World Bird News September 2008

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Birds indicate biodiversity crisis – and the way forward


Common birds are in decline across the world, providing evidence of a rapid deterioration in the global environment that is affecting all life on earth – including human life. All the world’s governments have committed themselves to slowing or halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010. But reluctance to commit what are often trivial sums in terms of national budgets means that this target is almost certain to be missed.
These are some of the stark messages from State of the Worlds Birds, a new publication and website ( launched today at BirdLife International’s World Conference in Buenos Aires.
“Birds provide an accurate and easy to read environmental barometer, allowing us to see clearly the pressures our current way of life are putting on the world’s biodiversity”, said Dr Mike Rands - BirdLife's CEO.
The report highlights worldwide losses among widespread and once-familiar birds. A staggering 45% of common European birds are declining <actinic:variable name="1" />: the familiar European Turtle-dove Streptopelia turtur, for example, has lost 62% of its population in the last 25 years. On the other side of the globe, resident Australian wading birds have seen population losses of 81% in just quarter of a century <actinic:variable name="2" />.
Twenty North American common birds have more than halved in number in the last four decades <actinic:variable name="3" />. Northern Bobwhite Colinus virginianus fell most dramatically, by 82%. In Latin America, the Yellow Cardinal Gubernatrix cristata - once common in Argentina - is now classified as globally Endangered <actinic:variable name="4" />.
Millions of White-rumped Vultures Gyps bengalensis recently flew in Asian skies. In just sixteen years populations have crashed by 99.9% - the species is now classified as Critically Endangered <actinic:variable name="5" />. Widespread birds like the Eurasian Eagle Owl are believed to be vanishing from Middle Eastern forests <actinic:variable name="6" />. Seabirds - including Critically Endangered Chatham Albatross Thalassarche eremita - are disappearing from the world’s oceans <actinic:variable name="7" />.
“Many of these birds have been a familiar part of our everyday lives, and people who would not necessarily have noticed other environmental indicators have seen their numbers slipping away, and are wondering why” said Dr Rands. “Because birds are found almost everywhere on earth, they can act as our eyes and ears, and what they are telling us is that the deterioration in biodiversity and the environment is accelerating, not slowing.”
State of the Worlds Birds identifies many key global threats, including the intensification of industrial-scale agriculture and fishing, the spread of invasive species, logging and the replacement of natural forest with monocultural plantations. However, Dr Rands warns: “In the long term, human-induced climate change may be the most serious stress of all”.
The encouraging news is that conservation works and is relatively cheap. Direct action saved 16 bird species from extinction between 1994 and 2004. But conserving biodiversity now urgently needs more financial support.“Effective biodiversity conservation is easily affordable, requiring relatively trivial sums at the scale of the global economy”, said Dr Rands. For example, to maintain the protected area network which would safeguard 90 percent of Africa’s biodiversity would cost less than $1 billion US dollars a year –yet in a typical year the global community provides around $300 million.
“The world is failing in its 2010 pledge to achieve a significant reduction in the current rate of loss of biodiversity”, said Dr Rands. “The challenge is to harness international biodiversity commitments and ensure that concrete actions are taken — now!”

Populations of migratory waterbirds are declining along the African-Eurasian Flyways

A study showing declines of 41 per cent of migratory waterbird populations along their main migration routes in Africa and Eurasia is presented to the Fourth Meeting of the Parties to AEWA (MOP4) in Antananarivo, Madagascar this week (15-19 September 2008).

Antananarivo, Madagascar
The report: “Conservation Status of Migratory Waterbirds in the African-Eurasian Flyways” prepared by Wetlands International for the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) is being presented to delegates from over 80 countries attending an intergovernmental meeting which began in Antananarivo today.

The study reveals that 41 % of the known trends for 522 migratory waterbird populations on the routes across Africa and Eurasia show decreasing trends. The situation is even worse for waterbirds using Western and Central Asian Flyways, where 55 % of populations with known trends are currently declining.

Many species
he decline in numbers is being recorded for many species along African-Eurasian Flyways, in regions used for breeding, migration and wintering by these birds across the African and Eurasian Continents.

Simon Delany, Waterbird Conservation Officer at the Netherlands-based Headquarters of Wetlands International and principal author of the report, said: “The main causes of declining waterbird numbers along the African-Eurasian Flyways are the destruction and unsustainable exploitation of wetlands, which are largely driven by poorly-planned economic development.”

Complex causes
While the exact causes of the declines are complex and inter-related, and vary between species and regions, the most frequent known cause of population decreases is habitat destruction, often caused by unsustainable human activity.

Human impacts such as infrastructure development, reclamation of wetlands, increasing pollution and hunting pressure can develop rapidly, and conservation considerations are often not taken into account. These impacts are in many cases compounded by impacts of climate change and associated phenomena such as increased frequency of droughts, sea-level rise, and change in Arctic tundra habitats.

Climate change
“Climate change, also caused by unsustainable economic development, is probably making things worse. It is likely to affect all ecosystems, but wetlands are especially vulnerable because of their sensitivity to changes in water level and susceptibility to changes in rainfall and evaporation.” says Delany.

Climate change effects such as expanding deserts and more frequent storms make bird migration more hazardous. Sea-level rise threatens wetland areas both on coast and inland, which are crucial habitats for millions of migratory waterbirds. Huge numbers of waterbirds also breed in arctic tundra habitats which are gravely threatened by rising temperatures.

Clear signal
“The figures in this study and the results of other international reviews being presented to delegates at AEWA MOP4 in Antananarivo this week are a clear signal that both national and international efforts to conserve migratory waterbirds and their habitats need to be significantly increased.” says Bert Lenten, the Executive Secretary of AEWA.

Migratory waterbirds and in particular long distant migrants are very vulnerable to environmental changes. To complete their annual life-cycles, they depend upon separate geographic regions in the breeding and non-breeding seasons that may be thousands of kilometres apart.

Seasonal migrations
The often epic seasonal migrations between these regions require a network of stop-over sites which act as stepping-stones along the route. Damage to and destruction of such sites reduces the integrity of these fragile site networks and makes them less able to support the needs of migrating waterbirds.

“International cooperation is essential in protecting the network of sites required by migratory waterbirds and AEWA was put into place by countries to foster such cooperation for migratory waterbirds along the African-Eurasian Flyways. Yet the evidence presented in this report shows that countries will have to have a clear vision as to how to address these challenges and work together to make sure the objectives of this Agreement can be met.” says Lenten.

Many experts agree that one way to adapt to the effects of climate change will be to increase efforts to reduce the other threats to waterbirds and their habitats and to increase efforts to designate, establish and manage adequate networks of protected sites and habitats required by these birds throughout their migratory ranges. Any adaptation efforts will also have to take into account the changes that are predicted to occur to these ranges, as a result of climate change.

Captive breeding proposed for Palmyra's Northern Bald Ibis

A workshop on conservation of the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita, has concluded that the Palmyra birds should be supplemented with juveniles taken from the expanding semi-wild population at Birecik, Turkey. The meeting was held in Palmyra, Syria, near the site where a relict population of the bird was discovered in 2002.
The workshop was organised by the Syrian Society for the Conservation of Wildlife and Syrian Ministry for Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, the General Commission for the Management and Development of al-Badia, with participation and funding from BirdLife International's Middle East Secretariat, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, BirdLife in the UK), and Germany's Hanns Seidel Foundation.
The proposed captive Northern Bald Ibis aviary will be established within the Talila Wildlife Reserve, part of the al-Badia desertic steppe rangelands east of Palmyra, managed by the Syrian government and funded by UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and others to restore to ecological health. Workshop participants included community representatives, local hunters, Bald Ibis Protected Area staff, and senior officials of the General Commission for the Management and Development of al-Badia.
The aim of the workshop was to identify the main problems affecting the Bald Ibis breeding colony, to propose practical solutions to these problems, and, develop and endorse a national Action Plan for Northern Bald Ibis conservation.

"Thorough discussions on potential for supplementation of Northern Bald Ibis from other colonies were conducted, and risks involved were elaborated," said Dr Akram Eissa Darwish, Chairman of the Syrian Society for the Conservation of Wildlife. "Participants concluded that this is an urgently needed step, provided that experts offer their technical knowledge and apply the suitable methodology. The final decision from participants was to establish a captive breeding colony at Palmyra, to act as a ready-established option for supplementation, and to promote ecotourism in the area."
Chris Bowden of the RSPB explained that captive breeding was a last resort, as there is no guarantee of success following a total breeding failure at the colony in the past year. 'If fewer than two pairs attempt to breed next year, we will hit the emergency button. The Birecik birds are genetically similar, and so are the obvious source for supplementation."
Juvenile birds would be taken from Birecik to form a captive breeding colony, using adapted compounds that were previously used for captive breeding of Arabian Oryx (a Critically Endangered species of antelope). The project will draw on expertise from around the world, including Doga Dernegi (BirdLife in Turkey), and the Konrad Lorenz Forschungsstelle in Grünau, Austria, where a semi-wild colony has been established.

"On the face of it, it seems straightforward to do, but the birds are socially particularly complex, and there are risks of disease. The project will require very careful implementation," Bowden added.
However, the Syrian government, local Bedouins, former hunters and others are firmly committed to the survival of the Palmyra colony. "The workshop demonstrated the increased national and local sense of ownership of bird conservation. This is not always the easiest thing to achieve, and local stakeholders showed a keen interest to learn about where their birds go, and what others countries are doing, and to support international cooperation," said Eng. Ali Hamoud, Director General of the General Commission for the Management and Development of al-Badia.

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