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White-bellied Heron Ardea insignis
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This heron is classified as Critically Endangered because it has an extremely small and rapidly declining population. This decline is projected to increase in the near future as a result of the loss and degradation of lowland forest and wetlands, and through direct exploitation and disturbance.

Taxonomic source(s)
del Hoyo, J.; Collar, N. J.; Christie, D. A.; Elliott, A.; Fishpool, L. D. C. 2014. HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Barcelona, Spain and Cambridge UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.

Ardea imperialis Collar and Andrew (1988)

127 cm. Very large, long-necked heron. Mostly dark greyish with contrasting white throat, belly and vent, and white-streaked scapulars, foreneck and upper breast. Both male and female have two lace-like white-plumes on nape. Juvenile is browner-tinged with smaller plumes. Similar spp. Great-billed Heron A. sumatrana has grey belly and when breeding has whitish plumes on nape, scapulars and breast. Voice Loud, deep croaking ock ock ock ock urrrrrr.

Distribution and population
Ardea insignis is known from the eastern Himalayan foothills in Bhutan and north-east India to the hills of Bangladesh, north Myanmar and, historically at least, across west and central Myanmar (BirdLife International 2001). The first confirmed record of this species in China was made in 2014 in Lushui County, Yunnan Province on the border with Myanmar (S. Chan in litt. 2014). It may also occur in south-east Tibet, China, but is now extinct in Nepal. Birds visit the Brahmaputra lowlands in winter. Although historical reports suggest it was previously common in Myanmar, it has evidently declined throughout its range given the paucity of recent records. Most of the few recent records come from five or six sites in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, India, one or two sites in Bhutan, and parts of Myanmar. In Bhutan, there is a small population of 30 known individuals (with six juveniles) as of July 2007 (Pradhan 2007), with the total national population unlikely to exceed 50 individuals (Pradhan et al. 2007). The birds were observed along the Phochu, confluence of Phochu-Mochu, Punatsangchhu, Kamechu (Digchu), Zawa, Ngagshina and Burichu confluence (Pradhan 2007). Six active nests were recorded in Bhutan in 2007, two from a new site, and by 26 July 2007 they held six chicks in total. Due to natural forest fires, three nests were abandoned. A further three active nests with five chicks were recorded in 2009, although only three chicks remained on a subsequent visit (Anon 2009). Six breeding sites from two rivers of central Bhutan have been recorded, and the eastern part of the country has not been thoroughly surveyed (Pradhan 2007). The species has also been reported from the Thim Chhu, Lungtenphu (C. Feijen in litt. 2009). A massive hydroelectric scheme may have recently caused its expiration from the Sunkosh Valley (K. D. Bishop in litt. 2012). Two adult birds were recorded in Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, Sarpang in February 2014 (Anon. 2014). The annual survey of White-bellied Heron in Bhutan reported 22 birds in 2014, an increase from 2013 when 20 birds were recorded (Anon. 2014).

In Myanmar, the 21,700 km2 Hukaung Valley tiger reserve (the largest area of suitable habitat within the species's range) is believed to support approximately 30-40 individuals (W. Duckworth in litt. 2006), and Hpon Razi Wildlife Sanctuary and Hkakabo Razi National Park hold small populations. White-bellied Heron has been recorded along rivers elsewhere in Kachin State, such as the Nam Sam Chaung, although little is known about its status in these areas (A. W. Tordoff in litt. 2006). Despite an increase in survey effort within the species's range in Myanmar there has been no corresponding increase in the number of records and the species was apparently absent from large areas of suitable habitat (J. Eames in litt. 2006, D. Wilson in litt. 2006). One recent repeat survey failed to record the species in an area where it had been seen in 1998 (D. Wilson in litt. 2006). The findings of field surveys have also been supported by reports from local people which suggest that the species has declined in the region in recent years (D. Wilson in litt. 2006). This evidence suggests there may be fewer than 250 individuals remaining (J. Eames in litt. 2006, D. Wilson in litt. 2006). In north-east India, a few individuals are regularly seen in Namdapha National Park, Arunachal Pradesh. Up to six individuals were recorded in Namdapha Tiger Reserve in January 2014, this was followed by a breeding pair at the same location in March 2014, a first for India (Mondal and Maheswaran 2014). The nest observers had to leave the area before they were able to confirm whether the pair had successfully raised a brood, however a second visit was planned for July-August 2014. Records from other sites are sporadic and there are no recent sightings from a number of former sites including Jamjing Reserved Forest, Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary (A. Choudhury in litt. 2012). The most recent sighting in Assam was of two birds from Subankhata Reserved Forest, Baksa district in 2010 (A. Choudhury in litt. 2012).

Population justification
Though a complete population census is yet to be conducted, the current population size is thought to be best placed in the band 50-249 mature individuals (D. Wilson and J. Eames in litt. 2006). This equates to 75-374 individuals in total, rounded here to 70-400 individuals.

Trend justification
A rapid decline is suspected on the basis of habitat degradation and widespread disturbance, even in remote parts of the species's range (W. J. Duckworth in litt. 2006), and this is expected to become more rapid in the near future.

It is primarily recorded from small or large rivers, usually with sand or gravel bars, often within or adjacent to subtropical broadleaved forest, from the lowlands up to at least 1,500 m, and it has also been reported from an inland lake (A. W. Tordoff in litt. 2006). It is generally solitary but may aggregate into small flocks and family groups during winter (D. Wilson in litt. 2006, Pradhan 2007) and tends to frequent inaccessible and undisturbed areas. The species is known to breed and roost in Chir pine forest (A. W. Tordoff in litt. 2006, D. Wilson in litt. 2006); four nests located in Bhutan in 2003-2007 were solitary and located in large Chir pines on ridges or steep slopes at 500-1,500 m, near the confluence of a small forest stream with a larger river (Pradhan 2007, Pradhan et al. 2007). Nesting took place in March-early June. Birds then moved up to 30 km to feed on sand bars in large braided river systems in winter (Pradhan 2007, Pradhan et al. 2007).

The main threats are presumed to be widespread loss, degradation and disturbance of forest and wetlands. The species is also very sensitive to human disturbance, for example it took 48 hours for a pair to return to their breeding site following a disturbance (Mondal and Maheswaran 2014). Wetlands have become degraded as a result of pollution, rapid growth of aquatic vegetation, and the over-exploitation of resources. Increasing disturbance and habitat degradation from settlement, conversion to agriculture, harvesting of wetland resources and, more locally, poaching are thought to present significant threats in key protected areas (e.g. Namdapha National Park) in north-east India, Bhutan and Myanmar (W. Duckworth in litt. 2006). Natural forest fires have destroyed nests in Bhutan. In Bhutan, hydroelectric power developments and road improvements have resulted in significant habitat degradation. Rivers act as busy transport routes for the human population, exacerbating disturbance of this species (W. Duckworth in litt. 2006, D. Wilson in litt. 2006).

Conservation Actions Underway
It breeds in Namdapha Tiger Reserve (Mondal and Maheswaran 2014) and it occurs seasonally in several other protected areas, including Kaziranga, Dibru-Saikhowa and Manas National Parks, and Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary, India. In Myanmar, a small population occurs within the Hukaung Tiger Reserve (A. W. Tordoff in litt. 2006), and Hpon Razi Wildlife Sanctuary. A project studying White-bellied Heron began in Bhutan in 2003, and is run in conjunction with the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, the Felburn Foundation and the International Crane Foundation. Recognising the importance of the riverbed in Punakha-Wangdue as a primary feeding ground for this species, the Royal Government of Bhutan has declared the area as protected habitat for White-bellied Herons. In May 2011, a White-bellied Heron was hatched in captivity for the first time (Tshewang Norbu in litt. 2011), and in September 2011 it was released at Bumitsawa, Pochu, Punakha, in Bhutan, having been already tagged with a satellite transmitter ( A Save Our Species (IUCN/GEF/Species Survival Commission) project is underway along the Assam/Bhutan border focusing on local community-based engagement and conservation through the training of 'heron guardians' (

Conservation Actions Proposed
Conduct extensive surveys for the species in north-east India, Myanmar and also south-east Tibet, to establish its distribution, population status and ecological requirements, particularly in breeding areas. Research from Bhutan suggests the Kurichu and Mangdechu basins could support suitable habitat for this species and these areas should also be surveyed (Anon. 2012). Support proposals to provide more effective protection for Namdapha National Park, including creation of buffer zones. Support requests to maintain habitat and minimise disturbance along the Manas river and around Ada lake, Bhutan. Initiate conservation awareness programmes in areas supporting populations, particularly in Myanmar and north-east India, using it as a flagship species. Consider satellite tagging individuals to improve current understanding of the species's movements and habitat preferences (J. Eames in litt. 2006). Improve conservation of protected areas in Myanmar.

Anon. 2009. A ray of hope for White-bellied Herons. Rangzhin 2(2): 2, 4.

Anon. 2012. Research on White-bellied heron. Rangzhin 5(1): 3.

Anon. 2014. Two White-bellied Herons sighted in Phibsoo. Rangzhin 7(1): 3.

BirdLife International. 2001. Threatened birds of Asia: the BirdLife International Red Data Book. BirdLife International, Cambridge, U.K.

IUCN. 2015. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-4. Available at: (Accessed: 19 November 2015).

Mondal, H.S. and Maheswaran, G. 2014. First nesting record of White-bellied Heron Ardea insignis in Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Arunachal Pradesh, India. BirdingASIA 21: 13-17.

Pradhan, R. 2007. White-bellied Heron Project 2005-2007: Annual Report December 2005-December 2006.

Pradhan, R.; Norbu, T.; Frederick, P. 2007. Reproduction and ecology of the world's rarest Ardeid: the White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) in Bhutan. 31st Annual Meeting of the Waterbird Society, 30 October - 3 November 2007, Edifici Històric, Universitat de Barcelona, pp. 97.

Royal Society for Protection of Nature (Bhutan). 2007. Project Areas. Royal Society for Protection of Nature (Bhutan).

Further web sources of information
Detailed species accounts from the Threatened birds of Asia: the BirdLife International Red Data Book (BirdLife International 2001).

Explore HBW Alive for further information on this species

Search for photos and videos, and hear sounds of this species from the Internet Bird Collection

Species factsheet from HeronConservation - The IUCN-SSC Heron Specialist Group

Text account compilers
Benstead, P., Bird, J., Butchart, S., Calvert, R., Crosby, M., Davidson, P., Peet, N., Symes, A., Taylor, J., Tobias, J., Allinson, T, Martin, R & Ashpole, J

Crosby, M., Duckworth, W., Eames, J.C., Feijen, C., Lascelles, B., Pradhan, R., Tordoff, J., Wilson, D., Tshewang, N., Choudhury, A., Bishop, K. & Chan, S.

IUCN Red List evaluators
Symes, A.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Ardea insignis. Downloaded from on 25/10/2016. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2016) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 25/10/2016.

This information is based upon, and updates, the information published in BirdLife International (2000) Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, BirdLife International (2004) Threatened birds of the world 2004 CD-ROM and BirdLife International (2008) Threatened birds of the world 2008 CD-ROM. These sources provide the information for species accounts for the birds on the IUCN Red List.

To provide new information to update this factsheet or to correct any errors, please email BirdLife

To contribute to discussions on the evaluation of the IUCN Red List status of Globally Threatened Birds, please visit BirdLife's Globally Threatened Bird Forums.

Additional resources for this species

ARKive species - White-bellied heron (Ardea insignis) 0

Key facts
Current IUCN Red List category Critically Endangered
Family Ardeidae (Herons)
Species name author Hume, 1878
Population size 50-249 mature individuals
Population trend Decreasing
Distribution size (breeding/resident) 56,300 km2
Country endemic? No
Links to further information
- Additional Information on this species