3 Dec 2019

The greatest threats facing Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas today

The threats facing the world’s Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) are complex and varied. But thanks to improvements and innovations in monitoring over the past 40 years, we have a clearer picture than ever of the main issues – and the IBAs most at risk.

Pied Oystercatchers at Coorong IBA, Australia © Tom Brinkworth / Shutterstock
Pied Oystercatchers at Coorong IBA, Australia © Tom Brinkworth / Shutterstock
By Olivia Crowe

Identifying key sites for birds and biodiversity has been the main objective of Birdlife’s Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) programme since it began in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, IBAs, regardless of whether they are protected or not, increasingly come under pressure from badly planned development and land use activities. Recognising the need to measure the impacts of these activities, and the effectiveness of any conservation measures implemented, BirdLife launched a comprehensive monitoring protocol in 2006. As part of this monitoring protocol, we ask BirdLife Partners globally to report regularly on the condition of their IBAs, including on threats.

IBA monitoring has exposed many sites which are subject to very high levels of threat, and which are at the greatest risk of losing their biodiversity assets. There are currently 255 sites in 48 countries on BirdLife’s IBAs in Danger list, an initiative that highlights and promotes sites in dire need of urgent conservation action. Here, we take a closer look at some of the threats taking place in IBAs, based on information gathered at almost 4,800 IBAs and stored in the World Database of Key Biodiversity Areas.

1. Invasive alien species

Invasive house mice have decimated Tristan Albatross populations on Gough Island © Ben Dilley

This refers mostly to incidences of predation at nesting colonies, but also includes habitat alteration, especially in wetlands, caused by non-native aquatic species. This refers mostly to incidences of predation at nesting colonies, but also includes habitat alteration, especially in wetlands, caused by non-native aquatic species. Recent publications have highlighted Invasive alien species as the biggest threat to seabirds, affecting 165 species across all of the most threatened groups, and especially on islands. Concentrating efforts to eradicate invasive mammals on 107 of the most globally important islands would benefit 80 highly threatened vertebrates, and make a major contribution towards achieving global conservation targets adopted by the world’s nations.

2. Agriculture

Agricultural pesticides threaten Doñana National Park, Spain © Jacinto Marabel Romo / Shutterstock

This category concerns the impacts of agricultural crops (food, fodder, fibre and fuel), but not timber operations. This is one of the key threats affecting the Guadalquivir Marshes (Doñana) IBA, one of the largest wetlands in Europe, and the most important wetland in Spain for breeding, passage and wintering waterbirds and passerines. Over 360 species have been recorded, and wintering waterbird numbers amount to 400,000 individuals, climbing to over six million birds during migration periods. The site is an IBA in Danger, and one of the biggest threats relates to the expansion and intensification of agriculture, particularly the uncontrolled use of pesticides and over-exploitation of groundwater for irrigation.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

3. Hunting and trapping

Egg collecting at Lake Ol'Bolossat, Kenya impacts Grey Crowned-crane populations © Fabian Haas

This includes the killing or trapping of wild animals or animal products for commercial, recreation, subsistence, research or cultural purposes, or for control/persecution, as well as accidental mortality and bycatch. Lake Ol Bolossat IBA in Kenya is one example where the hunting of Grey Crowned-cranes Balearica regulorum (Endangered) and collection of their eggs has been shown to affect their reproductive success.

4. Dams and water management

Irrigation is cutting off fresh water at Coorong Lagoon, Australia © Tom Brinkworth / Shutterstock

This refers to changing water flow patterns from their natural range of variation. An example is the Coorong IBA, a coastal lagoon in South Australia. Historically the site was flooded by overland flows of freshwater from a large catchment. These catchments are now interrupted by increasing irrigation schemes resulting in no freshwater available for the natural flood areas. This affects the abundance of breeding waterbirds such as Fairy Terns Sternula nereis (Vulnerable), and other migratory species.


The top 20 threats to IBAs globally (out of a total of 43 reported)


The threats shown here are widely variable, and reflect conditions over the past 15 years. The exact order of this list will naturally continue to change as global policies and demands shift over time. China’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road initiative is one such example: China plans to carry out construction projects in more than 60 countries to connect Asia, Africa and Europe through a “belt” of overland corridors and a maritime “road” of shipping lanes. An early scoping assessment of the impact of the six land-based corridors by WWF showed overlap with the range of 265 threatened species and almost 2,000 IBAs.

It is also important not to lose sight of other threats that may not feature prominent at a global level, but are of significance at a localised scale (e.g. badly-planned renewable energy structures, mining, oil and gas drilling), and that may pose significant challenges in the future. But thanks to the rigorous monitoring efforts of BirdLife Partners from around the world, we have the data we need to identify these threats as they develop and sound the early warning alarm.