28 May 2021

Plight of the finfoot unmasked

The Masked Finfoot is sliding towards extinction, its fate inextricably linked to that of Asia's forested rivers. If we are to bring this unique bird back from the brink, it's time to sit up and listen to the science.

As few as 108 Masked Finfoots remain in the wild © Sayam U Chowdhury
As few as 108 Masked Finfoots remain in the wild © Sayam U Chowdhury
By Jessica Law

The Masked Finfoot Heliopais personatus certainly lives up to its name. The black and white markings stretching across its eyes resemble that of a cloaked bandit, and its unearthly lime green lobed feet add to its distinctive appearance. You may see similar webbed appendages on coots and grebes, and although the finfoot is unrelated to these birds, they serve the same purpose: swimming and wading through wetlands in search of invertebrates, fish and amphibians.

Once upon a time the species ranged widely across the lowlands of north-east India, Bangladesh and South-East Asia. However, the fate of the Masked Finfoot is intertwined with the fate of tropical Asia’s forested rivers. As the region’s waterways get increasingly disturbed by habitat destruction and human encroachment, the last populations of finfoots are quickly fading away, and since 2009 the species has been classed as Endangered.

This month, a team of conservationists – including BirdLife staff – published a paper in Forktail: Journal of Asian Ornithology revealing that the species’ fate is even more precarious than we thought. Surveys found that the bird is now only breeding in Bangladesh and Cambodia, and its population could number as few as 108-304 adults. Given these bleak statistics, it may now warrant uplisting to Critically Endangered.

Researchers concealed themselves in hides to document its nesting behaviour © Gertrud Neumann-Denzau

So what can we do to prevent it sliding towards extinction? The team recommend limiting access to key colonies during the breeding season, restricting use of monofilament gillnets (fine, near-invisible fishing nets that accidentally catch and kill birds), and ramping up protection of wetland habitats. A priority site is Bangladesh’s Sundarbans, where at least 40 breeding pairs reside. The BirdLife Partnership is in a good position to help develop an action plan for the species, using our experience of co-ordinating conservation efforts across multiple countries.

Worryingly, the authors of the paper also noted that detailed conservation advice had already been outlined two decades ago, but had been largely ignored, despite remaining fully relevant today. Now is humanity’s chance to make things right for the bird, before it’s too late – since the only place we want to see it sliding is on the mudbanks of its river home.