Who Wants To Be A Champion?

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.

On my side, I wrote articles about the Jankowski’s Bunting on both Birding Beijing and Birding Frontiers, and set up a crowdfunding page on behalf of BirdLife International to receive donations from the public.

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.

Baroness Worthington presents Lu Hao, Chairman of the Environment Protection and Resources Conservation Committee with a copy of the BirdLife International special edition newsletter about Jankowski’s Bunting.

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?

Chinese Crested Tern is still without a BirdLife Species Champion!

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.

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!