“Good afternoon! North gate of the zoo please!” I said in between pants. I had just sprinted out of the airport arrival hall and hopped right into a taxi.
“Do you mean the Guangzhou Zoo?” The taxi driver sounded incredulous as he reconfirmed what he had just heard.
“Yes, that’s right. To the north gate of the Guangzhou Zoo,” I panted.
The driver started the car, but could hardly hold back his curiosity and asked, “You just touched down and you are heading directly to the zoo to see the animals?”
I laughed, “Haha, yes, I’m going to watch the birds.”
My plane took off late from Singapore due to the year-end thunderstorms. It was scheduled to arrive in Guangzhou by 12 noon, but only landed at 1.10pm. I had planned to meet Guo Shijun at 2.30pm at the north gate of the zoo. Due to the delay, I decided to head directly to the zoo instead of checking in at the hotel first.
Once I entered the zoo, I followed the GPS information that Guo had sent me to locate him. As I walked along the lake, I could already see the words “飞羽” (Feiyu) across a blue booth from afar. A group of children and parents were queuing for their turns to look through a telescope.
A middle-aged man more than 1.7 metres tall could be seen standing beside a large telescope with a pictorial guidebook clipped under his arm. His voice came bright and loud through his portable microphone.
“What is the colour of the bird that you see through the telescope? Can you describe it for me? What do you think it looks like? Can you look for it in the guidebook and show it to me?”
Through his guidance, participants easily identified the bird they saw through the telescope as the ruddy shelduck. He further explained, “There are about 500 species of birds in the Guangdong province, of which 250 species can be found in Guangzhou. Most of them can be differentiated by observing the colour of their feathers. Birds are our friends, so please do not disturb them in their natural habitat.”
He is Guo Shijun, the founder of Feiyu Environmental Education Co. Ltd. He was first introduced to birdwatching in 2007, which eventually led him to establish Feiyu in 2011. Feiyu’s mission is to promote nature education through the appreciation, research and conservation of wild birds and their habitats. He hopes to convey the importance of ecological protection through these activities and inspire the man in the street to do more. Today, Feiyu has branches in Guangzhou, Beijing and Fuzhou. Since its founding, nearly 40,000 people have taken part in its nature observation activities.
Guo established Feiyu to provide an opportunity for all to experience and enjoy birdwatching. He believes this will help members of the public develop an interest and appreciation of nature, creating an emotional connection with nature that will lead to more concern for the environment. Only then, Guo believes, will people start paying attention to the changes taking place within our natural environment, and be more motivated to protect and conserve it.
Guo had his first birdwatching experience in 2007 when he was in charge of promoting the Swarovski telescope in China. What started out as a means to reach out to avid birdwatchers for sales purposes turned into a personal love for these beautiful dancers of the skies. In order to become more familiar with the distribution of bird species in the Southern China region, Guo took a special trip to Hong Kong to buy a pictorial guidebook entitled “Hong Kong and South China Birds”. It now accompanies him on every birdwatching trip. Through its collection of more than 450 species of birds, he acquired an array of information on the birds he observed, such as their scientific names, special characteristics, reproductive behaviour, habitat environment and their distribution around the region.
Over time, he began to notice that the seasonal and annual migration patterns of birds were directly related to the climate, environment and human activities. Before long, his focus started to expand from birds to a macro view of the interactions between human and the environment. This caused him to transform from a birdwatching enthusiast to an advocate for environmental protection.
Guo started Feiyu in 2011 in the hope that more people would experience the same transformation in their lives. To him, this process of cultivating a love for the environment is more natural and has a stronger and more lasting effect than any propaganda, textbook or classroom education.
Many of the birdwatching activities organised by Feiyu are targeted at primary and secondary school students. Guo believes environmental education should start with children who are in their character development stage. By exposing them to nature and encouraging care and concern for the environment, children will begin to foster a love for nature which will stay with them into adulthood. This character development is the key to a harmonious co-existence between man and nature.
Every year, Feiyu has a seven-month seasonal activity period, during which three birdwatching activities are held each month. Often, parents accompany their children on these activities. “Do not underestimate the influence that children have on adults,” Guo said to me. A father once told Guo that after one such event, his daughter found the birds so lovely that she told him not to eat wild birds bought from the wet market ever again. The father felt guilty and decided to take his daughter’s advice.
Guo Shijun has learned much from his many years of experience in organising parent-child birdwatching activities. For example, he said, do not let grandparents accompany children on these activities as they tend to coddle the children and affect their birdwatching experience. He does not allow anyone to use mobile phones during the activity, but instead encourages families to focus on birdwatching and bonding with each other. Each activity group is capped at a maximum of eight children to facilitate interaction.
He also found that families who paid for the activity were more focused and engaged than those participating for free. This is likely because they want to derive more value from the money spent. Also, he found that mums have a greater influence on social media compared to dads: many mums would post photos of activities on social media after an event, thus helping to reach out to more families and promote Feiyu’s birdwatching activities.
Guo believes that birdwatching is just a starting point. What is more important is to inspire people in the city to care about nature and realise that nature is all around them. His team conducted a survey with more than 200 people. One of the multiple-choice questions was, “What do you consider ‘nature’?” More than half of the respondents chose ‘wild forests’. Those who picked ‘city parks and green spaces’ were few.
Besides organising birdwatching activities, Guo offers advice on the upgrading and reconstruction of some of the parks and green areas in Guangzhou, to help restore their biological diversity. Taken together with the public activities like bird, insect and plant observation, he hopes the public will begin to see ‘nature’ differently. ‘Nature’ is not confined to ‘wild forests’ but can also exist in our cities. It is our duty to protect and love the nature that is all around us.
As the interview drew to a close, Guo looked at his daughter and son, and told me, “A large part of my motivation comes from them.” He hopes his efforts will give children in the cities more opportunities to get close to nature, so they will develop a more holistic character as they learn how interlinked humans are to the environment.
Birdwatching originated in Britain and Northern Europe in the 18th century as an aristocratic pastime. In China today, people like Guo Shijun are working hard to use birdwatching to awaken people’s senses to nature.
BEN NING & SOH XIAOQING
Ben Ning and Soh Xiaoqing are project managers at The HEAD Foundation. The article was written as a case study in Chinese by Ben, and translated into English by Xiaoqing.