31 Jan 2019

Mud, glorious mud! Spoonie’s winter wetland declared protected area

Nanthar Island, Myanmar is a crucial wintering site for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Critically Endangered). Thanks to the advocacy of BANCA (BirdLife in Myanmar) and local people, the site has now been designated a protected area.

Nanthar island hosts up to 12% of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper population © Butterfly Hunter/ Shutterstock
Nanthar island hosts up to 12% of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper population © Butterfly Hunter/ Shutterstock
By Shannon Anstee

Update: in May 2020, Nanthar Island was declared a Ramsar Site (a wetland of international importance) thanks to the efforts of BANCA. Ramsar status will add further support to the protection measures already in place.

As Spoonie wades along the shore of Nanthar Island in Myanmar, he uses his unique spatula-shaped beak to sift small invertebrates from the mudflats. Luckily for this little Spoonie, he is standing on protected ground, rich in food and safe from the threat of hunting. However, some of his friends aren’t so lucky. With a tiny population of no more than 456, and still in decline, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea (Critically Endangered) is just one step away from becoming extinct in the wild.

Nanthar Island is not a well-known site for the Spoon-billed sandpiper – but it is nonetheless an important one. Covering a fairly large area of approximately 3,600ha, the island and the nearby Mayyu Estuary in Rakhine state, Myanmar host up to 12% of the global population of Spoon-billed Sandpipers.

In 2008, surveys of the Nanthar area conducted by the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force confirmed this importance. Unfortunately, spoonies that use this habitat as a wintering site are often under threat from hunting by local people. The Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA – BirdLife in Myanmar) has been working hard in the area to protect the unique bird from this pressing concern.

Tackling the problem at its source, BANCA assessed the socio-economic situation of the local people. From this, they were able to determine that most people did not really depend on shorebird hunting for their livelihoods, but instead used them to add variety to their own diets. To combat this problem, BANCA teamed up with local partner Rakhine Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association, to conduct education and awareness activities.

Both BANCA and the local people of Nanthar agreed that the habitat, which is also a breeding site for a number of species of marine turtles, should be protected on account of its high level of biodiversity. Working as an advocate for the local communities, BANCA consulted the Myanmar government to nominate Nanthar and its adjoining wetlands as a Flyway Network Site – part of a network of protected wetlands under the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership that are crucial sites for migratory waterbirds.

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BANCA survey Nanthar island to confirm its importance as a site for Spoon-billed Sandpipers

BANCA Director of Operations Pyae Phyo Aung stated that “The recent amendment of biodiversity and protected area conservation laws by the Myanmar government has helped to elevate the importance of community involvement in the conservation process, and is a major reason why Nanthar Island is now recognised as a Flyway Site”.

The declaration as a protected area is a great first step, but for BANCA, the work isn’t done yet. To make sure that spoonies, as well as other migratory birds, as well as marine species are safe. But for now, the protection status will ensure that the education and awareness activities that are being carried out by BANCA can be continued on a far larger scale. Helping to ensure the future of the spoonie, and his friends.