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Ding Li Yong, Flyways Coordinator, BirdLife Asia

Not far from the bustling city of Seocheon, at the mouth of the Geum estuary in South Korea, is the relatively flat island of Yubu. Except for a small, hilly, wooded area, Yubu is surrounded by vast expanses of tidal flats. Each year, several thousand Eurasian Oystercatchers of the distinctive eastern form osculans congregate in a staggering spectacle on Yubu’s shore – perhaps more than at any other wetland in eastern Asia.

Crossing to the mainland at Seocheon, the ebbing of the tide exposes intertidal flats that stretch as far as the eye can see into the Yellow Sea (or West Sea as it is known in Korea). These support a sizeable percentage of the populations of two threatened shorebirds, Far Eastern Curlew and Great Knot (both Endangered), as well as a small but steady stream in migration times of two even rarer waders, Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Critically Endangered) and Spotted Greenshank (Endangered).

The estuary of the Geum River in Seocheon county, including Yubu island, is one of four coastal wetlands inscribed in July this year by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Property. These sites also include well-known Suncheon Bay on the south coast, which hosts almost a third of the world population of Hooded Crane (Vulnerable), and the mudflats of Gochang and the Shinan archipelago.

The prestige that comes with UNESCO status not only embodies outstanding importance of a site for biodiversity, but also provides some of the best guarantees for good management and protection. UNESCO inscription of these four wetlands therefore marks an extremely significant milestone in the conservation of the critically important intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea, and confirms what the conservation community has been advocating for – that these wetlands are important at the international level.

The distinctive osculans form of Eurasian Oystercatcher is present in great numbers © Seocheon County

Tragic loss

Not that long ago, the wetlands of the Yellow Sea were far from secure. In 2006, South Korea took the controversial decision to dam and reclaim a vast area of estuarine intertidal flats at Saemangeum, about 20 km south of Yubu, to boost its ailing economy. At the time, Saemangeum was recognised as the top site in Korea for migratory shorebirds – it hosted almost 95,000 Great Knot, among hundreds of thousands of other waterbirds.

The tragic loss of Saemangeum displaced large numbers of migratory waterbirds and is believed to have hastened the decline of the Great Knot in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Elsewhere in South Korea and in China’s provinces on the Yellow Sea, coastal wetlands were also increasingly being lost to aquaculture, development and the rapid expansion of infrastructure amid the region’s economic boom.

More than 30 per cent of South Korea’s intertidal flats were estimated to have disappeared between the 1980s and 2000s. And as more and more of Korea’s wetlands gave way to reclamation in the years of rapid economic growth, it became increasingly critical to preserve what remained of these coastal hotspots around the Yellow Sea.

A bittersweet image: Great Knots feeding at the former Saemangeum mudflats, now destroyed © GRID-Arendal / Flickr

Heart of the flyway

Straddling the eastern coast of China and the Korean Peninsula, the Yellow Sea is, after all, the beating heart of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Many of the waterbirds migrating along the flyway depend on these critical wetlands to recuperate in one way or another, including virtually every threatened shorebird using this flyway.

Sitting on the north-eastern fringe of the Yellow Sea, South Korea’s wetlands form an integral part of this coastal ecosystem. Although not as well-known as some of the sites in China, these ecosystems are nevertheless comparable in importance for migratory birds as many of China’s sites, and ecologically they complement the Chinese wetlands.

In addition to being a vital staging ground for millions of waterbirds, South Korea’s Yellow Sea coast is also where several threatened species breed, notably the Black-faced Spoonbill (Endangered), Chinese Egret and Saunders’s Gull (both Vulnerable). Not to be forgotten is the population of Spotted Seal, designated by the Korean government as a Natural Monument by its Cultural Heritage Administration.

In 2015, the South Korean government made a bid for UNESCO recognition of several Yellow Sea wetland sites. The Korean World Heritage Promotion Team, led by Dr Moon Kyong-O, worked tirelessly to consult international stakeholders and lobby for support for the nominated sites. The team reached out to experts around the world, including BirdLife International, as well as our colleagues working in the Wadden Sea in western Europe – a UNESCO ‘coast-scape’ which parallels the Korean nomination in many ways.

Local people also benefit from the mudflats, earning a living from traditional clam-sifting © Seocheon County

The battle to protect

The road towards World Heritage Site inscription was not without setbacks. The nomination and consultation process raised many issues with the way wetland sites were to be managed and zoned, as well as questions on what made them outstanding for biodiversity at the international level. The coronavirus pandemic threw another spanner in the works, causing many conversations to be delayed. However, as the 44th Session of the World Heritage Committee loomed, the international community and Korean stakeholders were quickly galvanised into action.

The Korean World Heritage Promotion team convened a technical panel of experts to look into the biological value of the four nominated sites, especially their migratory birds, in order to demonstrate to the World Heritage Committee how the site would meet its criteria for outstanding universal value. Meanwhile, members of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) were leading consultations with stakeholders and co-ordinating work to mobilise experts, bureaucrats, conservationists and local officials.

BirdLife International quickly got to work to assess data and how they met international criteria. The BirdLife Secretariat also worked hard with the EAAFP to mobilise the international conservation community for support. In total, 78 signatories were brought together, including representatives of no fewer than 33 BirdLife Partners.

The World Heritage inscription of the four South Korean sites as ‘Getbol, Korean tidal flats’ in July 2021 is a critical milestone in the work to protect these globally important wetlands. Beyond this, Getbol is also a matter of pride for South Korea, being its second natural property inscribed beside well-known Jeju Island. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In noted that this proud moment did not happen overnight and was a result of the “wisdom and sacrifice” of many people and “desperate protection” – a testament to the work of the conservation community.

Dunlin (foreground), Great Knot (centre) and Bar-tailed Godwits (background) roost and feed in huge numbers on Korea’s tidal mudflats © Getbol World Heritage Promotion Team

Work goes on

However, the inscription of Getbol is only the beginning of a wider, encouraging effort by the three countries to secure the Yellow Sea’s wetlands. China is building momentum on its work to nominate more than 14 new wetland sites on its coast for World Heritage status. “The Korean Getbol inscription complements the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of the Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf of China (Phase I) World Heritage Site listed in 2019,” said Doug Watkins, Chief Executive of EAAFP. “It will strengthen international collaboration, particularly in the vision of transboundary joint efforts with China and DPR Korea, to conserve the wetlands of the Yellow Sea region, an irreplaceable migration hub for migratory waterbirds shared by the 22 countries in the Flyway.”

While celebrating this success, South Korea is now moving to the second phase of its nomination of World Heritage sites, which in time will expand the protected wetland estate in the country, including the vast mudflats around Ganghwa.

Efforts for wetland and biodiversity conservation are also gathering momentum in North Korea, which joined the Ramsar Convention just two years ago, and is now stepping up efforts to document its migratory waterbirds and strengthen protection of its wetlands. A series of World Heritage Sites of critical wetlands surrounding the entire Yellow Sea appears to be an increasing possibility, mirroring similar efforts in Europe’s Wadden Sea.

Given the global importance of the wetlands in the Yellow Sea, it is critical now that this momentum for strengthening protection of these valuable intertidal flats is not lost. Above all, there is a rare window of opportunity for the three countries to work together to secure the future of a shared heritage of wetlands, migratory birds and the many ecosystem services that come alongside these fantastic habitats.

“It will strengthen international collaboration… to conserve the wetlands of the Yellow Sea region, an irreplaceable migration hub for migratory waterbirds shared by the 22 countries in the Flyway.”

Doug Watkins, Chief Executive, East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership


Protect coastal wetlands for migratory birds

Coastal Wetlands are among the most threatened sites in the world. This year, thousands of birds will end up stranded in the middle of migration, with nowhere to eat or rest on their long journeys. Exhausted and starving, many of them will sadly die.

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It’s the legs that first catch the eye. They’re yellower than the name Spotted Greenshank Tringa guttifer might imply and an ideal length for loping through invertebrate-rich shallows in the upper Gulf of Thailand, on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Then its distinctively unusual upturned bill comes into view. BirdLife is now seeking to improve the future of this intriguing wader, through a Preventing Extinctions project supported by optics manufacturer Zeiss.

Spotted Greenshank is a worthy focus as it numbers “among the world’s most threatened shorebirds,” says Ding Li Yong, BirdLife’s Flyways Co-ordinator for Asia. Classified as Endangered, perhaps fewer than 1,500 remain. Worse, its population decline is ongoing, driven principally by habitat loss and degradation at unprotected sites. Such threats are especially worrisome given that Spotted Greenshank’s tightly confined distribution offers little safety net: it breeds solely in a small area neighbouring Russia’s remote coast where, fascinatingly, it builds its own nests (a unique behaviour among shorebirds) in larch trees.

After using a small number of staging posts on their migration southwards, all the world’s Spotted Greenshanks winter exclusively in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia. But even here the room for conservation manoeuvre is limited: “In winter, most of the known population appears largely concentrated in Thailand and Malaysia,” Yong explains. Specifically, “the varied wetlands of the inner Gulf of Thailand form the world’s most important wintering area,” says Thattaya Bidayabha of Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST – BirdLife Partner). These may hold one-third of all Spotted Greenshanks, with two vital sites – Pak Thale Nature Reserve salt pans and Laem Phak Bia mudflats – hosting upwards of 100 individuals.

This pair of locations provides the fulcrum of a new BCST-led project, supported by BirdLife Asia. Building on five years of shorebird conservation efforts, including establishing a private nature reserve, BCST’s Khwankhao Sinhaseni explains that the organisation envisions “significantly strengthening local interest and engagement in Spotted Greenshank conservation in particular, plus shorebird conservation more widely.” This matters, Bidayabha adds, because “much of its habitat here remains unprotected.”

Spotted: the species’ unusual nesting behaviour photographed in 2019 in Russia © Philipp Maleko

A key, if challenging, aim involves forming new local conservation groups at one or more coastal wetlands. “They can be our guards,” Sinhaseni says, “to protect greenshanks and address threats they face,” such as illegal hunting using mist-nets. BCST will complement this by raising community awareness of the importance of ‘working wetlands’, such as salt pans, that benefit people and shorebirds alike. Plans include educational camps for children, a national shorebird photography competition and developing community-based enterprises such as selling salt-based spa products.

“We want local communities to be more aware of migratory shorebirds that connect us to other parts of Asia and need better protection,” Sinhaseni says. Overall, she concludes, BCST aspires to “build long-term collaborations, even extending beyond the project’s lifetime.”

BCST also aims to address knowledge gaps in greenshank distribution and ecology that impede its conservation in Southeast Asia. Even despite BCST’s recent extensive surveys, Bidayabha explains, “we know that wintering sites remain to be discovered along the Gulf of Thailand,” so a key objective involves tracking them all down.

Doing so will inform “a model for habitat management that helps greenshanks and other globally threatened waterbirds,” Sinhaseni explains. Beneficiaries will include the handful of Spoon-billed Sandpipers Calidris pygmaea (Critically Endangered) that winter here, plus large congregations of Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris (Endangered) and Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephala (Near Threatened), and smaller numbers of Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis (Endangered), Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes (Vulnerable) and Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus (Near Threatened).

“We want local communities to be more aware of migratory shorebirds that connect us to other parts of Asia and need better protection.”

Khwankhao Sinhaseni, Conservation Manager, Bird Conservation Society of Thailand

BCST researchers conducting surveys at Pak Thale © BCST

Meanwhile, by “strengthening the conservation of Southeast Asia’s coastal wetlands,” Yong says, project activities will also help deliver monitoring, conservation, capacity-building and outreach priorities in BirdLife’s East Asian-Australasian Flyway Conservation Strategy.

Such a raft of anticipated benefits understandably caught the attention of Zeiss, which has previously supported BirdLife work on Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita (Endangered) in Morocco. “We are delighted to become a BirdLife Species Champion for Spotted Greenshank,” says Petra Kregelius-Schmidt, Zeiss. “Spotted Greenshank is another great example of a threatened migratory bird that needs urgent help, so we are pleased to support BirdLife’s vital research and conservation action to help protect it on its wintering grounds.”

On the muddy fringes of the Gulf of Thailand then, a classic BirdLife project is unfurling: one that focuses on a globally threatened bird, is led by a BirdLife Partner, supported by a committed Species Champion, underpinned by exciting field research, and is fully engaged with local communities as part of site-based conservation. The Spotted Greenshank’s fortunes, like its beak, are on the upturn.

If you’re interested in becoming a BirdLife Species Champion, please contact: [email protected]


Protect coastal wetlands for migratory birds

Coastal Wetlands are among the most threatened sites in the world. This year, thousands of birds will end up stranded in the middle of migration, with nowhere to eat or rest on their long journeys. Exhausted and starving, many of them will sadly die.

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James Lowen

Imagine driving a car on a long-distance road trip. Your fuel tank starts full, but then runs low. No worries: you’ll refill at the next available gas station. Chugging towards those much-needed pumps, however, you find the station is closed. You must eke out the remaining fuel for another few hours. And if the tank runs dry, your journey is over.

Welcome to the life of a Far Eastern Curlew (Endangered), the world’s largest shorebird. The survival of this leggy, dramatically long-billed migratory marvel depends on an unbroken chain of wetland ‘service stations’ lining the coasts of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – yet it increasingly encounters concrete wastelands where food-rich mudflats used to be. Its population has crashed by 81% in three decades.

To the untrained human eye – or that of an entrepreneurial developer – habitats such as tidal mudflats and salt marshes may seem featureless, devoid of life and ripe for reclamation. To millions of waterbirds worldwide, however, they are vital feeding stations – filled with energy-packed molluscs and worms, plus essential fatty acids – that power perilous migrations.

“Coastal wetlands are essential for birds to rest and refuel before continuing their gruelling, long-distance marathon,” explains Barend van Gemerden (BirdLife’s Global Flyways Programme Co-ordinator).

Home to millions

This is true along each of the eight major migratory bird flyways identified worldwide, which for millennia have connected boreal breeding grounds with southern hemisphere wintering quarters. The numbers of birds involved emphasise their importance. The East Asian-Australasian Flyway serves an astounding 50 million migratory waterbirds, including Far Eastern Curlew and Great Knot (Endangered), at 900 internationally important wetlands across 22 countries.

In the Americas, up to 1.3 million migratory shorebirds gather in Suriname and the Bay of Panama, as do 1.1 million in Alaska’s Copper River Delta. Despite a 68% decline from 1982–2005, perhaps two million Semipalmated Sandpipers (Near Threatened) – three-quarters of the world total – assemble in Canada’s Bay of Fundy, drawn by seasonally high densities of crustaceans that fuel a 3,000-km non-stop flight to South America.

The world’s largest tidal mudflats, Europe’s Wadden Sea, nourish 12 million migratory waterbirds, including almost all the world’s ‘dark-bellied’ Brent Geese. On Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, Sivash provides the key stopover point for Broad-billed Sandpiper: almost one-third of its western population may pause there. Research into the body fat levels of this stripy-headed wader suggests that southbound autumn migrants take migration to the wire, building up just enough fat to travel 1,300 km non-stop from Poland’s Baltic coast to Sivash. For its strategy to succeed, Broad-billed Sandpipers rely on Sivash’s brackish lagoons and mudflats remaining intact. Should they – or other wetland stopovers – be destroyed or become degraded, the waders risk death.

“Coastal wetlands are essential for birds to rest and refuel before continuing their gruelling, long-distance marathon.”

Barend van Gemerden, Global Flyways Programme Co-ordinator, BirdLife

Lack of Horseshoe Crab eggs at Delaware Bay, USA has caused a 75% slump in rufa Red Knots in the past 15 years © Gregory Breese, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Nowhere to go

The tragic case of Great Knot exemplifies what happens when things go wrong. In the 2000s, the Republic of Korea reclaimed 400 km2 of Yellow Sea mudflats at Saemangeum by building the world’s longest seawall. Ninety thousand exhausted migrants arrived where the estuary should have been – but found neither habitat nor food. Unable to refuel, they died in transit. Removing this food-rich stopover for migrating Great Knot reduced the species’ global population by 20–30%. In 2010, Great Knot was catapulted from Least Concern to Vulnerable, then uplisted to Endangered in 2015.

One eighth of the world population of the closely-related Red Knot (Near Threatened) uses the same flyway, so these birds run a similar gauntlet. But it is the subspecies rufa, journeying along the eastern seaboard of the Americas from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego, that has most dramatically suffered unintended consequences of human enterprise. Its population has slumped by 75% in 15 years because of problems at a single site, Delaware Bay (USA). Unlike Saemangeum, its habitat remains intact – but there is no longer enough food. Red Knots have long timed their spring arrival to feast on Horseshoe Crab eggs. But the crabs have been so overharvested that the food source has expired. With insufficient energy to fly the final 3,000 km to Canadian breeding grounds, it was game over.

“Coastal wetlands,” van Gemerden emphasises, “are a lifeline for hundreds of species that migrate through them every year.” But as the two species of knot demonstrate, this lifeline is fraying. The tension between avian need and human greed renders coastal wetlands, according to van Gemerden, “one of the world’s most threatened habitats, devastated by pollution, disturbance, drainage and development projects – and disappearing or being degraded worldwide.” Things will worsen with climate change: modelling suggests that a 2°C rise would impact four out of five US sample sites, destroying 20–70% of their intertidal habitat.

Vanishing habitat

Globally, one sixth of mudflats (more than 20,000 km2 ) disappeared from 1984 to 2016. In the Yellow Sea, up to 65% of intertidal habitats has been lost in 50 years, vast muddy expanses reclaimed for agriculture, aquaculture or infrastructure. The difficulties many migratory birds face in completing annual migrations, van Gemerden says, are “leading to population collapses, pushing a suite of species towards extinction”. Moreover, this tragedy affects not just birds, but people too, given the importance of coastal wetlands in sequestering carbon and reducing flood risk through buffering wave energy.

Accordingly, coastal wetlands need urgent, intensive attention. “BirdLife is working with local communities across the world to protect and restore unique habitats,” van Gemerden explains. “The voices of local users help show how valuable healthy coastal wetlands are.”

Examples from the BirdLife Partnership are wide-ranging. The Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BirdLife Partner), with support from BirdLife Species Champion Zeiss, is working with local conservation groups to protect working wetlands important for shorebirds such as Spotted Greenshank (Endangered). Audubon (BirdLife in the USA) has restored tidal marshland at San Pablo Bay, California, helping migratory shorebirds such as Willet as well as Black Rail (Endangered). BirdLife Cyprus has removed invasive reeds and created new pools to restore Akrotiri Marsh, a key breeding site for the migratory Ferruginous Duck (Near Threatened). Having worked on 70-plus coastal habitat creation projects in the UK, RSPB (BirdLife Partner) has consolidated its experience into a ‘sustainable shores’ action plan now being brought to a wider audience.

Tropical mangrove forests often shelter open coastal wetland habitats and guard communities against rising sea levels, so receive ample BirdLife attention. In Nigeria, BirdLife is funding a local women’s charity to promote mangrove agroforestry, thereby sustaining livelihoods and stabilising the coast. In Mexico, Pronatura (BirdLife Partner) has worked with villagers for 15 years to restore mangroves. Similar BirdLife initiatives have protected mangroves, and thereby helped both birds and people, in the Caribbean, Panama, Palau and Samoa.

BANCA (BirdLife in Myanmar) is helping local people to develop more sustainable fishing practices to protect the Gulf of Mottama © BANCA

Protecting wetlands globally

Site-based conservation is key, clearly, but BirdLife goes further. “We are also working with governments and businesses to ensure development projects are located out of harm’s way,” van Gemerden says. Again, examples are numerous. In Montenegro, CZIP (BirdLife Partner) successfully blocked construction at Ulcini Salina, persuading the government to protect nationally important saltpans instead. In Turkey, Doğa (BirdLife Partner) launched a successful legal challenge against construction of a ‘mega-bridge’ at Izmir Bay, where a tenth of the world population of Greater Flamingo comes to breed. SPEA (BirdLife Partner) is fighting the Portuguese government’s decision to construct an airport on the Tagus Estuary, winter home to 70,000 Black-tailed Godwits (Near Threatened).

In the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, BirdLife Partner Nature Society (Singapore) secured formal Government protection of mudflats and mangroves at Kranji-Mandai, thereby helping migratory Chinese Egrets (Vulnerable). In 2020, years of effort by BANCA (BirdLife in Myanmar) successfully quadrupled the protected area of mudflats in the Gulf of Mottama to 1,610 km². Alongside restoring habitat at Geum Estuary, the Republic of Korea’s most important wetland following the destruction of Saemangeum and a migratory haven for 5,000 Far Eastern Curlew, the BirdLife Partnership helped South Korean authorities secure the tidal flats’ designation as a World Heritage Site earlier this year. “BirdLife has been extremely influential in guiding governments to take action,” van Gemerden underlines.

This is all great news, but the chain of sites that forms a flyway is only ever as strong as its weakest link. “The loss of a wetland in one country directly affects the number of birds in other nations,” van Gemerden explains. Sadly, the spectre of development looms over wetlands worldwide. Two particularly worrying current examples come from opposite ends of the planet. Canada’s Fraser River Delta, the vital final northbound stopover for most of the world’s Western Sandpipers, is threatened by a proposed massive expansion of a freight terminal. In Australia, meanwhile, 3,000 wintering Far Eastern Curlews are imperilled by plans for a marina and apartment complex at Moreton Bay.

In both developments, BirdLife Partners are on the case. “Through pooling the experience, capacity and influence of our global Partnership,” van Gemerden says, “we are uniting countries along all the world’s major migration routes, ensuring birds have a linked chain of safe havens throughout their journeys.” The world’s coastal wetlands and their migratory waders – whether leggy and long-billed or otherwise equipped – need BirdLife’s help. And that means yours too.


Protect coastal wetlands for migratory birds

Coastal Wetlands are among the most threatened sites in the world. This year, thousands of birds will end up stranded in the middle of migration, with nowhere to eat or rest on their long journeys. Exhausted and starving, many of them will sadly die.

Stay up to date

Our monthly newsletter curates the most fascinating articles across the BirdLife Partnership to save birds, nature and people.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Every year, over 200 species of waterbird take off from their breeding grounds across the tundra, marshes and frozen forests of northern Asia, bound to spend the winter in the balmy climates of Australia and New Zealand. Along the way, the diverse flocks converge upon the coastal wetlands of Southeast Asia to refuel on the shoreline’s bountiful worms and molluscs. These vital habitats form the heart of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – one of the world’s major bird migration flight paths. Protecting these sites is therefore a conservation priority – but what has been achieved so far?

A new paper published in the journal Oryx, written by BirdLife and several of our national Partners, sheds light on the scale of the challenge – not least, the large gaps in basic ecological knowledge of shorebirds in the region, including where the most important sites are found. These knowledge gaps have impeded efforts to protect the most important wetlands for threatened species.

Even when important sites have been identified, action has not necessarily been taken. For instance, while 180 Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) across Southeast Asia contain coastal wetlands, only a small number are actually legally protected. Meanwhile, several potentially important sites for migratory waterbirds remain to be studied, and ongoing research such as satellite tracking has uncovered areas of wetland that hold threatened species, but which are entirely undocumented.

Malaysia’s Penang Coast – as yet unprotected – is a vital habitat for the Great Knot (Endangered) © Nelson Khor

“Few – if any – of the most important sites for shorebirds – the Philippines’ Manila Bay, Vietnam’s Mekong Delta or Peninsular Malaysia’s Penang coast – are protected areas at the moment. Many of these sites are today immediately imperilled by development and may be lost in a few years if nothing is done,” said Ding Li Yong, BirdLife’s regional coordinator for migratory species conservation, and a co-author of the paper.

Coastal development and land reclamation are currently the most concerning threats, the authors noted. “Here in Malaysia, our research has identified the northern coast of mainland Penang State to be exceptionally important to shorebirds, including the Spotted Greenshank (Tringa guttifer – Endangered),” says Chin-Aik Yeap, conservation manager at the Malaysian Nature Society (BirdLife Partner), and a co-author of the paper. “However, the proposed coastal aquaculture project planned here will threaten large parts of this Important Bird & Biodiversity Area, as mangroves will be cut down.”

Nonetheless, the authors conclude that there are excellent grassroot models for migratory waterbird conservation in Southeast Asia. One of these is the Pak Thale Nature Reserve, an initiative led by the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BirdLife Partner) to establish a protected area for threatened shorebirds such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea (Critically Endangered). Under this initiative, traditional salt pans – an important roosting and feeding habitat for shorebirds – are preserved and carefully managed. Meanwhile, while local people and the government are brought together to create conservation groups and sustainable livelihoods.

“Few – if any – of the most important sites for shorebirds are protected areas at the moment.”

Ding Li Yong, Flyways Coordinator (Asia), BirdLife

The careful management of traditional saltpans in Pak Thale Nature Reserve, Thailand, supports a thriving variety of shorebirds © Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok

While there is considerable potential to protect Southeast Asian wetlands, there is a fast narrowing window of opportunity to mobilise conservation resources and scale up action. The recently announced Regional Flyway Initiative, led by the Asian Development Bank in collaboration with BirdLife and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, will hopefully mobilise resources at the scale needed to secure our shared coastal wetlands and the livelihoods of people who depend on them.

“The Asian Development Bank’s Regional Flyway Initiative offers us a critical lifeline to secure these wetlands. But we need to act fast, in the next few years if possible,” says Gary Allport, BirdLife’s senior technical advisor.

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Iraq – communities educated and offered alternative livelihoods

In Iraq, the trade in wild birds is widespread. At local markets, anything from owls, eagles, hawks, vultures and even some songbirds can be found caged and trussed, waiting to be sold. These birds are trapped in the wild and some of them can fetch high prices on the open market. Our national Partner, Nature Iraq, has been actively monitoring the hunting and sales operations in the markets, such as Al- Ghazl Market in Baghdad. Nature Iraq reports this to relevant government agencies on an ongoing basis and is working with local groups to develop alternative livelihoods, as well as to educate and improve awareness about overhunting and advocate to ensure better conservation outcomes for wild species.

One of the rescued Egyptian Vulture released after its recovery © SSCW

Syria – hunting laws strengthened and Egyptian Vultures rescued

Despite the immense political and economic instability in the country, the Syrian Society for Conservation of Wildlife (SSCW, BirdLife in Syria) is working tirelessly to end the illegal killing of Vulnerable species. Syria is one of the worst ‘blackspots’ for illegal killing and trapping of birds in the Mediterranean. In recent months, SSCW have been working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform to revise and refine the laws that regulate hunting in the country. This will give greater protections to migratory birds and help to reduce the widespread poaching currently taking place. On the 16th August 2021, SSCW met with the Ministry in Damascus, as part of a special stakeholder forum, to finalize the revision of the draft law.

The SSCW team recently rescued two Egyptian Vultures that had been illegally trapped. They were able to safely release one back into the wild on the 28th August 2021 and are trying to rehabilitate and treat the other one for a later release. This Endangered species has undergone a recent and extremely rapid population decline due to illegal poisoning and persecution and the use of unsafe veterinary medical products. The estimated global population size is only 12,000 – 38,000 mature individuals, so the rehabilitation and release of these two adults is great news. The released individual, named Hermon, after Mount Hermon, the highest point in Syria, has been fitted with a GPS satellite tag provided by BPSB through the Egyptian Vulture New Life project so that we can monitor his status.

The Carcass and Poison Detection Dog Unit © MME – BirdLife Hungary

Hungary – poison detection dogs enable rapid crisis response

On the 16th August 2021, the most serious case of mass poisoning ever recorded in Hungary was discovered in the jurisdiction of a hunting association near Tura. The Carcass and Poison Detection Dog Unit of MME (BirdLife in Hungary), the ranger service of Duna Ipoly National Park Directorate and volunteers found more than a hundred poisoned baits and more than 50 poisoned animal carcasses. 96% of the carcasses were protected birds.

The rapid response of the poison detection unit meant that this local ecological catastrophe was contained quickly, avoiding what could have been an even higher death toll. The evidence and the carcasses suggest that the perpetrators used these strong neurotoxins in large quantities with the intention of killing birds of prey. This poison is not only harmful for birds of prey and smaller predators, but could possibly be dangerous to all kinds of animals and humans as well. This type of intentional poisoning is a serious criminal offense, and an investigation is ongoing.

A European Robin caught on a glue stick – in France, this cruel practice is now illegal © LPO

France – ‘barbaric’ glue traps now banned

Thanks to long years of battling in the courts, BirdLife’s partner in France, Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), managed to put an end to the barbaric practice of songbird trapping with glue traps in France. Following legal action by LPO, France’s highest court has now ruled that this practice is illegal, saying that an exemption that had permitted it was in breach of European legislation. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) had earlier judged this practice as incompatible with EU law.

For BirdLife, 2021 is “Year of the Dove” © BirdLife Europe / Flight for Survival

Turtle Dove hunting now illegal in several Mediterranean countries

The European Turtle-dove – a familiar and beloved bird that is widespread in culture and folklore – is now classed as Vulnerable to extinction. In Europe, its population has decreased by 30% in the last 15 years, making it one of the most threatened long-distance migratory birds in the world. The main reasons for this decline are habitat loss and degradation, primarily due to by intensive agriculture. However, the species is also the target of illegal and legal hunting all along its flyway.

With the adoption of temporary hunting moratoriums by several European and Middle Eastern countries, the tireless work of BirdLife Partners has bought this species some time. But is it enough to save them from extinction? 2021 is BirdLife’s Year of the Dove, and we will be calling on more countries to join France, Portugal, Spain and Israel in adopting hunting moratoriums to save this species and to put an end to the illegal killing that is rampant across the region.

A Wryneck caught in a mist net © BCST

Thailand – campaign against mist nets

Our Partner in Thailand, BCST, has been promoting an awareness campaign on the use and dangers of mist nets to wild birds, while encouraging its members and birdwatchers especially, to report observation of mist nets used in trapping birds.

Cambodia – vital research into root causes of hunting

NatureLife Cambodia (BirdLife Partner) have been interviewing coastal communities about bird hunting in Koh Kapik, and have implemented surveys of bird hunting in rural markets in several Cambodian provinces. On the ground, they have also been working hard to strengthen enforcement against hunting in two key wetlands on the Mekong floodplain. In addition to this, the Cambodia team have met with government agencies to provide updates and discuss action to strengthen work on addressing hunting.

BANCA (BirdLife in Myanmar) met with government agencies to report their findings on bird hunting © BANCA

Myanmar – local conservation groups strengthened

BANCA (BirdLife in Myanmar) have been working hard to build local capacity to strengthen wetland protection, including addressing illegal bird hunting in the Mandalay region. Specifically, they have been building capacity of the Regional Wetland Conservation Committee and the local conservation organisation, ‘Shwe Kanthayar’ , who are established in the Mandalay region to help address bird hunting and other wetland conservation issues. BANCA has also organised consultative meetings with government agencies to report their surveillance findings of bird hunting.

Vietnam – groundwork laid for new hunting laws

The Viet Nature Conservation Centre have provided feedback to government agencies on the development of new policy directives at the national level to address the hunting of migratory birds. They have also performed surveys of bird shops and markets selling birds for food in Northern Vietnam to provide data on the issue to stimulate further enforcement action.

Guyana – major shorebird protection campaign launched

BirdLife have several allies and local researchers in Guyana, though there is no official Partner as yet. Guyana is well-known for harvesting great numbers of shorebirds for food, and the only protection the birds have is a ‘bag limit’ – the number of shorebirds allowed per day. There is no legal protection for Endangered species and no seasons for hunting.

Our local allies have been working on a social campaign to reduce shorebird harvest on the coast of Guyana, which is going to be implemented in the last quarter of 2021. BirdLife International will support the Leon Moore Nature Experience, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the University of Guyana and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to implement this challenging initiative.

It is expected that this project will establish a framework for collection of long-term survey data at key sites (vital to know the scale of the issue), install educational signage to raise awareness of shorebirds and their conservation needs, broaden social media impact on the issue, introduce local and international laws protecting shorebirds from overharvesting, and update IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area) information, particularly along the Guyana North-East Coastline.

Thank you!

As you can see, we have made huge progress over the past six months, and donations to our appeal were integral to our work. The above is just a flavour of the huge amount of work done by the BirdLife Partnership against the illegal killing of birds – and our efforts are ongoing.

If you would like to support our work to tackle the illegal killing of birds, you can donate below.

BirdLife’s work on illegal killing throughout 2021 has also been supported by the American Bird Conservancy, the Global Environment Facility, the EU LIFE programme, Global Birding, the March Conservation Fund, the MAVA Foundation, the Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation, the Oak Foundation, Vogelbescherming Nederland, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and, of course, the many supporters who have responded to our appeals. The work was further supported through membership of the Restore Species partnership and the Flight for Survival and Champions of the Flyways campaigns.

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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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