3 Apr 2020

Myanmar shorebirds get four-fold expansion in protected wetland

One of Asia’s most important shorebird sanctuaries has just quadrupled in size thanks to years of advocacy from our Myanmar Partner. Here's how they connected insight with action to help birds on the brink and the people who live alongside them.

50% of the world's Spoon-Billed Sandpipers (Critically Endangered) overwinter here © Yann Muzika
50% of the world's Spoon-Billed Sandpipers (Critically Endangered) overwinter here © Yann Muzika
By Ding Li Yong

Twenty years ago, few conservationists knew about the Gulf of Mottama and the secrets hidden within its complex coastline. Its location in southern Myanmar is, like many parts of the country, rugged and difficult to access. However, in the early 2010s, everything changed when surveys lead by BANCA (BirdLife in Myanmar) and international experts from the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force revealed more than 200 Spoon-billed Sandpipers Calidris pygmaea overwintering there – fifty percent of the world’s population. This makes the Gulf of Mottama the region’s single most important site for the Critically Endangered wader.

Alongside the affectionately-titled “Spoonie”, the Gulf boasts some of the largest congregations of shorebirds in Southeast Asia, with over 90,000 birds overwintering here annually. These include significant numbers of imperilled species such as the Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata and Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica (both Near Threatened), and the Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris (Endangered).

It’s no wonder these species want to spend the winter here: the Gulf of Mottama is a vast wetland of great diversity. It sits near the mouths of two of Myanmar’s most important rivers: the Sittaung, which drains from the hills to the north, and the mighty Salween, which spills into the Gulf from the east at the town of Mawlamyine. On the eastern fringe, near the village of Thein Ngu, are the forested hills of Kelatha. The coastline between Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and Mawlamyine contains some of the least-disturbed coastal mudflats and salt marshes in Southeast Asia.

Quenched daily by a tidal bore sweeping up from the Andaman Sea, the Gulf’s wetlands are extremely dynamic, with mud islands rising and vanishing in as little as a month. At low tide, the vast mudflats protrude for kilometres out to sea, dotted with thousands of shorebirds including large flocks of curlews, godwits and more.

Armed with this knowledge, BANCA and their collaborators went straight to work to secure the protection of this precious landscape. BANCA staff worked closely with local people, who were found to be hunting shorebirds in substantial numbers, putting the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and other declining species at risk. By offering seed funding for assets such as livestock, building materials and fishing boats, they empowered local people to explore alternative livelihoods, weaning them off the need to hunt wild birds. BANCA also worked closely with the local government and village leaders to involve them in the site’s protection, forming Local Conservation Groups of enthusiastic community members.

Sustainable fishing offers local people an alternative income © BANCA

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Through dedicated advocacy from BANCA, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and allied NGOs, in 2017 the Myanmar Government declared about 40,000 hectares of in the eastern side of the Gulf of Mottama a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar convention – thus setting the momentum for more conservation activity in the region.

The establishment of the eastern Gulf as a Ramsar Site was not only a major breakthrough, but also provided the impetus for the less-surveyed western site of the Gulf to be considered for conservation. After another two years of consultation with local stakeholders, early this year the Myanmar Government finalised the extension of the Gulf of Mottama Ramsar Site, quadrupling the area to 161,030 hectares, and extending in into the Bago and Yangon regions.

The extension of the Gulf of Mottama Ramsar site is a major step forward in wetland conservation in Myanmar and Southeast Asia as a whole. It protects a vast area of coastline from harmful development, while providing a framework for stronger conservation action and engagement with local communities. The gulf is now one of the largest Ramsar sites in Southeast Asia, a region where there are still large gaps in wetland conservation. Because the gulf’s western coast is one of the least-surveyed areas in the region, it has bought more time for conservationists to gain a better understanding of how shorebirds are distributed, and how to engage townspeople as effectively as possible.

BANCA’s work to conserve the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is also earning dividends for other species, not to mention wetlands in general. Local fisheries are now better-managed, and other threatened shorebirds benefit from action to save “Spoonie”, thus protecting one of the finest coastal landscapes for migratory waterbirds in all of Southeast Asia. Most of all, work to conserve the Gulf of Mottama will secure the vital ecosystem services – such as clean water, climate regulation and flood prevention – that Myanmar’s coastal communities will rely on for generations to come.