Captive breeding gets underway

James Gilroy; Spoon-billed Sandpiper in breeding plumage

An international team of conservationists is on an emergency mission to help save one of the world’s rarest birds from extinction. Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus is a remarkable bird, but its shocking drop in numbers indicates likely extinction within a decade if urgent action is not taken.

The team plans to establish a captive population which will be the source for reintroductions over the coming years, once the threats to the birds and their habitats along their flyway have been sufficiently addressed.

Recent research suggests that the breeding population of Spoon-billed Sandpiper was between 120-200 pairs in 2009, with the species believed to be declining at approximately 26% per year, due to extremely low survival of juvenile birds.

“If this decline continues, these amazing birds won’t be around for much longer”, said Evgeny Syroechkovskiy of Birds Russia, the lead BirdLife Species Guardian for Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

“The BirdLife Partnership is working in many countries along the flyway to make sure that this and many other species have safe havens along their migratory routes”, said Cristi Nozawa, Director of BirdLife Asia. “Captive breeding is one part of the larger conservation effort to save this emblematic Asian species.”

The team, led by Birds Russia, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), is working with colleagues from BirdLife International, the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), British Trust for Ornithology and Moscow Zoo to help save this species.

The bird’s migratory route takes it 8,000 km along the East Asian-Australasian flyway each year from Russia to the Bay of Martaban, Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. On that journey and during the non-breeding season they have been reported from Japan, North Korea, the Republic of Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. BirdLife Partners are actively engaged in Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation in many of these countries.

Currently the team is in Russia waiting to locate and collect eggs from the breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra. They will construct an incubation facility where they will hatch the chicks before transferring the fledged young via sea and air back to Moscow Zoo for quarantine. The chicks will then be transferred to a specially built conservation breeding unit at WWT’s headquarters at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire where staff will rear and breed the birds.

It is believed that the main reason for the catastrophic decline, and especially the incredibly low survival among juveniles, is unsustainable levels of subsistence hunting, particularly on the wintering areas in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

However, with a migration flyway that runs along some of the most rapidly developing coastlines of Asia, there are several other critical threats, in particular the wholesale degradation and reclamation of the inter-tidal mudflats where the species feeds.

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