(ANIMAL NEWS) RUSSIA — With only an estimated number of 100 pairs remaining in existence, the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper, a small migratory wader, is headed toward extinction. Complicating its survival the bird must briefly breed in sub-Arctic Russia before migrating through the industrial countries of Japan, China and Korea en route to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Read on about the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s incredible fight to repopulate the species in captivity. — Global Animal
The Guardian, Stephen Moss
If prizes were awarded for the world’s unluckiest bird, the spoon-billed sandpiper would be a leading contender. It breeds along the coast of Chukotka province, in easternmost Russia, where snow, floods and predators may foil its short window of opportunity to raise a family.
If any chicks do survive, they must undertake one of the most perilous journeys of any migratory bird: 8,000km (5,000 miles) to their wintering grounds in Myanmar and Bangladesh. On the way they pass through the world’s industrial powerhouses – Japan, China and South Korea – where the reclamation of coastal wetlands for economic development is proceeding at a terrifying rate. To make matters worse, if the sandpipers do reach their wintering grounds, poor local communities trap them for food. It’s hardly surprising the spoon-billed sandpiper is heading for extinction.
Never common – the world population in the late 1970s was estimated at 2,400 breeding pairs – the species declined to 1,000 pairs by 2000. Then the real nosedive began: it may now have dropped below 100 pairs, a fall of 90% in a single decade. Unless something can be done soon, extinction in the wild is virtually inevitable within 10 years. Hence the brave and controversial decision by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), along with conservation partners including the RSPB and Birds Russia, to take spoon-billed sandpiper chicks from the wild and raise them in captivity, at the trust’s HQ at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire.
Brave, because although captive breeding works well with large, long-lived species such as ducks, geese and cranes, it is much harder to achieve with a small, migratory wader. Controversial, because some argue that scarce resources would be better spent on preserving wetland habitats for species more likely to survive in the long term.
Yet this is no ordinary bird. At a distance, the spoon-billed sandpiper looks like any other small wader: plump, brown-and-white, with a hunched appearance. But close-up, it reveals the feature that gives the bird its name: the extraordinary spatula-shaped bill, unique among the world’s 200 or so species of wader.
The effort to save it is itself a story worthy of the Boy’s Own Paper. First, Nigel Jarrett, the WWT’s captive breeding expert, and his team had to get to the bird’s breeding grounds: a perilous helicopter flight into the sub-Arctic tundra. When they arrived, on 30 May, they found to their dismay that a thick layer of snow covered the nesting areas. A week later, a few pairs had arrived and taken up residence, but as the snow melted, their territories were flooded. By 19 June, the females had finally begun to lay, and in early July the team managed to collect 20 eggs, from which 17 chicks hatched.
After 72 hours without sleep, an exhausted Jarrett boarded a dinghy with his precious cargo – and as he did so, a pod of belugas and a single grey whale surfaced alongside and accompanied him to his rendezvous with a passing cruise ship. “Sitting there holding the chicks of one of the rarest species on the planet, while this huge creature rose above the waves and looked me straight in the eye, was one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life,” he says.
On 18 August, after two long flights across Siberia, the chicks reached Moscow zoo, where they had been waiting in quarantine until, last week, the remaining 14 chicks finally arrived at their new home at Slimbridge.
Now the real hard work begins. As well as rearing a captive population of spoon-billed sandpipers, the conservationists must also find ways of saving their last remaining breeding, stopover and wintering habitats from development, otherwise there will be nowhere to reintroduce the birds in the future. This is where Chukotka’s most famous adopted son comes in. As governor of this remote and deprived state until 2008, Roman Abramovich lavished some of his vast wealth to help its people. Helping its wildlife – in the shape of the spoon-billed sandpiper – would be another way of putting this extraordinary place on the map.
One thing is sure, if these efforts do not succeed, the bird will soon join the dodo, great auk and passenger pigeon in the roll of infamy; those once living, breathing creatures we have driven to oblivion. In the words of Deborah Pain, WWT’s director of conservation: “This tiny wader is a flagship species for millions of waterbirds that travel the same migratory route, and are equally threatened. If we fail, our descendants will inherit a vastly impoverished world. We simply can’t afford to lose any species – let alone one so special as the spoon-billed sandpiper.”
More Guardian News: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/oct/16/saving-the-spoon-billed-sandpiper