Once extinct, eastern white storks return to farmland

Once extinct, eastern white storks return to farmland

By Hwang Dong-hee

Oriental white storks are returning to Korea after more than four decades, with fourth-generation chicks hatched in the wild.
This year, 12 pairs of eastern white storks are nesting in Korea this season, and about 30 young storks have hatched, including three fourth-generation chicks.
While they were once commonly found throughout Korea, the national population dropped significantly after the Korean War of 1950-1953. The birds faced extinction as industrialization from the mid-1960s destroyed their natural habitats.
In April 1971, the last pair was found nesting in North Chungcheong Province, but soon after the male stork was shot by a poacher. The species became extinct in 1994 when the bereaved female stork died in captivity.
Oriental storks, designated Korean National Monument No. 199, are listed as an endangered species by the Ministry of Environment and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). There are less than 3,000 Oriental storks living in the world.
In the past, storks – called “hwang-sae” in Korean – were common resident birds on the Korean peninsula. People believed that storks were a symbol of wealth and longevity, bringing good luck and protecting villages.
An old Korean proverb says, “If a raven tit walks like a stork, it breaks its legs. This means that if you overdo something, you will get into trouble.
Oriental storks are large birds, with a body length of 110 to 150 centimeters. They used to be called “han-sae”, which literally means “big bird”.
They are relatively larger than European white storks and have a long pointed black beak rather than a red beak.
Storks in Western folklore are also auspicious symbols. This symbolism was popularized in the 19th century through a story by Hans Christian Andersen called “The Storks”, in which storks bring babies to new parents in a basket.

Make his long-awaited return
In 1996, the Eco Institute for Oriental Stork, based in North Chungcheong Province, started a restoration project with the aim of reviving the country’s animals. The center has successfully raised storks using species imported from Japan, Russia and Germany.
The first pack of storks – six adult storks and two young – were released into the wild in 2015.
Over the past seven years, a research team from Yesan Stork Park in South Chungcheong Province released 155 storks, and about 58 percent of them survived.
“We consider the survival rate to be ‘satisfactory’, as more than half of the released animals survived. Usually the figure hovers between 53 and 58 percent,” Kim Su-kyung, senior researcher with the reintroduction research team, told the Korea Herald.
She added that there is a steady increase in the number of young storks hatching in the wild. Nineteen hatched in 2020, 25 in 2021 and 30 chicks in 2022. All twelve pairs nested in South Chungcheong Province, according to the team.
“One of the reasons why South Chungcheong Province, and Yesan in particular, was chosen as a restoration site is that there were already records of storks breeding in that area. There is even a monument commemorating this place as a breeding site,” Kim said.
The region still has favorable conditions for the storks to live and breed, such as vast agricultural lands or rice paddies that serve as a wetland and nearby mountains that provide branches for their nests.
“The resident storks of Korea were familiar birds to our ancestors, as they had settled in nothing but rice paddies. Sitting at the top of the food chain, the eastern stork is not only a carnivorous indicator that reflects health of an entire ecosystem, but also a symbolic indicator that connects to our agricultural society,” explains the researcher.
Thus, environmentally friendly farming methods help storks adapt to their habitat by increasing the number of organisms that inhabit the paddy field. Some farmers have dedicated paddies currently not used for rice production to create “flooded paddies” throughout the year.

Threats remain

Although the restoration project is on track, a number of human activities still threaten the storks to settle in the wild.
On April 25, a male stork was rescued and sent to Chungnam Wildlife Rescue Center (South Chungcheong), but died five days later. The center suspects pesticide poisoning.
It was the very first stork that was released into the wild in 2015. The stork was named Dae-hwang after the first syllable of the official name of the Republic of Korea, “Daehanminguk”.
“There were no signs of skeletal problems, but the stork couldn’t stand upright. He reacted when we prescribed an antidote for him, but unfortunately he didn’t survive,” said Kim Ri-hyun, a wildlife rehabilitator at the rescue center.
Dae-hwang leaves behind his partner and four daughters.

Another stork was sent to the rescue center after being snared in April. The stork has lost a leg and will not be able to return to the wild.
“It is impossible for a bird to survive without a leg, which is an important part of the body for walking, flying and hunting. The research center decided to take in the injured stork after the treatment,” she added.

Include storks in our agricultural landscape

“The core value of the restoration project is to improve stork habitats, and thus revive the whole ecosystem where humans and wildlife can thrive,” said Kim Su-kyung from the center of research.
Recently, the center installed additional devices around the paddy field to save other living aquatic creatures. A ‘frog ladder’, for example, helps frogs and other organisms jump through rice paddies, preventing some deaths from roadside sewers.
“Freeing storks is a simple task, I think. But what we are ultimately looking for is to restore the whole ecological system to the level where we can see abundant living organisms as they once were. I hope that our efforts to reintroduce storks will consequently enrich biodiversity and also revitalize environmentally friendly agriculture,” Kim said.
Against this backdrop, Yesan, in cooperation with the Korea Rural Community Corporation, is launching a complex eco-friendly project with 19.3 billion won ($14.9 million) for the next five years.
The aim is to promote a green agricultural society where storks and local farmers can coexist. The main business plans include: the development of suitable wetlands for storks, the installation of green facilities and the construction of tourist trails around the villages.
The number of farms that have received certification marks for environmentally friendly agricultural products has steadily declined in South Chungcheong Province.
They have more than halved, from 9,603 in 2011 to 4,311 in 2020, according to the National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service.
“The aging farm population is one of the reasons for the slowdown. Also, the fact that there is not much price difference between ecological rice and chemically pulverized rice discourages farmers,” Kim explained.
“But what we want is a landscape with storks. We cannot continue this restoration indefinitely. I hope that one day in the future, humans and storks can live in harmony, just like other wild birds.


Photo 1: Four storks are seen in a field in Yesan, South Chungcheong Province, September 3, 2021. (Stork Monitoring Database)
> Photo 2: An adult stork and three newly hatched chicks stay in a nest atop a transmission tower in Taean, South Chungcheong Province, on May 10. (Yesan Stork Park)

> photo 3: (Left) The last living female stork perches on a tree in 1982. (Right) The last living male stork flaps its wings in 1971. (National Institute of Biological Resources)

> Photo 4: People cheer and cheer as a released stork flies into the wild during a release ceremony at Yesan Stork Park, South Chungcheong Province, September 3, 2015. (Yesan Stork Park)

> photo 5: (Left) Dae-hwang, the very first stork released, can’t stand before the rescue, April 25. (Right) A stork stands with one foot caught in a snare, April 12. (Yesan Stork Park, Chungnam Wildlife Rescue Center)

Photo 6: Two storks nest on an artificial nesting tower in Yesan, South Chungcheong Province on April 21. (Stork Monitoring Database)


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