsoon rainforest is present at higher elevations up to 1,270 m, with bamboo interspersed throughout. The study village is located on the mountainside at 430 m, while cultivated fields and plantation forests exist up to 800 m above the village. The plantation forests mainly consist of rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) and betel nut palm (Areca catechu), and their products are commercially sold.

The practice of subsistence hunting has been passed down through generations in the village, but wildlife now provides them with a third crop for commercial purposes. In addition to birds, several globally threatened turtle species and some mammals are also hunted by the villagers (Gong et al. Reference Gong, Fu, Wang, Shi and Xu 2005, Reference Gong, Wang, Shi, Song and Xu 2006). At the time of the surveys conducted, the village had 86 households, and most of them participated in hunting as a part of their family economy (Gong et al. Reference Gong, Wang, Shi, Song and Xu 2006).

for pet

Data on bird hunting was collected from the village during two different periods, from March to July 2003 and from September to October 2005. The village headman granted permission and provided assistance during the visits to each household to identify any birds that were found. Additionally, hunters were accompanied into the field during trap visits to gather further information on hunted species that were not observed in the village.


Hunting habits

During the survey period, all 86 households in the village were visited. Although only 37 households (43%) reported bird hunting, observations showed that 78 households (90.6%) either hunted birds or owned hunting tools. This suggests that hunting is prevalent among villagers in the village and the surrounding forest. Most hunters were males, ranging from 12 to 68 years old, and hunted throughout the year except during typhoons and heavy monsoon rains. Some birds, such as thrushes and babblers, were consumed as food in the village, but the majority of hunted birds such as pheasants, eagles, owlets, coucals, pigeons, and egrets were sold. Hunters sold the birds directly to visitors or agents, who sold them in bulk to market traders or restaurants. Only a few birds like mynahs were sold as pets, and most were sold for food. Hunters also hunted at night for some species like the Collared Owlet and Greater Coucal.

Species hunted

Table 1 lists the 13 species of birds recorded in the village, and an additional 65 species were identified by hunters through various means such as identifying calls, visual sightings in the forest, or through a bird identification guide (MacKinnon and Phillipps 1999).

Below is the rephrased text:

The table provided details about the hunting and trade of various bird species in Nanmao village, Hainan, China.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is a global organization that assesses the conservation status of species around the world. One of the tools it uses is the IUCN Red List, which categorizes species based on their level of risk of extinction. The Red List has become the most comprehensive resource available for the conservation status of species, and is widely used by researchers, policymakers, and conservationists to guide conservation efforts.

The Red List categories include nine levels of risk, ranging from least concern to extinct. The categories are based on a range of criteria, including population size, distribution, and trends, as well as threats to the species, such as habitat loss, overhunting, or invasive species. The most at-risk categories are Critically Endangered, Endangered, and Vulnerable, while species in the Near Threatened and Least Concern categories are considered to be at lower risk.

The IUCN Red List is constantly updated as new data becomes available, and in 2011, the most recent version at the time, it contained assessments of over 61,000 species, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and plants. The Red List is an essential tool for understanding the conservation status of species around the world, and for prioritizing conservation efforts to protect the most vulnerable species. It also serves as a valuable resource for researchers, policymakers, and conservationists working to protect biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems.

In conclusion, the IUCN Red List is an essential resource for assessing the conservation status of species around the world. By categorizing species based on their level of risk of extinction, the Red List helps to prioritize conservation efforts and guide policies to protect vulnerable species. The Red List is constantly updated and provides valuable information for researchers, policymakers, and conservationists working to protect biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems.

b The CITES Appendix listing for 2011 can be found at http://www.cites.org/eng/app/index.shtml (accessed on July 6, 2011).

According to the data gathered, four Galliformes species were directly observed during the surveys. Among them, the Hainan Partridge Arborophila ardens and Hainan Peacock Pheasant Polyplectron katsumatae are First Class protected species in China, while the Silver Pheasant Lophura nycthemera and Red Junglefowl Gallus gallus are Second Class protected species. Additionally, six Second Class protected species were recorded, including three diurnal raptors and an owl. It is worth noting that all of these species were sold dead as they had been leg-trapped and died before being retrieved from the traps. This information is crucial for conservation efforts and highlights the need for increased protection and monitoring of these species.

According to the text, a significant number of hunters asserted that the trade in some types of mammals declined after the outbreak of SARS in 2003 (Wang et al. Reference Wang, Huang, Zhou, Qiao, Huang, Hu, Yu, Liu and Wu 2003), leading to a rise in demand for birds, particularly larger species such as pheasants, raptors, and pigeons.

Hunting methods

The people in Nanmao village used various tools for hunting, including shotguns, air-rifles, metal leg traps, pinchers, bamboo leg hold traps, bamboo cages, pitfalls, and electric devices. These tools were either purchased from local towns or made in the village using local materials. The shotguns used were long-barrelled muzzle-loaders, with a length of 1.5 meters. They were used to fire steel or lead shots with a diameter of 2-3 mm or 6-8 mm, with smaller shots reserved for smaller birds and mammals, and larger shots for bigger ones. The cost of shot at the time of the survey was 6 RMB/kg. Air-rifle pellets were used for killing small birds and were sold for 4.5 RMB/120-150 pellets. These pellets were mushroom-shaped and had a length of 5 mm. Both shot and pellets were sold in the general store in the village.

the study of life sciences

Metal leg traps were among the hunting tools used by the villagers in Nanmao. These traps come in two sizes: large traps with a diameter of 30 cm and saw-toothed jaws, and smaller “pinch” traps with a diameter of 10 cm that are used for trapping rodents and birds.

The larger traps are meant to catch large mammals, such as deer and wild boar, by clamping down on their legs when they step on the trigger. The saw-tooth design prevents the animal from pulling its leg out of the trap. These traps are dangerous and can cause serious injury to the trapped animal. They are also indiscriminate and can trap non-target animals, including endangered species.

The smaller pinch traps, on the other hand, are used for trapping smaller animals like rodents and birds. These traps work by quickly closing on the animal when it steps on the trigger, trapping it inside. While they are less dangerous than the larger traps, they can still cause harm to the animals they catch.

It’s important to note that the use of leg traps is generally considered cruel and inhumane by animal welfare organizations. Many countries have banned or restricted their use, and alternatives such as live trapping and humane killing methods are encouraged.

The use of leg traps to catch various types of animals and birds is a common practice among hunters in some regions. In the case of Nanmao village in China, hunters used different types of leg traps for different kinds of prey. Larger traps with saw-teeth on two jaws were used to catch large mammals, while smaller “pinch” traps were used for trapping rodents and birds.

Leg snares were also used, with their size varying based on the intended prey. Larger ones were designed for catching large mammals, while smaller ones were directed at pheasants and partridges, which are smaller birds that live mainly on the ground. These traps were activated by a 1.2-1.5 meter bamboo cane.

In addition to leg traps, hunters in Nanmao village also used bamboo cage and pitfall traps for catching turtles and mammals. However, the spring leg traps and metal leg traps were also capable of trapping birds, including pheasants, pigeons, coucals, pittas, laughing-thrushes, and even raptors.

It is worth noting that the use of leg traps is a controversial practice, as it can cause injuries and even death to the trapped animals. Some countries have banned their use or have implemented regulations to limit their use and prevent harm to wildlife.


According to the study, bird hunting in a remote village on Hainan island, China, was found to be remarkably high. The villagers reported that until around 1980, there were abundant wildlife resources and hunters mainly used shotguns to hunt large mammals like deer and wild boar for personal consumption. However, some villagers started selling wildlife in local towns, albeit at low prices (1.2 RMB/kg). As living standards improved, people became more interested and able to purchase wildlife for culinary purposes, causing prices to rise significantly. For example, wild boar, deer, and cobra prices at the time of the survey were 40 RMB/kg, 60 RMB/kg, and 260 RMB/kg, respectively. This led to unrestricted hunting throughout the year and at night, resulting in increased profits. Although selling wild species in public has been illegal under Chinese law since 1988, a thriving black market has emerged, and the illegal trade continues without restraint.

The hunting of birds in the village and the nearby forest is alarmingly high, with many species now becoming hunting quarry. Among the hunted birds, the Greater Coucal and Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis stand out due to their popularity. The reason for their high demand is their use in traditional Chinese medicine. These birds are consumed widely as a tonic and are soaked in local alcoholic liquor to produce the medicine. However, there are a few bird species that are deliberately spared by the hunters, such as the Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica and three swift species Apus spp. These birds hold a special place in local customs and traditional culture because they build their nests on houses. Thus, they are cherished by the people of Hainan, which has contributed to their conservation at the local and regional scale.

This situation highlights an important aspect of conservation, which is the role of traditional culture in the protection of wildlife. While modernization and economic development have contributed to the decline of many species, it is essential to recognize the cultural significance of certain species and their value in traditional practices. By doing so, conservation efforts can be more effective in promoting the protection of such species. In this case, the conservation of the Barn Swallow and the three swift species is an example of how traditional culture can contribute to wildlife conservation.

Hunting and habitat destruction have both had a severe impact on the bird populations surrounding a remote village on Hainan Island, China. The hunting of birds has become increasingly common, with even some protected species being hunted for their supposed tonic properties or for use in traditional Chinese medicine. The Greater Coucal and Lesser Coucal species have become particularly popular hunting quarry due to their supposed medicinal properties. However, a few species such as the Barn Swallow and three swift species are spared by hunters due to their special place in local customs and culture.

Furthermore, habitat destruction has exacerbated the impact of hunting on bird populations in the area. Slash and burn agriculture is still practiced in the surrounding area, but the use of long-term and profitable crops such as rubber trees and betel nut palms has become more common. This has resulted in areas being left burnt and unused for crop cultivation, limiting the habitats available to many bird species. Many birds are now restricted to higher parts of the Nanmao forest due to farming activities and human disturbance.

Despite the remoteness of these habitats, hunters are still able to access them and use leg snares to catch birds. This has caused concern for researchers studying the Hainan Partridge, which still exists in the bamboo and evergreen broad-leaved forests at higher altitudes. While one of the six partridges carrying a transmitter for research purposes was shot by a local hunter, hundreds of leg snares were found in the area, leading researchers to halt their radio-tracking research for fear of further harm to the partridge population.

Overall, both hunting and habitat destruction are posing significant threats to bird populations in the area surrounding the remote village on Hainan Island. Conservation efforts are necessary to preserve the biodiversity of this region and to protect the various species from further harm.


Based on our research results, we propose the following recommendations to mitigate this threat and enhance the long-term conservation prospects for the forest birds and their habitats in Hainan.

The establishment of a Nature Reserve and enforcement of the associated laws designed to protect wildlife and its habitats will be necessary for the forest to maintain populations of the First and Second Class state-protected bird species, including the two endemic species, the Hainan Partridge and Hainan Peacock Pheasant. (Reference: Primack and Ji, 2000)

The second recommendation is to address the conflict between biodiversity conservation and natural resource exploitation by local people. Due to the low standard of living in the village, income from the sale of wildlife is crucial to households and the main cause of over-hunting in the area. To provide alternative means of generating income, the villagers should be supported in maximizing profits from agriculture and supplying traditional garments and other artifacts to the growing tourist industry. Furthermore, local people should be given priority for employment in the nature reserve to maintain their connection with their ancestral landscape. They can provide valuable and knowledgeable guidance to visitors, many of whom may be unfamiliar with their cultural heritage, the tropical rainforest, and its wildlife species.

The third suggestion we make is that the success of management initiatives implemented in the Nature Reserve must be evaluated by monitoring certain indicators of ecological health related to wildlife species and their habitats. To this end, the Hainan partridge can be used as a flagship species (Liang et al. 2002) for the Reserve, and can also be monitored annually. The bird has a distinctive call at dawn during the breeding season (Yang et al. 2011), which makes systematic counting feasible. It is a prime target for hunters and is highly vulnerable to human disturbance and habitat degradation (Cai et al. 2009). The only way to ensure the stability or even increase of the partridge population is through effective management of the Reserve.


We express our gratitude to Jichao Wang, Shiping Gong, Youli Fu, and Yunfang Hu for their assistance during the survey, and to the Forestry Department of Hainan Province for granting us permission and support to conduct this study. We also extend our appreciation to Dr. Peter Garson and Dr. Philip McGowan for their help in improving the English language of the manuscript. We are grateful to Dr. Richard Fuller and Prof. Stephen Garnett for their valuable suggestions that have enhanced the quality of this work. This research was financially supported by the National Science Foundation of China (No. 30360015 and No.30860044), the Conservation Trust of the National Geographic Society (NGS) (C66-05), the WWF-China Small Grant (CN0861.01), and the Program for New Century Excellent Talents in University (NCET-10-0111).

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