I’ve lost track of how many nights I spent traveling to Dongting Lake, a large, shallow lake in Hunan province, central China, famed for being the origin of dragon-boat racing.

In mid-January 2013 I met the Yueyang River Porpoise Conservation Society, a volunteer group. At dawn we set out for Dongting Lake, hoping to protect the food chain which supports the endangered river porpoise, a Class II protected mammal, from illegal fishing.

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A volunteer capture a wild swan they suspect has been poisoned.

As our small motorboat arrived at Sibazi, we found a group of tundra swans who had been poisoned. Some were already dead; others were too weak to fly.

Liu Huili, a volunteer from Beijing environmental NGO Nature University, travelled overnight to get to the lake. She explained that these swans are also Class II protected animals, and are under threat worldwide. “This is one of the species worst affected by the bushmeat trade.”

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A variety of dead migratory birds on the beach.

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The swans fly to Dongting Lake for the winter from Inner Mongolia and other northern areas, and only start to return home when the weather warms in April.

The poison used on the swans causes spasms and breathing difficulties. The swans battle to get away but fall again and again into the winter wetlands, the pain only ending with death.

The poisoners wait nearby until they can collect the corpses; they sell them to illegal bushmeat restaurants by the lakeside, where a single bird can fetch $150 to $300. The bushmeat trade is busiest in the run-up to China’s New Year and its attendant banqueting.

For two days we trudged through the wetlands and the morning mists, heartbroken to see 20 tundra swans and other migratory birds killed by the poachers. Thankfully we were able to rescue two swans, both foaming at the mouth and close to death. We prayed for their recovery.

Xu Yaping, head of the conservation society, is a fervent environmental activist. He told me that since 1999 he has been undertaking systematic patrols of the lake, recording fish and bird numbers. This particular case of bird poisoning, he said, was the worst in almost 10 years, and it left him devastated.

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Volunteers treat a poisoned swan.

In recent years, 1,800 tundra swans have been recorded wintering here. This year there were only 1,400.

Kang Dahu, China Project Officer with Flora and Fauna International, said that “The tundra swan may abandon this sad place next year and go looking for somewhere else to stay.”

The exact poison used has not been established, but it is suspected that carbofuran, a highly toxic pesticide frequently used to poison wildlife, may have been used. It’s also unclear when the swans will be adequately protected—so far there are just isolated arrests that don’t prevent future poaching.

—A longer version of this article, which won a 2014 China Environmental Press Award, was originally published in the Changsha Evening Times.

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