Conservation laws proved to work

Great Bustards, like this juvenile, have been in decline in eastern Europe for a long time. Photo: Dûrzan cîrano (commons.wikimedia.org).
Great Bustards, like this juvenile, have been in decline in eastern Europe for a long time. Photo: Dûrzan cîrano (commons.wikimedia.org).
New scientific evidence from Eastern Europe confirms that the legal protection of birds works, as rates of decline have been halved.

A recent study focusing on 10 Eastern European countries has shown that the rate of decline of protected bird species was approximately halved after the onset of protection. The study, published in the leading journal Biological Conservation, was led by scientists from the Czech Republic and the German Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, and involved experts from across Europe, including BirdLife International.

Many European bird species have declined radically over the last century from exploitation, land-use changes, climate change and the influence of invasive species. In response, policy makers have introduced legislation to protect species by limiting their exploitation and the destruction of their habitats. Since applying such legislation has financial and other consequences, it is important to know whether the protection efforts are really beneficial to the protected species.

The study focused on Eastern Europe, using data on 306 bird species with population trends in both the 1970–1990 and 1990–2000 time periods (previous studies have already shown the benefits of protecting birds in Western Europe and the United States). BirdLife also contributed data on the national population trends of bird species from two comprehensive assessments across Europe, covering the periods 1970-1990 and 1990-2000. By chance, the division between these two periods coincided with the collapse of communism and the establishment of modern environmental legislation in many countries in Eastern Europe, so trends in the earlier period (‘before’ protection) could be compared with those in the later period (‘after’ protection).

The study concludes that after 1990, trends in protected species improved more than in unprotected species, suggesting that national legislation helped prevent the decline of protected species. Across the region, protected species had more negative population trends than unprotected species in 1970–1990, but trends of both groups became similar in 1990–2000. That is, population trends of protected species improved in the second time period, while unprotected species had similar trends in both periods. The rate of decline of protected species was approximately halved after the onset of protection.

In particular, there was great improvement in the population trends of protected species in countries providing ‘narrow and deep’ protection. Such ‘narrow and deep’ protection to less than 50 per cent of their species (that is investing a high amount of resources into a limited number of endangered bird species) is offered by five of ten analysed countries (Belarus, Czech Republic, Latvia, Moldova and Ukraine). The other five (Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) provided ‘broad and shallow’ protection, with a widely applied but modest effort to more than 80 per cent of their species. In these countries population trends of unprotected species deteriorated: positive population trends in 1970–1990 became negative trends in 1990–2000.

Clearly bird populations depend on a number of non-legislative concurrent factors (from climate changes to species’ traits), but co-author Ian Burfield, BirdLife’s Global Science Coordinator, stressed that: "The positive relationship between protection and population trends strongly indicates that species protection works. Combining ‘broad and shallow’ measures to sustain most species with ‘narrow and deep’ measures to help rare or threatened species recover may be the most efficient strategy for securing healthy bird populations."

Iván Ramírez, BirdLife’s Head of European Conservation, added: "We’ve already shown that this model of protection works in Western Europe, thanks to the EU Birds Directive, but it’s very encouraging to have confirmation from the study in Eastern Europe, where so much of our continent’s remaining biodiversity occurs."

However, the study showed that trends of both protected and unprotected species remained negative in total in 1990-2000, suggesting that the newly introduced legislation helped to protect birds but not sufficiently to reverse their overall declining trends.

It will be interesting to see whether the patterns revealed continue to hold, and whether Europe is on track to meet its target of halting the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services by 2020. A third comprehensive assessment of the population status of European birds is being prepared by BirdLife, using the latest data compiled under a contract from the European Commission. The resulting European Red List of Birds will be published in 2015.
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