China: Rural Communities in Cohabitation with the Crested Ibis in Yang County, Shaanxi Province



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)


  • 06/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • Eastern Asia


  • China (Shaanxi Province)


  • This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview of efforts towards conservation of the Crested Ibis by improving its habitat in agricultural lands as an example of landscape-management practices in the region.


  • Crested Ibis, bird conservation, rice paddies, wetlands


  • Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

Natural and Social Background

[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

Yang County is located in the Hanzhong Basin. The county has an area of 3,206 km2 and altitudes between 3,071 m at the highest and 390 m at the lowest (The Book of Shaanxi Province Map, 2010). The Han River, which is the longest arm of the Chang Jiang River, runs from west to east through plains in the south part of the county and all drainage systems flow into the Han River. The average annual temperature is 12 to 14 degrees Celsius (Zhang et al., 2004) with the highest temperature at 38.7 degrees Celsius (Ou, 2010). The average annual precipitation is some 900 to 1,000 mm (Zhang et al., 2004). Thus, Yang County belongs to the temperate humid climate zone. There are 16 towns, 10 villages and 367 administrative villages. The county’s population as of 2004 was 440,000. Of the total population, the nonfarming population was 67,700, which means the majority of the inhabitants of the county are farmers (Cao, 2009). According to the county’s statistics in 2004-2005, Yang County had an average annual income per farmer as low as RMB 1,400- 1,800, far below the national average rural income per capita of RMB 2,622 in the same year, and hence has been designated as a State-level Poor County (Yueming et al., 2007). Around the center of the county, there are market places and employment opportunities in commerce and the tourism industry, while no such employment opportunities are found in the inter-mountain areas, where poverty is particularly severe (Su and Kawai, 2004).

In 2006, China prepared the “National Environmental Protection Plan in the Eleventh Five-Years” that sets forth its goals, including the development of ecological reserves, the establishment of integrated rural environmental protection and the building of eco-models. It specifically prioritizes the protection of wild birds, especially the Crested Ibis, as it is listed in the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species and has been traditionally treasured by people as “a bird bringing happiness.” The worldwide attention paid to the protection of the Crested Ibis lies behind the Chinese government’s prioritization of this species in its policies (JICA, 2010).

Until the end of the 19th century, the Crested Ibis was widely distributed in Northeast Asia, including China, Russia, the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Due to the increase in the felling of the trees that were used by nesting colonies of these birds, the conversion of wetlands to agricultural land and hunting, the number of crested ibises had been dwindling to such an extent that the species had been considered extinct in the wild after the last five wild ibises were captured together in Japan in January 1981 (Xiaoping Yu et al., 2006; BirdLife, 2003). Although ibises had been considered extinct in China, seven individuals were found in a village in the interior of Yang County in May 1981 and measures to protect them were taken. Crested ibises have been protected as well as artificially bred, as a result the number of wild ibises in Yang County increased to over 800 as of 2011. The Nature Reserve was established in 2001, and currently the Shaanxi Hanzhong National Nature Reserve has an area as large as 37,549 ha, of which 33,715 ha (90%) is within Yang County (the remaining 10% belongs to Chenggu County, Shaanxi Province). Most of the area of the nature reserve is located in hilly areas at an altitude of 500-1,000 m.

The reserve has 13 towns/villages and 99 administrative villages with 77,612 people in 24,696 households as of 2003, of whom 95% are engaged in agriculture. As will be described in more detail below, this requires agricultural ecosystems, including wetland fields, that play a significant role as the habitat of the Crested Ibis, and hence also requires the understanding and cooperation of the local residents who use the agricultural ecosystem (Su and Kawai, 2004). Thus, the nature reserve adopted a “community co-management” system promoted by The State Forestry Administration of China, in which it is jointly operated and managed with the local residents, and established a community co-management committee in Yang zhou zhen in 2003 (Su and Kawai, 2004).

Land Use in Yang County and Habitat of the Crested Ibis

The habitat for the Crested Ibis can be categorized into three areas according to its yearly activities: nesting areas, wide active areas and wintering areas. The nesting areas are located between low and middle mountain regions, at 700 to 1200 meters above sea level. More than 60% of these areas are made up of forests, and winter paddy fields are distributed in the valleys. The wide active areas are in the hills or plains at an altitude of between 450 and 750 meters. Some secondary forests as well as many rivers and reservoirs can be found in these hills. Paddy fields, fields and grassland account for a large proportion of these areas and they are the roosts and main feeding places for crested ibises during the wide active period. Agricultural land, small rivers and ditches are concentrated in the plains. Crested ibises often catch food around paddy fields and along the banks of rivers and reservoirs (Photo 1). The wintering areas are on low mountains and hilly areas between the nesting and wide active areas. These areas are stopover sites for resting ibises when moving from a wide active area to a nesting area (Ding et al., 2004). Thus, a variety of environments is required to enable a crested ibis to inhabit. The environment of a mixture of secondary forests, wet fields, ditches and tanks in a mosaic pattern provides the habitat and nursery for various creatures, including endangered species. At the same time, such an environment also works as a venue for the life and livelihood of human beings (Su and Kawai, 2009).

Photo 1. Crested Ibis feeding in harvested paddy fields (Caoba village) (photo: Kojiro Mori)

In Yang County, a large proportion of rural land is used for agricultural purposes, including arable land for crop cultivation such as rice, wheat, corn and tubers, as well as orchards. The arable land of the county can be classified into three types: dry fields, wet fields, and rotational fields. A “dry field” refers to farmland in general, which is not submerged under water all year long, while a “wet field” is submerged under water all year long with wet rice being cultivated in summer and fallowing in water in the other seasons. The “rotational field” refers to arable land with double or multiple cropping, which is submerged under water in summer for wet rice cultivation and is dried out in winter for the upland crop cultivation, including wheat, corn and tubers. In Yang County, the wet fields are largely located in between mountainous areas, while the rotational fields with double cropping are in the plain areas (Su and Kawai, 2009).

The Crested Ibis needs for its subsistence wet fields that provide them with abundant weatherfish and aquatic insects. The wet fields submerged in winter, in particular, offer important feeding grounds for the crested ibises as they have their breeding season in winter. The area of wet fields in Yang County is 12,773 ha, accounting for 50.3% of the total arable land. There are also 80 reservoir dams and 2,232 tanks in the county. Such rich swamp resources thus enable the crested ibises to inhabit Yang County (Su and Kawai, 2009). After the rediscovery of the Crested Ibis in the wild, the government of Yang County has promoted environmentally friendly agriculture to ensure improvements in their habitat by submerging fields under water in winter and restricting the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Additionally, the government of Yang County has taken measures such as banning the felling of trees around nesting places and roosts, ordering the closure or eviction of quartz mines and cement factories, etc. In Caoba village (Photo 2), Yang County, for instance, barren and sloping land had been tapped for pear orchards since the 1980s after the commencement of the Economic Reform and Open Door Policy. In the mid- 1990s, when the Crested Ibises inhabited areas around the village, the government directive shifted towards ecological agriculture with less pesticide to ensure the protection of their habitat. Subsequently, less pesticide has been applied to the pear orchards, which were converted from wheat or corn cultivation. Many of the products cultivated in this way are certified as “Non-polluted food” by the Agriculture Department of the Shaanxi Province and are traded at higher prices in the market. In Caoba village, this shift toward the use of less pesticides in orchards not only led to an improvement in the habitat for wild birds, including the Crested Ibis, but to strengthening of the functions of sediment discharge control and an increase in income for the villagers. Moreover, the pruned pear branches are used as household fuel, reducing the stress on the forests for firewood and charcoal-making. In Caoba village, the pear orchards play a significant role in the village economy, as well as in the natural environment (Su and Kawai, 2004; JICA, 2010). The village is active in protecting the Crested Ibis through the signing of an agreement by the Village People’s Committee, which the village people’s autonomous body, with the nature reserve regarding its protection. This agreement was intended to protect the miscellaneous areas of forest where the Crested Ibis roosts by banning the grazing, logging and the gathering of wood for firewood and charcoal-making (Su and Kawai, 2004).

Photo 2. Full view of Caoba village (photo: Kojiro Mori)

Similar efforts toward reintroduction of the Crested Ibis have been made in Sado Island, Japan, and Changnyeonggun, Gyeongsang, Republic of Korea by encouraging organic agriculture methods without the use of pesticides to create an environment suitable as a habitat for the species. In another part of China apart from Yang County, there is a steady population of wild crested ibises that has been brought to and released in Ningshan County, Shaanxi Province. Artificial breeding of the Crested Ibis has been promoted in the Dongzhai National Nature Reserve in Henan Province and Deqing County, Zhejiang Province, with the aim of releasing them into the wild. The preservation and creation of an environment in which crested ibises can live is the immediate priority for each area.

Challenges and Responses

Decrease in and Degradation of the Feeding Grounds

In winter, crested ibises mainly eat water creatures such as weatherfish, swamp eel (Monopterus albus), river crabs and pond snail (Viviparidae spp.). Winter paddy fields are therefore the main feeding places. However, the cultivation method has changed from a one-crop system to doublecrop system since the 1980s. Since then, many farmers remove the water from the paddy fields after the harvest in autumn to cultivate wheat or vegetables. The feeding areas for crested ibises in winter has thus dramatically declined and securing wet paddy fields submerged in winter is the priority issue (Ding et al., 2004). Taking into account the increased number of the wild crested ibises, improvements in their feeding grounds are urgently required (Su and Kawai, 2009).

Decline in Agricultural Productivity and the Countermeasures

The decrease in rice yields due to regulations on the use of pesticides and fertilizers to protect the habitat of the Crested Ibis has had a significant impact on the incomes of the farmers. Incomes declined due to avoidance of the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which amounted to the equivalent of approximately 150 kg per 1 mu (Chinese area unit, 1 mu is about 6.67 are) of paddy fields (Cao, 2009). Pear cultivation in Caoba village suffered from considerable damage due to pests and diseases in 1997 and in recent years (JICA, 2010). In response, the nature reserve has taken various measures to support the life of farmers. These measures include the development of roads, ditches and small hydroelectric power plants, support for the improvement of the lives of the inhabitants of the area such as support for the cultivation of fruit, herbal plants, etc., the signing of protection agreements with villages and individuals to protect the environment for nesting sites and roosts (including rewards for their successful protection), the employment of residents as patrol staff (temporary workers), etc. Experimental direct compensation for the farmers also started in 2008 and the decline in farm incomes due to the restrictions on the use of pesticides and fertilizers has been compensated for by a certain amount of payments. The compensation, however, faces major difficulties in terms of the inadequacy of the amount and the securing of the finance, resulting in arrears in payments in some areas. As the compensation payments do not necessarily provide a medium to long-term solution, it is necessary to establish stable production techniques and build mechanisms for economic self-reliance (JICA 2010; Su and Kawai, 2009).

China established three types of certification for organic agricultural products and products that were cultivated using less pesticide: (i) Non-polluted food; (ii) Green food; and (iii) Organic food (Zhao, 2009; Song 2008). A number of pear orchards in Caoba village have acquired the certificate of “Non-polluted food”, leading to the expansion of market channels and sales at 50-60% higher prices in the market (Su and Kawai, 2004). In 2003-2004, the Green Rice Project was implemented in three villages, including Caoba village, with the assistance of WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature). In this project, based on a contract with the Crested Ibis Protection Center, the farmers cultivate wet rice without using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and the harvested rice is designated as “Green Rice” after being certified as “Green Food” and is certainly sold at a price that is 15% higher. The decline in the farmers’ income due to the application of organic farming techniques has been offset by the payment of compensation and the increase in the purchase price of Green Rice by being certified as Green Food (Su and Kawai, 2004).

For other approaches, the Yang County Society for the Protection of the Crested Ibis (the 13th out of 14 societies established for the protection of birds in China) works on the environmental education for children and the monitoring of crested ibises. These activities are supported by Yang County and Shaanxi Province (JICA, 2010). In addition, JICA commenced a five-year “Project for the Harmonization of the Local Community and the Crested Ibis” in 2010 that intended to show a balanced model between the protection of the habitat for the Crested Ibis and the improvements in the local people’s livelihoods. Its activities include surveys and monitoring in their habitat, support for releasing crested ibises back into the wild, livelihood improvement activities through organic agriculture, eco-tourism, etc., and environmental education.


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