I’m on my way back to Beijing from the most inspirational meeting about birds I’ve ever witnessed. This week in Abu Dhabi I met birders, conservationists, scientists, government representatives, NGOs and many more people from an array of backgrounds and cultures who share a single passion – for migratory birds.
Convened by BirdLife International and hosted by the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, the “Summit for the Flyways” was designed to address the decline in migratory bird populations on all of the world’s flyways, from the Eastern Pacific to East Asia-Australasia and everywhere in between. On all these migratory routes, populations of migratory birds are declining and, according to the “State of the World’s Birds“, launched at the Summit, 1 in 8 of the world’s bird species is at risk of extinction. However, alongside that wake-up call, there was a strong message of hope: conservation works!
The Summit showcased inspirational examples of how, when resources are available, bird conservation can be successful. And passionate people – through local communities and champions – are at the heart of successful efforts to protect birds. Given that migratory birds respect no borders, the BirdLife family – with more than 120 national partners around the world – is uniquely placed to coordinate efforts to save migratory birds along the flyways.
Alongside other members of the BirdLife Advisory Group, I was honoured to support Patricia Zurita, BirdLife’s CEO, to convene more than ten international donors with a view to creating a “Global Alliance for Bird Conservation Action” and, with commitments secured from China’s Qiaonyu Foundation and the US’s National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to host further meetings in 2018 to broaden the alliance, it looks as if we’re well on the way to a step-change in funding for global bird conservation.
As Thomas Lovejoy said at the opening of the meeting – “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world” and today I think we can say that, although there is still a huge amount to do to halt and reverse their decline, the future of migratory birds is a little brighter.
As I write this, we’re beginning day two of the Summit for the Flyways in Abu Dhabi and, although there will be a formal outcome statement at the end of day three, I wanted to emphasise what, for me, was the highlight of day one – the outline of progress in China presented by Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University.
Readers of Birding Beijing will have heard about some of the recent progress, including the ban on land reclamation and the government reorganisation that puts all protected areas under one agency. However, it’s one thing to hear about changes from an enthusiastic and optimistic foreigner but quite another to hear about it directly from a Chinese academic.
The key slide is below.
For clarity, the text reads:
National Policy Change
1. All Reclamation Projects Suspended
2. Zero Loss of Nature Wetlands
3. Wetland Conservation and Restoration Order
4. Leadership Accountability for Wetland Loss
5. Nomination of World Heritage Sites
Ministry of Natural Resources
State Administration for Forestry and Grassland
National Park Administration
It’s hard to overestimate the significance, and pace, of these changes, all aligned with Xi Jinping’s vision of “ecological civilisation” as set out in the manifesto for his second term presented last year. And whilst implementation is, of course, the real test, putting in place the right policies is a fundamental first step. With China hosting the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2020, the time when new targets for conserving and celebrating nature are due to be designed, this vast country with unique natural heritage is seemingly getting its house in order and setting an example.
I’m writing this from Abu Dhabi at the opening of BirdLife International “Summit for the Flyways” which, from 23-26 April, brings together some of the world’s greatest bird scientists, conservationists, communicators and policy influencers to address one question: how do we best tackle the threats facing migratory birds?
The Beijing Cuckoo undertakes a phenomenal migration, linking China’s capital with Mozambique and southeastern Africa, but is facing threats including habitat loss, changes in agricultural practices and climate change.
To underpin the Summit, BirdLife International has released a key publication: The State of the World’s Birds 2018. This important and comprehensive report provides a snapshot of the health of not only the world’s birds, but the ecosystems they represent. It’s described as “taking the pulse of the planet”.
State of the World’s Birds shows that many of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in dire straits. At least 40% of these species are in decline, and one in eight bird species is globally threatened with extinction. It’s a wake-up call.
Many bird species known for being widespread and common are now at risk of extinction;the Snowy Owl, Atlantic Puffin, Grey Parrot and European Turtle-dove are among the instantly recognisable bird species that are now threatened with extinction due to human-driven factors such as climate change, illegal hunting and overfishing. Overall, agriculture (the loss of habitat from agricultural expansion, as well as agricultural intensification) is the greatest driver of bird extinction worldwide.
The continued deterioration of the world’s birds is a major concern for the health of our planet; birds provide a wide variety of ecosystem services, such as controlling insect pest populations, and dispersing plant seeds. Vultures, one of the most threatened bird groups, provide crucial sanitary services across South Asia and Africa through the disposal of animal carcasses.
Here are some more of the publication’s key findings:
The Yellow-breasted Bunting could become the next Passenger Pigeon
Many people are familiar with the cautionary tale of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, a bird that once numbered billions in North America, and that was driven to extinction by 1914 through excessive hunting and habitat destruction. Sadly, history appears to be repeating itself.
Until recently, the Yellow-breasted BuntingEmberiza aureola was one of Eurasia’s most abundant bird species, breeding across the northern Palaearctic from Finland to Japan. However, since 1980, its population has declined by 90%, while its range has contracted by 5,000 km, and BirdLife has now assessed the species as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List – meaning that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction. Although now officially banned, large-scale hunting of this bird, particularly in China, continues – in 2001, an estimated one million buntings, known colloquially as ‘the rice bird’, were consumed in China’s Guangdong province alone and, in November 2017 they were found for sale on China’s online shopping website, Taobao.
The European Turtle-doveStreptopelia turtur was once a familiar migrant to Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East from the Sahel zone of Africa. Because of habitat loss and hunting, the species is now declining across its range, especially in Western Europe, and its conservation status has recently been re-classified as Vulnerable to extinction.
The Snowy OwlBubo scandiacus is surely one of the most widely recognised birds in the world. It is also widespread, occurring throughout the Arctic tundra of the Northern Hemisphere and, in Asia, wintering as far south as northern China. Yet, the species is experiencing a rapid decline, most likely connected to climate change: changes to snowmelt and snow cover can affect the availability and distribution of prey. The species has recently been categorised as Vulnerable.
In the marine realm, the depletion of fish populations through overfishing and climate change has caused rapid declines in widespread and much-loved seabirds such as Atlantic PuffinFratercula arctica and Black-legged KittiwakeRissa tridactyla—both are now considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
Overall threats to the world’s birds
Human actions are responsible for most threats to birds. Foremost among these threats are: agricultural expansion and intensification, which impacts 1,091 globally threatened birds (74%); logging, affecting 734 species (50%); invasive alien species, which threaten 578 (39%) species; and hunting and trapping, which put 517 (35%) species at risk. Climate change represents an emerging and increasingly serious threat—currently affecting 33% of globally threatened species—and one that often exacerbates existing threats.
A powerful example of unsustainable agricultural practices, neurotoxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids are proving highly detrimental to birds. One recent study from the USA found that migrating White-crowned Sparrows Zonotrichia leucophrys exposed to neonicotinoids lost a quarter of their body mass and fat stores. The neurotoxin also impaired the birds’ migratory orientation.
Importantly, as well as the wake-up call about the decline in many bird species, the report also provides a message of hope, showing that conservation works and can change the fortunes of species in trouble.
At least 25 bird species would have gone extinct without conservation action over recent decades. These include the Seychelles White-eyeZosterops modestus, the Echo ParakeetPsittacula eques and the Azores BullfinchPyrrhula murina – all species confined to oceanic islands.
These messages are providing the backdrop to the Summit for the Flyways and the challenge now is to design a coordinated response across the flyways including governments, international organisations, NGOs, civil society and business.
In that context, it’s heartening to see so many people representing countries along all the major flyways, from China, Mongolia and Australia in the East Asian Australasian Flyway to the Netherlands, UK, North Africa in the Eurasian-African Flyway and the Americas in the west. From China specifically, Professor Lei Guangchun from Beijing Forestry University is here and will be speaking about the recent positive changes in policy in China.
It promises to be an inspirational few days and, I hope, a catalyst for scaling up both awareness and conservation action to protect these great avian travellers and the ecosystems to which they belong.
Did you know that one in eight of the world’s 10,000 bird species are threatened with extinction, of which more than 200 are classified as Critically Endangered, the highest category of threat of extinction? Anyone interested in conservation will be getting used to hearing statistics like these and, although many people feel sad, even angry, that this is happening, it’s often hard to know what can be done to help.
Fortunately, there are practical things we can do right now that can make a difference. One of them is to become a Species Champion under BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme.
BirdLife International is the world’s largest nature conservation partnership, working with local partners in more than 120 countries. Since 2007 they have been running the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme (PEP), specifically designed to target conservation efforts where they are most needed. The PEP creates two ‘communities’ – BirdLife Species Guardians, experts who take the lead in conserving globally threatened species in their country, and BirdLife Species Champions, individuals or organisations who raise awareness, and funding, for the vital conservation that is so urgently required. And it works. There are many examples of how conservation, driven by the Species Champions and Guardians, is making a difference. But instead of listing them (you can see some examples here on the BirdLife website), I want to convey my personal experience of being a Species Champion.
Shortly after I moved to China in 2010, I realised that several species were in real trouble. Some, such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Black-faced Spoonbill, were well-known and major conservation actions were already underway. However, when I spoke with Chinese scientists and birders, they all told me that the species in most imminent danger of extinction was the Jankowski’s Bunting, a little-known small brown bird whose tiny remaining range was in a remote part of Inner Mongolia.
I researched the status of Jankowski’s Bunting and, the more I found out, the more I became concerned for its future. I knew I wanted to do something. But what could an ordinary birder like me really do? After speaking to a few friends, I heard about BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme and I was soon having a conversation with Jim Lawrence, the Director of the programme, about what was required to become a Species Champion and what it would involve. I was quickly convinced that this was the best way I could help Jankowski’s Bunting and, within days, I had donated a modest amount of money (less than the cost of a foreign holiday), pledged to raise a little more, and became a Species Champion.
Jim had explained to me what BirdLife could do to help Jankowski’s Bunting with the funding. Given there was no BirdLife partner in Mainland China, work on species there was coordinated through the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society (HKBWS). I was soon in touch with BirdLife’s China Programme Manager, Vivian Fu (now a good friend and a real hero of conservation in Asia), and we discussed plans for a survey of Jankowski’s Bunting in partnership with the Beijing Birdwatching Society (BBWS). The next thing I knew, I was walking slowly through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia alongside Vivian and volunteers from the BBWS looking for populations of this small brown bird. The surveys reinforced the anecdotal evidence that historic populations of Jankowski’s Bunting were declining fast and, in some cases, disappearing altogether.
After the survey, the next step was to begin a conversation with the local government and local people to see what could be done. At the invitation of the HKBWS and BBWS, I was soon participating in a workshop with local government officials and representatives of the local community to raise awareness of the plight of this small brown bird and to try to encourage some simple actions to try to support the remaining population. That first meeting was hugely important in terms of simply putting Jankowski’s Bunting into the consciousness of the local government. Subsequent meetings involved local scientists, one of whom had been studying Jankowski’s Bunting for several years. His funding was increased, enabling him to recruit a small team dedicated to surveying and studying the bunting and they’ve been working tirelessly to survey this vast area and discover the main reasons for the bunting’s decline. Without stealing the thunder of his work, there will be a paper published very soon with some welcome good news. Another major highlight for me was meeting with the Chairman of the Environment Protection Committee in the National Peoples Congress in Beijing and securing a commitment to include Jankowski’s Bunting in the updated list of “Species with Special Protection” under the Wildlife Protection Act.
In short, my experience as a BirdLife Species Champion has been overwhelmingly positive. I moved from a sense of alarm and helplessness about the status of the Jankowski’s Bunting to understanding that something could be done… I grew a sense of ownership and, with that, a responsibility to do something. Although the heavy lifting has been done by BirdLife, the HKBWS, BBWS and local scientists, I have been been able to contribute, albeit in a small way, to practical conservation efforts, engage with the local government and local people and gain an understanding of the local dynamics and politics.
Of course, I have been fortunate to live relatively close to the range of Jankowski’s Bunting and I’ve been able to manage my time so that I can participate in the surveys and workshops. Not everyone is so fortunate. However, that is the beauty of being a Species Champion – you can be involved as little or as much as you want. Becoming a Species Champion isn’t just about donating some funds with a couple of clicks and feeling good for a few days.. it’s about developing partnerships with organisations that are best-placed to help, gaining a better understanding of the factors determining the future of your chosen species and, best of all, developing a real bond with the species. For me, being involved in the conservation efforts so far has been hugely rewarding and, with a long way to go to ensure the survival of Jankowski’s Bunting, I am looking forward to playing my part in the months and years to come.
Given the hugely positive experience of being a Species Champion, I am surprised that there are still many threatened species out there without a Champion. Wouldn’t it be cool to be Species Champion for Nordmann’s Greenshank? Or how about Chinese Crested Tern, a bird with which BirdLife is working hard with some recent success? Most of us donate to, and/or raise funding for, causes important to us but how many donate AND are involved in putting that donation to work?
For more details of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme, please see the dedicated pages on the BirdLife website and, if you would like more information or if you’ve already made up your mind to become a Species Champion, please contact Jim Lawrence on email: Jim.Lawrence@birdlife.org or via Facebook.
Cover image: Sir David Attenborough shows his support for the Jankowski’s Bunting conservation effort.
This is big news. The Chinese government has just taken an important step to protect some of the key remaining intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay. A total of fourteen sites have been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination. Although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government. And, if these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.
The extensive mudflats, sandflats and associated habitats of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Bay, represent one of the largest areas of intertidal wetlands on Earth and are shared by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (RoK). It is the most important staging area for migratory waterbirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF). And yet, in the last few decades, around 70% of the intertidal habitat has been lost to land reclamation projects, causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline dramatically.
Species such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot are highly dependent on the area for food and rest during their long migrations from as far as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. And of course, this area is not only important as a stopover site. Almost the entire world population of Relict Gull winters in the Bohai Bay, and the whole population of Saunders’s Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill breed in the area.
The tentative nomination has not happened out of thin air. It’s the result of many years of hard work by domestic Chinese organisations, supported by the international community.
Subsequently, national workshops were held in Beijing in 2014, and Incheon, Republic of Korea, in 2016 to implement this resolution nationally. Then, in August 2016, I was fortunate to participate in a joint meeting in Beijing, where representatives of the government authorities of China and the Republic of Korea responsible for World Heritage implementation discussed the nomination of Yellow Sea coastal wetlands.
A further resolution “Conservation of intertidal habitats and migratory waterbirds of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, especially the Yellow Sea, in a global context” was adopted at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.
The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), responsible for World Heritage nomination in China has been active in identifying key sites and involving stakeholders to promote the current tentative list, with technical assistance from ShanShui, a Chinese conservation NGO. Whilst the list is not comprehensive – there are other key sites that many conservationists feel should be included – it is a strong foundation and it is possible to add further sites in due course. Importantly, at the same time, the Republic of Korea has been working on a nomination for the tidal flats of the southwest region including the most important site for migratory waterbirds in the country, Yubu Island.
With these proposed nominations by China and the Republic of Korea, the coastal wetlands of the Yellow Sea are being increasingly recognized by governments for their outstanding global importance and it is hoped that this will result in stronger protection and effective management for the continued survival of migratory waterbirds.
There is a long way to go to secure formal nomination and inscription onto the list of World Heritage Sites – that process can take many years – but it’s a vital step and an important statement of intent that provides a renewed sense of optimism about the potential to save what remains of these unique sites. Huge kudos, in particular to MOHURD and to ShanShui, and to everyone who has been working so hard to make this happen, including the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute, IUCN, John MacKinnon and many more.
The long-term vision is that there will be a joint China/Republic of Korea and maybe even DPRK World Heritage Site covering the key locations along the Yellow Sea/Bohai Bay. Now, wouldn’t that be something?!
As we track the Beijing Cuckoos from the Chinese capital all the way to Africa, we are learning that they take a remarkably similar route to another long-distance avian migrant, the Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis).
The Amur Falcon is one of the most beautiful and agile of all birds of prey. It’s a spectacular aerial hunter that often causes one to gasp when seeing it wheeling in the sky as it hunts dragonflies and other flying insects.
A few years ago it came to light that Amur Falcons, on their way to Africa each autumn, congregated in Nagaland in northeast India. The size of the gathering was on a staggering scale, estimated to be around 1 million birds.
Unfortunately, in 2012, it was revealed that hunting of Amur Falcons by the local people was also on a huge scale. Staff at Conservation India had discovered that tens of thousands of migrating Amur Falcons were being illegally trapped on the roost at a reservoir at Doyang in Nagaland and then being taken to local markets alive, or killed and smoked, for sale as food. What happened next is a major conservation success story.
In 2013, Dr Asad Rahmani, Director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) said: “From an estimated 100,000 falcons killed last year, none have been trapped in nets this year. The transformation is extraordinary and the change has come very quickly. But we also have to guard against this rapid change getting reversed. We needed to also set up solutions which are sustainable and of practical use to the community.”
As conservationists will know very well, it’s one thing to put a stop to illegal hunting in a single year, it’s another to sustain it. That is why there has been so much work to engage the local communities, including providing alternative livelihoods. One of the key elements of the public awareness campaign has been the project to track Amur Falcons, with individual birds named after local villages in Nagaland.
Just a few days ago, I received a note from Suresh Kumar of the Wildlife Institute of India who has just spent a few weeks in Nagaland. He writes:
“This season was the initiation of a “New Chapter” in our efforts to further our understanding of this species and continue with the conservation efforts that appears to have rooted deep in the remote villages of not only in Nagaland but in many parts of the Northeastern hill States. No Amur falcons were hunted this season – “ZERO”. I received a number of requests from administrators and villagers to come visit their area and acknowledge their efforts in protecting falcons, and also tag and release a bird there with the name of the village. A lot more sites in the whole of NE appears to host sizeable number of falcons during October-November, which was previously unknown.
As part of the “Amur Falcon Conservation Initiative” this season we satellite tagged five more Amur falcons across four roosting sites in Nagaland. A special grant for undertaking this study has been provided by MoEF & CC to WII. This comes at a perfect time with India becoming a signatory of the Convention on Migratory Species – Raptors MoU from March 2016.”
You can follow the progress of the tagged birds here.
Two of the Amur Falcons originally tagged in 2013 have been visiting an area just a few hundred kilometres north of Beijing to breed and, although it breeds in the capital in small numbers, it is in spring and autumn when we are fortunate to see flocks of Amur Falcons at suitable stopover sites such as Yeyahu or Miyun Reservoir. So here in Beijing we have a strong affinity with this bird.
Recognising that it is this conservation effort that enables us in northeastern China to enjoy these wonderful birds, birders wanted to thank the Indian government and, most importantly, the local people for protecting Amur Falcons. Birding Beijing facilitated the letter below, which has been signed by Ms Fu Jianping, President of China Birdwatching Society, on behalf of their members and also by many individual birders in Beijing and around the country.
As we collected signatures, it was wonderful to receive a message from the “Wind Child” young birding group in Hunan Province who, on their very first field trip, saw some Amur Falcons and adopted it as their favourite species. They were keen to add their voices to the letter and, thanks to the efforts of Suresh Kumar at the Wildlife Institute of India, the letter was made into a poster, framed and handed over to the local community leaders (see header photo) during the annual gathering of Amur Falcons earlier this month.
Just as with the Beijing Cuckoos, the Amur Falcon reminds us that birds have no borders and they are shared by all the countries they grace. It is only by working together that these incredible travellers, and the habitats they need, can be protected.
Huge thanks to Suresh Kumar for arranging the design, framing and the handover of the letter, thank you to Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International for supporting the initiative, and thank you to all of the signatories of the letter. Most of all, a big thank you to the local people in Nagaland for their wonderful work.
Maybe the Amur Falcons from Nagaland will mingle with the Beijing Cuckoos somewhere in Africa this winter!
If I was asked to name just one person who had been the biggest inspiration to me over my lifetime, I would have no hesitation. Sir David Attenborough. Vivid in my memory from a child to the present day are series such as Life on Earth, Living Planet, Life in the Freezer, The Life of Birds and, more recently, The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. The significant percentage of my DVD collection that is made up of natural history documentaries narrated by Sir David is testament to the influence he has had on me. In my view he is simply the greatest broadcaster and communicator of conservation that has ever lived.
As well as teaching me an immense amount about the natural world and nurturing my sense of wonder and awe at the incredible diversity and complexity of life on our planet, Sir David has also imprinted on my DNA the importance of conservation. The message he delivered at the end of State of the Planet in 2000 has stayed with me:
“The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action. Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there’s a change in our societies and our economics and in our politics. I’ve been lucky in my lifetime to see some of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer. Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy, inhabitable by all species.”
So, as you can imagine, it was with huge excitement that I learned Sir David was to visit Beijing as part of a trip to China to film a new series on the origins of vertebrates. At the age of 86, he maintains an enthusiasm and passion for the natural world that is impossible not to admire. His visit was a golden opportunity to discuss the plight of JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING and, of course, he was only too happy to lend his weight to the campaign. Sir David is already a Species Champion for the Araripe Manakin under the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme, so he knows how vital it is to protect our biodiversity and also, importantly, what is needed to save a species from extinction.
Thank you, Sir David.
You too can support the campaign to save Jankowski’s Bunting by donating here. We have so far raised over GBP 1,200 towards a target of GBP 10,000. We are confident that, with modest resources, this bird can be saved. How cool would it be to think that you were one of only a handful of people in the world that helped save a species from extinction?