China Thanks India For Protecting Amur Falcons

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.

The sight of up to a million Amur Falcons at a stopover site in Nagaland, India. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.
The sight of up to a million Amur Falcons at a stopover site in Nagaland, India. Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.

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.

amur-falcon-letter-final

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!

Sir David Attenborough joins the campaign to save Jankowski’s Bunting!

2013-01-15 DA with JB
Sir David Attenborough supporting the campaign to save JANKOWSKI’S BUNTING.

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?   

Birding Beijing Becomes A BirdLife Species Champion!

Roughly one in eight of the world’s 10,000 bird species is facing extinction.  To be precise, 727 are classified as “Vulnerable”, 389 “Endangered” and 197 “Critically Endangered”.  See here.  Scientists estimate that the natural extinction rate for birds is one species per 100 years.  In the last 30 years alone we have lost 21.

Threatened birds are spread throughout the world.  China is home to 87, of which 62 are classified “Vulnerable”, 16 “Endangered” and 9 “Critically Endangered”.

Since arriving in Beijing in August 2010, I have been fortunate to see 27 of China’s threatened birds, including 4 “Critically Endangered”  – Baer’s Pochard, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Siberian Crane and Chinese Crested Tern.  Although two of the “Critically Endangered” species were seen on dedicated trips to specific locations where they are almost guaranteed, I have been fortunate enough to find two myself in Beijing – Baer’s Pochard and Siberian Crane.

Watching a Baer’s Pochard on a small reservoir in Beijing, I couldn’t help but think about the threats that this bird faced on its lonely journey north – whether it would find a mate and, given the long-term drought in northeast China, whether it would find a suitable breeding site.  And if it did, would breeding be successful?  It seemed to me a perilous situation for this bird.  At the same time I felt inspired to do what I could to help halt the slide towards extinction of this species and others like it.  I am constantly surprised and encouraged by examples of the resilience of nature, if given a chance.  The contributions of Chinese ornithologists to save species such as the Crested Ibis, Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Chinese Crested Tern are all good examples of dedicated efforts giving these species a fighting chance.  I am hopeful that the Baer’s Pochard, and others like it, can be saved with a combination of modest resources, targeted action and dedicated people on the ground.

After exploring how best I could make a difference, I decided that the first step would be to support the Preventing Extinctions Programme by becoming a Species Champion.  BirdLife International is the largest international partnership of conservation organisations and is the authority for birds on the IUCN Red List.  It is therefore well placed to initiate and coordinate action plans, in direct collaboration with local organisations, to help save the most threatened species.  You can see examples of their ongoing work here.

Of course, I have a particular interest in China’s birds and I will soon be launching an appeal for one species in particular that BirdLife needs urgent help to save…  watch this space!