Hunting in Russia: The “Under The Radar” Threat To The East Asian Australasian Flyway?

Zhu Bingrun (Drew) is one of a new generation of brilliant Chinese ornithologists.  These young scientists are adding a great deal to our knowledge about migratory birds in China, keen to collaborate with international experts and part of a growing network of young people in this vast country who want to study, and protect, wild birds.

Zhu Bingrun, at home on the mudflats at Nanpu, coastal Hebei Province.
Zhu Bingrun, at home on the mudflats at Nanpu, coastal Hebei Province.

I first met Drew when we worked together on the 2013 survey of Jankowski’s Bunting in Inner Mongolia.  Since then he has been working on his PhD in the Bohai Bay, focusing on the BLACK-TAILED GODWIT.  As well as painstaking observations, Drew’s research has involved fitting satellite tags to learn more about the migration, breeding grounds and the most important stopover sites where these godwits rest and refuel.  This information is vital to inform conservation efforts.

This year, Drew has spent all spring at Nanpu in coastal Hebei Province, studying the Black-tailed Godwits.  One part of Drew’s studies was to catch, measure and fit rings to several Black-tailed Godwits to help gain data not available from viewing alone.  Not surprisingly, they are difficult to catch.  After much effort, and many attempts,  three godwits were caught and tagged by Drew this spring.  Resting on the shoulders of these three birds were not only satellite tags but also Drew’s hopes of finding out where they bred and the routes they took to reach the breeding sites.

On 1 May 2016 Drew captured and banded a single male Black-tailed Godwit.  The usual metal ring was supplemented with colour flags (blue over yellow) with the individual engraving “H03” which would enable scientists and birders to identify this individual in the field.  The bird was also fitted with a GPS transmitter, allowing Drew to monitor its location on a near real-time basis and potentially showing, for the first time, the migration route and breeding grounds.

Drew with black-tailed godwit2
Drew’s “H03” Black-tailed Godwit shortly after being fitted with its colour rings, 1 May 2016.
Drew with black-tailed godwit
Another view of “H03” in Nanpu, 1 May 2016.

After tagging, the bird was released and the satellite data showed that, just like hundreds of thousands of other shorebirds, it spent the next two weeks feeding up in the Nanpu area, preparing for its northward migration.  On 17 May it began its journey north.  On 18 May the last signal was received, on the border of Inner Mongolia.  Three days later, on 21 May, two photos were uploaded to Facebook showing a Black-tailed Godwit with blue and yellow flags and a satellite transmitter.  The bird had been shot, killed and proudly shown off by a hunter in Sakha, Russia.

hunter with black-tailed godwit
This hunter published photo of himself with “H03”, a Black-tailed Godwit satellite-tagged in China by Drew. Copyright Facebook. 
hunter with black-tailed godwit3
Another image of H03 showing the satellite tag and colour rings.  Copyright Facebook.

Not surprisingly, Drew was devastated when Russian researcher, Inga Bystykatova, alerted him to the photos.  “H03”, one of only three birds tagged this Spring, was gunned down for sport almost as soon as it left China.

Recently, much has been written about the threats faced by shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway (EAAF), most of which has rightly focused on habitat loss in the Yellow Sea ecoregion.  At least one-fifth of the waterbird populations of the EAAF are threatened, the highest proportion among the global flyways.  The most endangered, and most well-known, is the Spoon-billed Sandpiper but this species is far from alone.  In the last decade 12 species of shorebird have been moved onto the lists of global conservation concern, and strong declines are suspected in others in the region. In past 50 years, 51% of intertidal habitat in China has been converted to urban, industrial and agricultural land.  The remaining areas are affected by numerous on-going and planned land conversion projects. The conversion of an estimated 578,000 hectares of coastal wetlands has recently been approved.  On the positive side, there is a huge conservation effort, involving the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, BirdLife International and many others, focused on trying to protect the remaining areas of intertidal mudflats and there are signs that this effort is making progress.

However, there are other threats.  And what is much less well-known is the scale of hunting in Russia.  There are apparently 2 million hunters in Russia.  There is a tradition of hunting Whimbrel – they taste good and hunting this species is a special focus of hunters on coastal spits, particularly in autumn.  However, hunters don’t just stick to Whimbrel and often other shorebirds, such as sandpipers, curlews and godwits, are taken when they have the opportunity, even though some of these species are officially protected.  Enforcement of the law in remote eastern Siberia is almost non-existent.

When I asked Drew about this, his reply was honest, thoughtful and hard-hitting:

“China takes the blame for a long time for the population decline of migratory birds.  That is fine – we have a problem and we are changing.  But conservation of migratory birds is never a single country’s duty.  As the major breeding ground, Russia keeps a very low profile but slaughters God knows how many birds each year.”

It is clear that there is an urgent need, in parallel to the efforts to save the remaining habitat along the Yellow Sea ecoregion, for more awareness and more constructive communication with hunters in Russia.  It is, of course, impossible to stop hunting of wild birds altogether, at least in the short term.  However, with better communication, it should be possible to ensure the hunters are aware of those species that are endangered and to encourage restraint when these species are encountered.

As Drew says, protecting migratory birds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is the responsibility of all nations in the region, from New Zealand and Australia in the south to southeast Asia, China and Russia.  It is only by protecting birds on the wintering grounds, the breeding grounds and the key stopover sites that the health and viability of the East Asian Australasian Flyway will be maintained.

As for “H03”, contact with the hunter in Russia has been established and he has agreed to send back the bird, complete with transmitter, to Drew.  Let’s hope “H03” did not die in vain and that he is the catalyst for a new conservation effort focusing on dialogue with hunters in Russia.

Spoon-billed Sandpipers on the brink

As has been publicised here, there is a project underway to try to set up a captive population of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, one of the world’s rarest waders.  The project is being led by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in partnership with Birds Russia, working with colleagues from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Birdlife International, ArcCona, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Taskforce and Moscow Zoo..  (that’s quite a cast list!).  Anyway, the plan is to collect some eggs from this year’s breeders, hatch them in captivity and transport them to the WWT’s headquarters at Slimbridge in the UK.

I am not sure of the wisdom of this project, but I know that if anyone can do it, this team can.  I very much hope they succeed.  You can follow the expedition’s blog from the front line in Chukotka here.

There is also a fascinating interview with “Mr Spoon-billed Sandpiper”, Dr Christoph Zockler, on Charlie Moore’s Talking Naturally website.