Emergency mission to save remarkable bird from extinction


An international team of conservationists has flown out to the Russian Far East on an emergency mission to help save one of the world's rarest birds from extinction. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a unique and remarkable bird, but its shocking drop in numbers indicates likely extinction within a decade if urgent action is not taken. The conservation breeding team, led by staff from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Birds Russia, is working with colleagues from the RSPB, BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and Moscow Zoo to help save this species.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Elena Lappo, Birds Russia).

Recent research suggests that the breeding population of Spoon-billed Sandpiper was between 120 and 200 pairs in 2009, with the species believed to be declining at approximately 26% per year, due to extremely low survival of juvenile birds. If this trend continues, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper could be extinct within a decade. The team plans to establish a captive population, which will be the source for reintroductions over the coming decades, once the threats to the birds and their habitats along their flyway have been sufficiently addressed.

Currently the team is in Russia waiting to locate and collect eggs from the breeding grounds. They will construct an incubation facility out on the tundra where they will hatch the chicks before transferring the fledged young via sea and air back to Moscow Zoo for quarantine. The chicks will then be transferred to a specially built conservation breeding unit at WWT's headquarters in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire where staff will rear and breed the birds.

The bird's migratory flyway takes it 8,000 km along the East Asian—Australasian flyway each year from Russia to the Bay of Martaban, Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. On that journey and during winter they have been reported from Japan, North Korea, the Republic of Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India.

It is believed that the main reason for the catastrophic decline, and especially the incredibly low survival among juveniles, is unsustainable levels of subsistence hunting, particularly on the wintering areas in Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, with a migration flyway that runs along some of the most rapidly developing coastlines of Asia, there are several other critical threats, in particular the wholesale degradation and reclamation of the inter-tidal mudflats where the species feeds.

Waders trapped by bird-hunters (Ren Nou Sou, Wild Bird Lovers Sittwe, Myanmar).

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper was first listed as Critically Endangered in 2008 by BirdLife International on behalf of the IUCN. Over the last years the dramatic speed of decline has been realised, and thus the need for emergency action, without which the species stands a high risk of extinction. There are currently none in captivity, so there is no safety net against extinction in the wild.

Dr Geoff Hilton, Head of Species Research at WWT, said: "Spoon-billed Sandpipers are facing imminent global extinction and last-ditch efforts are now underway to found a captive population through a conservation breeding programme. Its imminent disappearance is all the more tragic because it is a truly remarkable species: it is a small arctic wader, with a bill shaped like a spoon. This adaptation, entirely unique to its family, makes it one of the most weird and wonderful bird species on the planet. It is absolutely clear that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper cannot be saved without action to reduce the threats to the wild population, but it is going to be difficult to achieve a turnaround quickly enough to avert extinction. Creating a captive population now may buy us some time. Establishing a captive population is not a success in itself, but this conservation breeding programme will provide insurance against the species going extinct in the wild before actions to reverse the downward trend have taken hold. No one has ever reared this species in captivity, but we are global experts in rearing wetland birds and if anyone can do it, our conservation breeding team can. It is not an option to sit back while we know we have the skills to stop extinction in its tracks. After months of R&D in anticipation of the project, the experts will become 'parents' to the captive birds and will learn everything they can about the species."

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is a flagship species and if we can tackle the threats it faces along the flyway we will have helped the dozens of other migratory waterbird species that are subject to similar threats. But, to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper WWT urgently needs to raise £350,000 to help fund this mission. They have launched a public fundraising appeal at www.wwt.org.uk/spoonbilledsandpiper.

Village children releasing captured Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Rob Robinson, BTO).

WWT Director of Conservation Dr Debbie Pain said: "This is a costly and difficult mission which faces logistical problems every step of the way. But the challenges are worth it — after all, what better legacy can we leave than to have helped save a species from extinction? However, we badly need your support to help sustain the commitment WWT and our partners have made. What is more, this species is just the tip of the iceberg. Species throughout the flyway suffer similar threats, so saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and raising the profile of the threats it faces could ultimately help to safeguard the future of many other species of waders too."

Tim Stowe, the RSPB's Director of International Operations, said: "Spoon-billed Sandpipers risk being one species that might not make it until 2020, the year targeted by governments around the world to stop the loss of wildlife. Establishing a conservation breeding programme will buy this enigmatic shorebird some time — but let's not be under any illusions, leaders in countries that can act to save Spoon-billed Sandpipers need to step up and address the levels of habitat loss and hunting that have brought this bird to the brink. Effective action for Spoon-billed Sandpipers will have immense additional benefits — not only for the millions of other birds that share the migration flyway, but also by ensuring vital coastal wetlands are safeguarded, bringing protection and sustainable futures to coastal communities."

The BTO's shorebird expert, Dr Nigel Clark, said: "Having spent weeks looking for Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Myanmar and seen the development and hunting pressures the species faces, it is clear to me that this cute little bird is in imminent danger. There is only one wader that eats with a spoon and we need to try everything we can to save it from extinction."

For the latest update from the expedition, click here.

Written by: WWT