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‘I want to be reborn as a hoopoe’

Famous ornithologist demands government stop developments that destroy birds’ homes

Self-acclaimed “walking bird encyclopedia,” Yoon Moo-boo, says he can list all 8,626 species of the world’s birds without faltering. He can guess a bird’s type by only a glimpse of a shadow.

“Because all I know about is birds, people sometimes call me a bird-head, but I actually kind of enjoy being called that. I mean ... it is true, I’m completely ignorant in other stuff.”

The 60-year-old bird zealot says he is proud having been “the birds’ best friend” for nearly 50 years.

“When I am reborn, I want to be born as a bird, a hoopoe bird to be exact, and fly freely,” Yoon told The Korea Herald. 
Yoon Moo-boo talks about migratory birds at the Han river during a winter ecology camp for students in January. (The Korea Herald)
Yoon Moo-boo talks about migratory birds at the Han river during a winter ecology camp for students in January. (The Korea Herald)

But recently, he became concerned by the rate at which the Korean landscape is changing due to excessive government development that is snatching away birds’ homes.

“Ever since I saw hoopoe birds in my front yard as a child, I promised to myself to devote all my life to protect them.”

However, his passion for birds has almost killed him in the past. He was out one day taking pictures of a rare bird species when, as he leaned toward to get a closer look, he slipped and was swept away with some other people by floods.

But this first reckless incident did not deter the audacious enthusiast from pursuing his passion.

The ornithologist collapsed in December 2006, around the Muju Mucheondong valley. He had endured freezing temperatures for hours and skipped meals just to catch the best shot of a natural monument crane.

He visited the nearest clinic to be told that he had had a “cerebral infarction” ― a kind of stroke. He was close to death.

Later, his symptoms worsened. He was unable to move his feet and the right side of his body was completely paralyzed. He could not speak. His children even hurried back from their studies in the United States to witness his last moments.

But he eventually got back on his feet.

“I couldn’t resist the sounds of the birds that were constantly calling me to wake up to go see them, and the thought that I would never see my friends (the birds) is what made me get back up again.”

During his two years in bed, Yoon simulated driving with his left foot, knowing that he would not be able to use his right foot to drive any more since his right side was still paralyzed.

“I said to myself, if I don’t wake up now, I will never see the beautiful migratory birds ever again.

“My right side of the body still limps, but the doctor said that 90 percent is healed. Thanks to the birds.”

Before the interview with The Korea Herald, Yoon warned that his speech was a little slow, but as soon as he talked about birds, his words got faster as he spoke up about his concerns for them.

Yoon is mainly worried about the government’s level of development, which has destroyed birds’ habitats.

He was outraged by the Gyeongin Canal project ― due to be completed this year ― and the Cheonsuman in Seosan City land reclamation project as well as the Ansan Sihwa lake project.

“Politicians are indifferent and senseless, their selfish interests and thoughtless strategies to renew the landscape of the entire peninsula is taking precious homes away from birds.”

He laughed sarcastically at TV news reports that the Saemanguem reclamation project would shape the land to mimic the Palm Beach area.

“Obviously, they don’t know what they are on about, even fish like skates and croakers don’t lay eggs in the deep ocean, they lay in shallow waters. Just by looking at how much consideration is being put in to the ecology here shows whether the politicians are really environment-friendly or not.”

Recently, Japanese scholars’ calls to Yoon to do something to prevent hooded cranes from flying to Kagoshima area have doubled.

“Ever since the government started the remodeling in the Haepyeong plains near the Nakdong River, the 4,000 migratory hooded cranes that used to prepare for winter in that area have started flying a long way to Japan.”

Yoon says at worst, this could lead to extinction.

“Birds get stressed in new environments. They develop a sickness, and they die, that is what eventually leads to the extinction of a breed.”

“The most ridiculous thing however,” he added, “Was that I heard it is nearly impossible to win a lawsuit against the government over any environment-related issue.”

Pyeongchang civilians once filed a lawsuit against Korea Electric Power Corporation of installing a steel tower in the middle of a garden for ergrets while the birds ― which have lived in the area for 400 years ― were making their winter migration to the Philippines.

Yoon said: “I asked the judge, ‘Would you be outraged or not if you went on a vacation and someone intruded in your house to build a massive wall in the middle of your home?’ The judge could not answer.”

“That is not all,” he added, “The politicians consider the environment to be a toy they can play with.”

According to Yoon, the Gyeongin canal project started during Kim Dae-joong’s presidency, then, when the late president Roh Moo-hyun came to power, the project ceased. But as soon as President Lee Myung-bak was seated they decided to restart the project.

The Ansan Sihwa lake project is not a new story either. The city blocked the area’s 1,200 meter mudflat to generate fresh water, to supply clean water residents. The project took 11 years to complete.

“But they were half-witted right there,” said Yoon. “You know mudflats are a chunk of organisms … after 3 years, it started bubbling and now it has rotted. It stinks there, but it seems that the government claims no responsibility for such things.“

Yoon also spoke about the controversial Four Rivers Restoration Project. The government enterprise aims to prevent floods, secure water resources and reclaim land.

“But you see … the Yangtze and the Nile rivers are big. But Korean rivers are winding, and narrow, you think ships are capable of sailing around the area? No, there is just no need,” said Yoon.

“We don’t need any big canals in this small country.

“The Incheon transportation is now more than enough, there are not many roads that are well paved roads. Korea is not like European countries. Here, we don’t need any big ships, or canals, as it is beautiful in the petite way they are, we can’t just follow anything that looks magnificent in Europe.”

Yoon is now busier than ever. He is a professor at Kyung-hee University’s department of biology, gives TV lectures, and leads children’s bird camps. He is also about to launch the world’s very first online bird museum drawing from his collection of 600,000 pictures of birds and 1,600 beta cam video tapes about birds.

“I have a clip about all the birds in Korea,” Yoon said.

He has also collected the sounds of 340 bird species, and recently made a CD full of his favorite bird calls.

“The environment is not ours.” Yoon said.

“It is for our descendents to enjoy. My only hope is to let our descendents enjoy the same as we did. No more should be ruined, or have games played with it.” 

 By Hwang Jurie (