11 Jun 2021

Why the Korean Getbol tidal flats need World Heritage status

The Republic of Korea’s coastal wetlands are a vital feeding and breeding site for millions of waterbirds, including nine species that are globally threatened with extinction. This July, the World Heritage Committee will decide whether to inscribe these vital habitats onto the UNESCO World Heritage List – the most prestigious of all conservation designations.

© Getbol World Heritage Promotion Team
© Getbol World Heritage Promotion Team
By BirdLife International

Millions of waterbirds depend on the tidal mudflats or ‘getbol’ in the Republic of Korea. They rely on the abundance of food hidden in the soft mud to refuel on their annual migrations between breeding grounds in the north and non-breeding grounds in Southeast Asia and Australasia. The birds that gather in spectacular flocks on the Getbol mudflats are shared by over 20 countries along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

Collectively the coastal zones of the Yellow Sea (or West Sea as it is known in Korea) of the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea are the most important staging areas for waterbirds on the flyway. But in the last decades many coastal wetlands have been lost. Of the remaining tidal mudflats in the Republic of Korea, those in the Geum Estuary in Seocheon County (including the low-lying islet of Yubu) are the most important, providing vital roosting and foraging sites for many threatened waterbirds.

The Republic of Korea has nominated four areas to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the most prestigious conservation status – in the first phase of the ‘Getbol, Korean Tidal Flat’ serial nomination. At the same time, degraded areas of mudflats are being restored – actions that show that the government is serious about conserving coastal wetlands.

The Getbol sites are not only important for bird migration but also for breeding. It holds more than 1% of the global population of nine species that are globally threatened with extinction. This includes Hooded Crane Grus monacha, Saunders’s Gull Saundersilarus saundersi and Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis [see below], Spotted Greenshank Tringa guttifer, Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris, and Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea. Also, the Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes and Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor breed on small islands off the coast and regularly forage on these flats in spring.

For the Korean Getbol to be awarded World Heritage status, the World Heritage Committee will need to agree that the sites have ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ for migratory waterbirds. Also, the Republic of Korea will need to extend the areas proposed in the current and next phase, and commit to conserving the key attributes of the sites for generations to come. Once successful, this vital and irreplaceable link in the chain of wetlands will be secured – a big win for flyway conservation in Asia.


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© Getbol World Heritage Promotion Team

Far Eastern Curlew - Endangered giant

The largest shorebird in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, about 12% of the world Far Eastern Curlew population (over 3,700 birds) gather each year on the tidal flats of the Geum Estuary and Yubu to refuel on their journeys between their northern breeding grounds and Australia, where they spend the northern winter.


© Getbol World Heritage Promotion Team

Hooded Crane - tourism spectacle

Hooded Crane (Vulnerable) is one of eight species of crane occurring in East Asia. They breed in Russia and Mongolia and spend the northern winter across the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and parts of China. Up to 42% of the world population gather in Suncheon’s wetlands. Many people come to enjoy these spectacular congregations.


© Abdelhamid Bizid

Saunders's Gull - vital feeding station

The entire population of the Saunders’s Gull (Vulnerable) breed along the coast of the Yellow Sea between the Korean Peninsula and eastern China. In the Republic of Korea, Saunders’s Gull breeds at Songdo in Incheon City. In the northern winter, approximately 2,000 individuals depend on Seocheon and Suncheon Bay.