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Every year, some 50 million waterbirds of over 200 different species migrate to the opposite end of the earth, travelling along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – one of the world’s eight major bird migration superhighways. Stretching from Siberia and Alaska to Australia and New Zealand, the flyway connects a chain of coastal wetlands spanning 20+ countries, providing vital habitats where shorebirds can stop to feed, rest and refuel before continuing on the next leg of their journey.

But these habitats don’t just benefit migratory birds. As well as hosting a thriving variety of other plants and animals, they also absorb vast amounts of carbon, helping to fight climate change. For the 200 million people that live in and around them, these wetlands are a lifeline. Every year, they protect the coast from the impacts of flooding, sea level rise and storm surges, and provide food, employment and recreation.

In the face of ongoing land reclamation, urbanisation and pollution, it is essential that these vital habitats and the services they provide are preserved – and this is a challenge that BirdLife is uniquely placed to tackle. With our globe-spanning Partnership structure, we have decades of experience linking together conservation organisations along flyways, working alongside local communities to develop solutions, and embedding nature conservation into a country’s government and economic frameworks.

Today, we have the historic opportunity to scale up our ongoing work thanks to the launch of the Regional Flyways Initiative: a partnership between the Asian Development Bank, BirdLife and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership to secure at least $3 billion for wetlands conservation along this flyway. The initiative was launched at the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Conference of the Parties in Kunming, China, where the world’s nations are developing a new global framework to protect nature. It is the perfect example of the kind of all-encompassing approach needed in the coming decades.

“As we rebuild from the pandemic, we must seize the opportunity to secure a green, resilient, and inclusive future,” says Masatsugu Asakawa, president of the Asian Development Bank. “Our Flyway-wide approach is a great example of how we can do this through strong international cooperation. The Asian Development Bank is proud to lead on efforts like this, with a blended approach that brings together effective public and private finance.”

Local people also benefit from coastal wetlands, for example by earning a living through traditional clam-sifting © Seocheon County

So what will this look like? Initially, the initiative aims to focus on protecting 50 priority coastal wetlands along the flyway. Conservation and habitat restoration activities will be funded using an innovative blended financial model that will mobilise investments from multiple private foundations, government bodies and regional development banks, making sure nature is integrated into the financial structures of the region. The project will actively involve local communities in all stages of design and execution, making special efforts to include women, indigenous people, and youth.

A pilot project in Yancheng Wetlands, China shows the scale of success that can be achieved by this approach. When the Jiangsu Yancheng Wetlands Protection Project began, more than half of the wetlands had been destroyed or degraded by human threats such as urbanisation, pollution, poaching and invasive species. With financing from the Asian Development Bank and the Global Environment Facility, the project supported the protection and management of two nature reserves and two forest farms, and provided sustainable employment opportunities for over 2,900 people in the area, including nature-friendly farming, fishing and ecotourism. 45 square kilometres of wetlands were restored, allowing waterbird populations to skyrocket by 365% in the Rare Bird Nature Reserve core zone. Building on foundations laid by this project, in 2019 the Yancheng Wetlands were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage natural site in July 2019.

With this exciting new opportunity, the future is looking a lot brighter – and not for just for the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

Patricia Zurita, BirdLife’s CEO, says: “With the planet at a tipping point from the biodiversity and climate emergencies, this type of innovative, integrated, large-scale and broad approach is commensurate to the challenges… the conservation and financial framework we are establishing in this initiative will be scaled up and capable of being applied to the planet’s other important flyways.”

“With the planet at a tipping point from the biodiversity and climate emergencies, this type of innovative, integrated, large-scale and broad approach is commensurate to the challenges… the conservation and financial framework we are establishing in this initiative will be scaled up and capable of being applied to the planet’s other important flyways.”

Patricia Zurita, BirdLife’s CEO


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A bustling market in Central Africa. Among the merchandise are birds trapped in cages, as traders haggle over prices. In West Africa, stalls selling bird carcasses are a reglar feature bushmeat markets across the region. These are just a few examples of the plight of wild birds not only in Africa, but across the globe. The truth is that illegal killing, taking and trade are driving wild birds to extinction. Recent studies have revealed startling numbers in the Mediterranean, Arabian Peninsula, Northern and Central Europe and the Caucasus. Across these regions, millions of birds are removed from their habitats every year – dead or alive – with devastating impacts on the populations of some species.

In the Mediterranean, Egypt loses about 5.7 million birds annually to these practices. The population of European Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, for example, has shrunk by 30-49% in 15 years, and is now classed as Vulnerable to extinction. Meanwhile, the European Roller Coracias garrulus has gone extinct in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, while the iconic Eurasian Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis has lost 56.7% of its range in the Western Maghreb due to extensive hunting and trading. Its rarity has led to an increase in price and the establishment of an illegal international trading network across the region. One goldfinch is currently worth $50 – nearly a third of the average monthly income in the area. Despite all this information, the extent to which illegal killing, taking and trade affect wild birds in the Sub-Saharan region is poorly known.

By Consolata Gitau & Alex Ngari

Red backed shrike trapped on limestick © BirdLife Cyprus

Unravelling trends in Sub-Saharan Africa

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the illegal removal of wild birds from their natural habitats is not well-documented. What data we do have, however, suggests that birds are hunted – legally and illegally in large numbers – for various reasons, with certain species being heavily targeted. For example, 97% of the 41,737 African grey parrots traded through Singapore in 2005-2014 were from African countries including Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Liberia and South Africa, with Democratic Republic of the Congo being the main exporter. In South Africa, around 2 million birds were shot in 2013, and between 174 000 and 428 000 gamebirds illegally poisoned every year.

The trade of birds and their by-products could amount to a multi-billion dollar industry globally, for which Sub-Saharan Africa may hold a substantial share. Not only are birds in Africa traded for food and income, but also for belief-based use. These cultural beliefs and practices are a particular threat to large birds. In fact, vultures and African ground hornbills are at risk of extinction from this practice. In 2020, more than 2000 Hooded Vultures Necrosyrtes monachus (Critically Endangered) died in a mass poisoning incident linked to belief-based use, further underlining the plight of these birds across the continent.

In this market, visitors can purchase whole birds and their body parts © Gerhard Nikolaus.

“With African bird populations experiencing such immense environmental and human pressures, and lack of sufficient data on the killing, taking and trade of birds, conservation challenges are mounting. Governments and other stakeholders are more likely to prioritize the conservation challenges of better-studied biodiversity such as large mammals, thereby putting the survival of avian species at stake,” says Alex Ngari, Migratory Birds and Flyways Programme Manager at BirdLife Africa.

As part of the initial steps to address the problem, BirdLife International has embarked on a study to review, collate, and compile all existing information on this topic in the Sub-Saharan region. The 8-month desk-based review seeks to document species, reasons, methods for illegal killing and taking of birds, and hotspot areas within relevant countries. The trends, gaps, reference lists and links identified in publications will be recorded to aid in further detailed research, through use of questionnaires.

“We are open to receiving data and information regarding the subject in the region. At the end of this study, a report on the status of killing, taking and trade of birds in Sub-Saharan Africa, including current data and gaps requiring further research, will be published and shared,” adds Ngari.

“BirdLife International’s idea at this stage is to build a strong knowledge base around the subject, thereby guiding follow-up actions, research and involvement with other conservation organisations, governments and researchers. We therefore invite any pieces of secondary information that may help fill the puzzle,” concludes Kariuki Ndang’ang’a, Head of Conservation for BirdLife in Africa.

This work is made possible through a grant from Conservation Leadership Programme. For further details and information, please contact Consolata Gathoni [email protected] and Alex Ngari [email protected].

“BirdLife International’s idea at this stage is to build a strong knowledge base around the subject, thereby guiding follow-up actions, research and involvement with other conservation organisations, governments and researchers. We therefore invite any pieces of secondary information that may help fill the puzzle”

Kariuki Ndang’ang’a, Head of Conservation for BirdLife in Africa


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