The Korea Herald


Upo Wetlands full of life, history and beauty

UNESCO World Heritage candidate site shows raw nature

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 30, 2013 - 20:39

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In the far southern region of Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, is a spread of wetlands ― Upo, one of the most visited natural sites in the country.

In early morning, the wet fog on the wetland’s surface creates a misty and mysterious atmosphere, while during the day, the greens accentuate the primitive nature. At sunset, the sun smudges the sky and creates a spectacular scene ― if you are lucky you may observe troupes of migratory birds flying across the setting sun. At night, the insects and animals start to create noise, beautiful enough to sit back and listen to. It is a peaceful, serene yet dynamic end to the day. 
Upo attracts migratory birds during the winter season.(Changnyeong County Office) Upo attracts migratory birds during the winter season.(Changnyeong County Office)

The Upo Wetlands have been on the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tentative List since 2011. The wetlands, composed of 2.3 square kilometers of main wetland and many smaller ones scattered around it, were previously inscribed on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance in 1998.

Endangered species’ shelter

More than 180 bird species can be seen in Upo, including at least 10 endangered species. Anas falcate and Anas formosa are included in the IUCN Red Data Book, according to UNESCO. Those observed in the area include Platalea leucorodia (first-class endangered species designated by the Korean government), Anser fabalis, Cygnus cygnus, Cygnus olor, Anas formosa, Falco subbuteo and Charadrius placidus (second-class endangered species).

The Korean authorities instituted a special project in 2008 to restore the crested ibis, believed to have been extinct at the site. The birds have managed to spawn and breed thanks to the Chinese government, which sent a pair as a gift.

The wetlands are also home to numerous plant species. Typha orientalis C. presl, acorus calamus L, reed, zizania latifolia, eleocharis kuroguwai ohwi, hornwort, arrowhead, and Euryale ferox salisb are just a few of the plants that contribute to the green, fresh, dynamic world of Upo.


Koreans did not appreciate the value of Upo until recently. Ancient Koreans took nature as it was and preserved it as such without labeling it or limiting its use for preservation. There are a few historical records of a stream and waters in the area, but their geography hardly matches the current Upo site.

The name Upo appeared during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) and some residents still use the Joseon era (1392-1910) nicknames for the area such as Sobeol, Namubeol or Moraebeol. In 1918, a 50,000:1 scale map of Korea was issued for the first time, with the word Upo emerging for the first time as well.

“Upo is the largest inland body of water in Korea aside from Cheonji, the caldera lake at the top of Mt. Baekdu,” the government recorded in another document. Upo was designated Natural Monument No. 15 in 1933 as part of a cultural preservation strategy.

In 1962, more than a decade after liberation, the site was designated a South Korean Natural Monument for being the homeland of swans, but in 1973 the designation was withdrawn as the birds no longer came to the area.

Preservation efforts

Since the withdrawal of the Natural Monument designation, Upo has been at the center of controversy surrounding development which led to damage of its ecosystem. In 1997, aiming to restrict excessive fishing and collection of marsh snails, the government once again designated the area an Ecological Conservation Area, followed by the inscription on the Ramsar.

“Since then, the government has purchased the surrounding lands of the area to put the ecosystem and other areas under tight monitoring,” the Upo Wetland Management Office said on its website.


The local governments ― the offices of South Gyeongsang Province and Changnyeong County ― joined hands with local scholars in pushing the wetlands to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“It is actually the best way to protect the natural site and its ecological system,” said Do Yuno, researcher at Pusan National University.

By Bae Ji-sook (