August 14, 2022

The planet’s most threatened flight path, and the $3 billion plan to protect it

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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

Journey overview

Bar-tailed godwit

A race against time

Spoon-billed sandpiper

Hear its call

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The spoon-billed sandpiper, a tiny shorebird with a black bill like a spatula, shows the impact this can have on a species. Teetering on the edge of extinction, there are fewer than 800 spoon-billed sandpipers left in the world.

In northeast Russia, the spoon-billed sandpiper has dramatically declined

Population estimates of spoon-billed sandpiper pairs between 2003 and 2021 in the Meinypilgyno region of Russia.

Source: Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force

They breed in northeast Russia and winter in South East Asia, refueling at sites on the Yellow Sea along the way. One such site is Saemangeum, in South Korea, where more than 100 spoonies (as they are affectionately called) used to gather each year, according to a 2016 report on shorebird declines.

But in the 1990s, construction began on a 33-kilometer-long seawall across the tidal flat, which was completed in 2006, and much of the area is still being converted into either agricultural or industrial land.

Since then, just a handful of spoon-billed sandpipers have been spotted there, says Nial Moores, director of Birds Korea.

But conservation can and does make a difference

Black-faced spoonbill

Take the black-faced spoonbill, a large, white wading bird found only in East Asia, with a long spoon-like beak that it scrapes along the shallows for food.

The population reached its nadir in the 1990s, with only a few hundred birds remaining. But protecting nesting sites and restoring breeding and wintering grounds has helped the species regain its numbers.

In 2022, more than 6,000 black-faced spoonbills were recorded.

Black-faced spoonbill numbers have rebounded

Global population of black-faced spoonbills.

Source: Hong Kong Bird Watching Society

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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

Zurita hopes that the Regional Flyway Initiative will help both birds and biodiversity bounce back.

First, it plans to focus on restoring 50 of the most critical wetlands along the route. While these locations are still being determined, BirdLife has mapped a longlist of potential sites – many of which are centered on the Yellow Sea.

Potential sites of the Regional Flyway Initiative

  • East Asian-Australasian Flyway
  • Potential initiative sites


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Source: BirdLife International


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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization


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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

A pilot project in China’s Yancheng Wetlands shows the potential scale of success. The area had been heavily degraded due to urbanization and pollution, but by creating nature reserves and forest farms, more than 45 square kilometers of wetlands has now been restored, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Waterbird populations have skyrocketed as a result, with one reserve recording more than triple the number of birds at the site in 2018 compared with two years earlier, and almost 3,000 jobs in ecotourism, sustainable fishing and agriculture have been created, the bank says. In 2019, the Yancheng Wetlands were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage natural site – a prestigious title that will help to further protect the area.

But there are still challenges. The mission relies on the buy-in of governments from more than 22 countries — many with different languages, cultures and political situations — and continued funding from both public and private donors.

This is where the ADB comes in. A huge institution accustomed to handing out loans for big infrastructure projects, such as railways or power stations, it has relationships with ministries of finance around the continent.

“Our goal in this project is to link those ministries and persuade them that they need to invest in nature,” says Duncan Lang, senior environment specialist at the ADB.


Mai_po_wetlands

The Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong, with Shenzen City rising up behind. Credit: Martin Harvey/Getty Images

There’s an economic incentive for governments, he adds. Wetlands act as natural sponges, protecting areas from flooding and storm surges, and they are carbon stores. “The money that they invest is paid back by the money they don’t have to pay in storm damage,” and potential carbon savings could contribute to a nation’s climate pledges, says Lang.

By showing that preserving nature can make financial sense, Zurita believes this initiative could become a blueprint for conservation across the world. She says BirdLife has already had interest from development banks on other continents wanting to protect their flyways.

Birds fly from pole to pole across every continent on Earth. They are seen as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” – indicators of ecological health. And their decline is sending a message that the natural world is in danger.

Protecting their flight paths could help to preserve ecosystems across the whole planet.

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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

What you can do to help

Patricia Zurita

Patricia Zurita Call to Earth guest editor, CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

spread the word

“Most people don’t even know this is actually happening, and it’s so far away from their day to day, that unless we let people know that this is a problem, we’re not going to be able to change anything.”

Give nature a home

“Remember that we are part of millions of species on this planet, and provide homes and food to birds that are coming your way.”

Buy local and use less energy

“Think about things that you’re buying and the way that you’re transporting yourself. The more energy that I use – the more gas, the more oil and the more petrol I’m using – the more climate change is happening. And the more nature is actually suffering.”

You can take action now

Migratory birds around the world are in danger, but there are things we can do to help. Start by spreading the word.

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