4 Dec 2018

10 ways we've saved the world's rarest birds in the last 10 years

A decade ago, BirdLife created a program to stop birds from going extinct as a result of human activity. Here are some of its successes.

The Hooded grebe is just one bird that might have gone extinct without conservation © Juan María Raggio
By James Lowen

At  its  2008  World  Congress,  BirdLife  launched  the  Preventing  Extinctions  Programme,  bringing  together  the  whole  Partnership’s  species  conservation  efforts.  The  underlying  principle  was  simple:  “BirdLife  couldn’t,  with  a  clear  conscience,  stand  by  while  bird  extinctions  continue  as  a  result  of  human  activity,”  says  Jim  Lawrence,  BirdLife  Global  Marketing  Manager.  “While  extinctions  will  sadly  happen,  we  can’t  and  won’t  accept  that  they  are  inevitable,  and  will  strive  to  take  action,  either  directly  or  through  advocacy.”  Underpinned  by  BirdLife’s  science,  often  supported  by  ‘Species  Champions’  who  provide  funding,  and  working  through  local  ‘Species  Guardians’  (frequently  BirdLife  Partners),  the  Programme  has  helped  at  least  483  threatened  species,  many  Critically  Endangered.  That’s  a  mighty  list  to  choose  from  –  but  what  are  the  Programme’s  greatest  success  stories  to  date? 

 

1. BACK FROM JUST 19 BIRDS

© Caroline Blanvillain

In relation to land area, nowhere has more threatened birds than the Pacific. Many evolved on tiny islands, thriving without predators or competitors. Then Man arrived, introducing non-native plants and animals, with devastating consequences. Twenty years ago, just 19 Tahiti Monarchs Pomarea nigra could be located on Tahiti. These final survivors had to contend with not one, but nine invasive species. SOP Manu (BirdLife in French Polynesia) has literally rescued the Monarchs from the jaws of defeat, controlling predators as diverse as cats, mynas, rats and ants, and in 2017, 70 monarchs were counted. The next stage will be to translocate birds to a location where these predators are absent.

 

2. FINDING NEW PLACES TO BREED

© Dfaulder/Flickr

It  seems  apt  that  a  spectacular  bird  once  mummified  to  accompany  ancient  Egyptian  royalty  into  the  afterlife  should  count  European  royalty  amongst  its  present-day  supporters.  Alongside  ZEISS,  HSH  Prince  Albert  II  of  Monaco  is  a  Species  Champion  for  the  Northern  Bald  Ibis  Geronticus  eremita.  Once  widespread  through  the  Mediterranean,  this  species  now  breeds  in  the  wild  only  in  Morocco,  and  is  considered  Critically  Endangered.  However,  following  two  decades  of  colony  protection,  with  support  from  GREPOM  (BirdLife  in  Morocco),  Morocco’s  population  has  soared  from  59  pairs  in  1997  to  600  birds  in  2016.  Even  better,  pairs  bred  at  two  new  sites  last  year.

 

3. FROM FOE TO FRIEND

© Thangam Velusamy

In  2012,  some  100,000  migrating  Amur  Falcons  Falco  amurensis  were  trapped  in  Nagaland,  India  –  then  slaughtered  for  food.  Alerted  by  a  video  of  the  massacre  that  subsequently  went  viral,  Bombay  Natural  History  Society  (BNHS,  BirdLife  in  India)  marshalled  an  emergency  response  that  saw  trappers  swiftly  arrested  and  their  nets  destroyed.  BNHS  then  engineered  an  engagement  programme  that  has  transformed  local  attitudes:  Nagaland’s  Chief  Minister  calls  the  falcons  “esteemed  guests”.  After  five  years  of  conservation  action,  the  safe  passage  of  a  million  Amur  Falcons  is  again  assured:  not  a  single  falcon  is  known  to  have  been  killed  for  the  plate  since  2012.  Instead,  the  migrating  birds  now  provide  a  feast  for  the  eyes.

 

4. SAVING ISLAND BIRDS

© ysmad

Two  Indian  Ocean  island  states  famously  illustrate  how  dedicated  action  can  reverse  the  fortunes  of  the  world’s  rarest  birds.  Thanks  to  the  Mauritian  Wildlife  Foundation  (BirdLife  Partner),  the  legendary  salvation  of  the  Mauritius  Kestrel  Falco  punctatus has  been  used  as  a  model  to  save  other  species,  including  ongoing  population  increases  since  2008  for  Echo  Parakeet  Psittacula  eques,  Rodrigues  Warbler  Acrocephalus  rodericanus,  Mauritius  Fody  Foudia  rubra  (pictured)  and  Rodrigues  Fody  Foudia  flavicans.  In  Seychelles,  several  species  have  seen  similar  recoveries  through  innovative  conservation  action  by  Nature  Seychelles  (BirdLife  Partner).  Most  remarkably,  in  2015,  Seychelles  Warbler  Acrocephalus  sechellensis  was  re-categorised  as  Near  Threatened  –  an  astonishing  turnaround  from  the  nadir  of  30  birds  precisely  50  years  ago.

 

5. ONCE PRESUMED EXTINCT, NOW BACK FROM THE BRINK

 © Yunkyoung Lee

As the Millennium dawned, Chinese Crested Tern Thalasseus bernsteini was presumed long extinct. Fifteen years later, 16 chicks fledged at a colony in eastern China, after conservationists including BirdLife attracted birds to Tiedun Dao island through decoy models and audio systems playing tern calls. In 2016, Burung Indonesia (BirdLife Partner) confirmed a new wintering site in eastern Indonesia. In 2017, things improved further when birds were discovered breeding in South Korea, where BirdLife is now supporting the Government to safeguard the new nesting site. The Chinese Crested Tern may remain Critically Endangered – the  highest  possible  threat  category – but at least it has been spared an entry in the log of extinct species.

 

6. CREATING A REFUGE FOR THE BIRD THAT WENT MISSING FOR OVER A CENTURY

© Ciro Albano

Sometimes,  Roger  Safford  (BirdLife  Senior  Programme  Manager,  Preventing  Extinctions) suggests,  successful  conservation  can  involve  a  simple  concept:  “If  a  forest  occupied  by  a  Critically  Endangered  species  is  large  enough,  properly  protected  and  well-managed,  the  bird  involved  should  survive.”  The  Cherry-throated  Tanager  Nemosia  rourei  illustrates  Safford’s  point.  This  striking  Brazilian  endemic  was  an  enigma  for  120  years  until  its  1998  rediscovery.  There  may  be  as  few  as  50  birds  left,  all  in  Espírito  Santo’s  remnant  Atlantic  Forest.  In  2017,  thanks  to  support  from  BirdLife  Species  Champion  Urs-Peter  Stäuble,  SAVE  Brasil  (BirdLife  Partner)  helped  Grupo  Águia  Branca  (a  major  Brazilian  company)  to  create  a  1,688-hectare  private  reserve.  Work  now  continues  to  secure  protection  for  another  patch  of  habitat  known  to  harbour  the  species.  

 

7. SUPPORTING A MIGRATING BIRD ACROSS 14 COUNTRIES

© Oleg Kashkarov

“One  reason  for  the  Programme’s  success,”  says  Lawrence,  “is  the  ‘Power  of  Many’  afforded  by  the  BirdLife  Partnership.”  This  is  particularly  apparent  in  wide-ranging  migratory  species  such  as  the  Sociable  Lapwing  Vanellus  gregarius  (Critically  Endangered),  which  breeds  in  Russia  and  Kazakhstan,  then  migrates  through  14  countries  to  winter  in  north-east  Africa,  the  Middle  East  and  South  Asia.  Supported  by  Species  Champion  Swarovski  Optik,  BirdLife  Partners  collaborated  on  a  satellite-tagging  project,  revealing  unknown  wintering  grounds  and  pinpointing  key  staging  posts  along  the  wader’s  route.  “At  one  location  we  discovered  a  flock  of  3,200  lapwings  –  more  than  we  thought  existed  worldwide!” says Lawrence.

 

8. GOING VIRAL FOR CONSERVATION

© Juan Maria Raggio

At the 2008 BirdLife World Congress in Argentina, where the programme was launched, corridors hummed with concerns about the perilous status of a remarkable local waterbird. Hooded Grebe Podiceps gallardoi numbers had slumped by 80% in 25 years. In response, BirdLife upped its threat status to Critically Endangered and Aves Argentinas (BirdLife in Argentina) initiated a conservation programme that has catapulted this stunning creature to international stardom (via an internet video reaching 20 million viewers). Aves Argentinas has identified and combatted numerous threats to the grebe's existence, including securing the designation of a new national park. Although populations have now stabilised, Aves Argentinas is increasingly worried about a new threat from a hydroelectric dam.

 

9. POLICY IN ACTION

© Jyotendra Thakuri

South  Asia’s  formerly  super-abundant  vultures  were  brought  to  near-extinction  by  a  drug  administered  to  a  ubiquitous  domestic  animal.  Treating  cattle  with  diclofenac  killed  many  millions  of  White-rumped  Vultures  Gyps  bengalensis  (whose  numbers  plummeted  by  99.9%  in  a  frighteningly  short  time)  and  fellow  carcass-feeders.  BNHS  (BirdLife  in  India),  Bird  Conservation  Nepal  (BirdLife  Partner)  and  authorities  in  Pakistan  and  Bangladesh  (with  support  from  UK  BirdLife  Partner  the  RSPB,  who  also  contributed  significantly  to  several  of  the  other  successes  described  here, especially concerning Northern Bald Ibis, Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Sociable Lapwing)  blew  the  whistle  on  diclofenac,  and  the  painkiller  was  banned  for  veterinary  use  in  all  four  countries.  But  our  work  is  not  yet  done.  “BNHS  later  discovered  a  loophole  –  the  use  of  large  vials  of  human  formulations  of  diclofenac  –  and  persuaded  the  Indian  Government  to  ban  these  in  2015,”  says  Lawrence.

 

10. A TASK FORCE TO SAVE 'SPOONIE'

© Pavel Tomkovich

In  the  1970s,  2,000  Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris  pygmaea  pairs  bred  in  north-east  Russia. Thirty  years  on,  there  were  90%  fewer. Extinction  seemed  imminent.  BirdLife  is  part  of  the  Spoon-billed  Sandpiper  Task  Force,  an  international  partnership  addressing  threats  across  the  wader’s  range,  which  extends  south  to  wintering  grounds  in  Thailand  and  Myanmar. One  Species  Champion,  Heritage  Expeditions,  is  supporting  action  by  transporting  conservationists  and  their  equipment,  helping  them  discover  new  breeding  sites  and  release  locally  captive-raised  birds  into  the  wild.  The  Chinese  Government,  meanwhile,  halted  coastal  land  reclamation  in  2018,  a  boost  to  ‘Spoonies’  and  millions  of  other  migratory  shorebirds  using  the  East  Asian-Australasian  Flyway.


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