From Russia with love


On Friday, conservationists escorted 13 Spoon-billed Sandpipers — one of the most endangered species on the planet — into Heathrow and on to their new home at Slimbridge WWT in Gloucestershire. This is the final stage of an epic journey for the birds, which have been brought from their Russian Far-Eastern breeding grounds, via quarantine in Moscow Zoo, and now to the UK. The arrival of these birds marks the start of a conservation breeding programme intended to help prevent the extinction of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, a shorebird whose unique appearance and extreme rarity have given it near-mythical status among birdwatchers all over the world.

Throughout 2011, conservationists from Birds Russia have been working with WWT and the RSPB on an emergency rescue mission for the species. This culminated in an expedition to the remote Russian Far East to take eggs from some of the nests and hatch them in captivity. The birds have now been brought to the UK where the climate is suitable for their year-round care and expertise and facilities exist to start a breeding programme. WWT's Head of Conservation Breeding, Nigel Jarrett, who hatched the birds on the Russian tundra, was with them as they flew to the UK. He said: "Taking one of the world's rarest birds across 11 time zones by boat, plane and now by road has been the most nerve-wracking job I've ever done. The hopes of the conservation movement worldwide have been riding on this mission and it is an incredibly difficult thing to do successfully. But we couldn't sit back and do nothing while there was a chance to prevent the loss of this unique species. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is but a hair's-breadth from extinction and the birds will receive 24-hour care in Slimbridge. Now we and the many other organisations working on this species must gather support for action to tackle the hunting and habitat loss that has left these birds in such peril."

The birds being checked over on arrival in the UK by Animal Health Officer Stuart King, at the City of London Corporation's Animal Reception Centre at Heathrow Airport (Sacha Dench/WWT).

WWT has world-class expertise in the management and breeding of endangered waterbirds, but no one had hatched or kept Spoon-billed Sandpipers in captivity before. Rearing 13 healthy young birds from eggs taken from the arctic tundra is a massive achievement, but many challenges remain. Quarantine and long flights are stressful experiences for any animal. These birds have round-the-clock care, but the next few days will be some of the most anxious for Nigel and his team.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is threatened by loss of essential intertidal feeding sites along its 8000-km migration route from Russia to its wintering grounds in south and southeast Asia, and also by trapping on its non-breeding grounds. Although these issues are being tackled, the conservation breeding programme has been started because the population is now so low. With fewer than 100 pairs left, and the population declining by a quarter each year in recent times, there may be too little time to reduce hunting and habitat loss before the species disappears completely. On arrival in Slimbridge the birds will be quarantined for another 30 days. From there they will be moved to purpose-built aviaries, which will be the focus of the conservation breeding programme. This first year of the project, which has involved shipping equipment to the Russian Far East and building extensive aviaries, has been costly and has had to be organised at break-neck speed. A further expedition is needed next year to get enough birds to establish a viable breeding population and funds are urgently being sought.

Spoon-billed Sandpipers arrive in the UK (WWT)

The conservation breeding programme is just part of an international campaign to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper that will benefit many endangered species that use the same migratory flyway. The enigmatic bird has become a rallying point for those concerned by some of the threats to wildlife in the region. Dr Tim Stowe, the RSPB's Director of International Operations, said "Flying 16,000 km every year, raising a family in one of the remotest places on earth and threatened by hunting and the destruction of their winter homes, Spoon-billed Sandpipers lead a perilous existence. Captive breeding is not something conservation organisations enter into lightly, but in this case it's the best chance — possibly the only chance — the birds have. Unfortunately this problem isn't a cheap and easy fix; it will take a take a long time and requires a lot of money, so raising enough funds to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is vital. This is an ambitious and dramatic project and there's still a long way to go, but if we're able to save this iconic little bird, it'll all be worth it in the end."

Dr Evgeny Syroechovskiy of Birds Russia, said: "I wish all the best to these special Russian birds. It's hard to believe the problem is so bad that it has come to this, but we have been left with no choice if we want to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The ultimate goal is to release the offspring of this captive population back to the wild. In the meantime, we must tackle habitat destruction and subsistence hunting, and give this enigmatic little bird a new beginning."

The most immediate threat to the birds — unsustainable levels of subsistence trapping on their wintering grounds in Myanmar — is being addressed by conservationists working with local communities to find other livelihoods. In response to the loss of inter-tidal mudflats along the coasts of East Asia, the international conservation movement is pressuring governments to conserve the most important wildlife sites, and acknowledge their great natural value to human society. As their value as fisheries, shell-fisheries and for coastal protection is appreciated, it is hoped that their reclamation for development will become less attractive.

Project staff talk to a hunter (Nigel Clark/BTO).

Once the birds have left quarantine and been released into their new home at Slimbridge, WWT hopes to stream video of the birds to the visitor centre once they are settled, so visitors can see the species that has become something of a Holy Grail for bird-lovers worldwide.

There is more information about the project on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper project blog. If you wish to support the project, you can do so at www.wwt.org.uk/sbs.

Written by: WWT