Waterbird declines


Governments call for urgent actions


Autumn 2008 saw a flurry of international meetings that included important discussions on future priorities for the conservation of waterbirds and their wetland habitats.  These included: the fourth Meeting of the Parties (signatory governments) to the African-Eurasian Waterbirds Agreement (AEWA MoP4), held in Madagascar in September; the tenth Conference of the Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (CoP10) in the Republic of Korea at the end of October; and the ninth Conference of Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) in Rome in December.


These inter-governmental meetings gave opportunities to reflect on current issues and set priorities for action.  Debates on waterbird conservation at these meetings were significantly influenced by the latest findings of national waterbird programmes such as the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS).


No punches pulled

AEWA MoP4 didn’t pull its punches: a series of blunt Resolutions were adopted by the 62 Contracting Parties and these can be found in full on the AEWA web-site (see below).  The overall status of migratory waterbird populations in the Agreement area of Africa, the Middle East and western Eurasia was acknowledged as poor and declining.  Despite international targets to reduce and even halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010, monitoring evidence suggests that, for waterbirds, the overall situation is actually becoming worse rather than showing signs of improvement.


Waterbird surveys at Saemangeum, Republic of Korea have demonstrated major declines in waterbirds there. This former estuary was one of the most important shorebird sites in the whole of the Yellow Sea. However, following the construction of a 33 km barrage, the estuary is now non-tidal and the wetland will now be subject to progressive development. Ramsar welcomed a statement from the government of the Republic of Korea that no further large-scale land-claims of intertidal areas are now being approved. © David Stroud/JNCC

Causes of declines

The main causes of these declines were identified as continued widespread habitat loss and degradation, and locally unsustainable harvesting of waterbirds.  The effects of pollution, including the use of lead gun-shot throughout most of the Agreement area, was highlighted, together with the consequences of climate change on habitats and species, which will result in further unwelcome and unpredictable impacts.


Key wetlands continue to be threatened or even lost to development, and in recent years many sites of major importance for waterbirds have been lost or damaged.  A proposal that would have severely damaged Lake Natron in Tanzania – home to 75% of the world’s lesser flamingos– is a topical example.  The Parties agreed a new process that will allow the AEWA Secretariat to work with a country in the event of future threats to important sites or species.  


Ramsar’s CoP10 was a larger meeting – as befits a global convention.  Indeed, nearly all Ramsar’s 158 Contracting Parties were represented in South Korea, together with a very large number of national and international Non-Governmental Organisations including the UK’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.  Two Resolutions were adopted with particular significance for waterbird conservation.


Response to avian disease

The Ramsar CoP adopted Resolution X.21 Guidance on responding to the continued spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza [HPAI] which provides a major compilation of technical and policy guidance related to HPAI H5N1.  In particular, it provides a ‘roadmap’ of such material produced over the last three years, as well as presenting significant new guidance aimed at reducing the risk of HPAI infection at wetland reserves.  Further and complementary Resolutions on HPAI H5N1 were adopted by both AEWA MoP4 and CMS CoP9 – the latter also reflecting on the wider issues of disease in waterbirds and other wildlife.


Waterbird flyways

Resolution X.22 Promoting international co-operation for the conservation of waterbird flyways reflected on the conservation of the world’s waterbird flyways.  It noted alarm “at the continuing decline in abundance of many waterbirds throughout the world, resulting not only from unsustainable exploitation, but especially from the loss and degradation of wetland habitats (in particular through both small-scale and larger-scale land claims and other land use changes of intertidal wetlands).”


The Ramsar Parties called for an exchange of best practice approaches to the international conservation of migratory waterbirds in recognition that there are a number of different legal and other conservation frameworks around the world.  Ramsar, CMS and AEWA will be working together to that end over the next few years.


Search for slender-billed curlew

CoP9 endorsed a CMS call for a final search for the slender-billed curlew.  There have been no verified records of this critically threatened bird since 1999, and an international working group for the species established by CMS launched a tool kit to assist people to identify and report slender-billed curlew in the field.  A downloadable identification leaflet, an mp3 file of its call, and a map of all recent sightings by season (all from http://www.slenderbilledcurlew.net/), mean that travelling waterbird counters will now know what to look for, and when and where to search for this elusive wader.


All three international meetings called for follow-up actions related to the priorities identified.  JNCC and other partner organisations in the UK will be contributing to these actions so as to ensure that the UK’s long-developed and significant expertise in waterbird monitoring and conservation can be used to help try to halt the progressive decline of the world’s waterbirds.


David Stroud

Senior Ornithological Adviser

Tel: +44 (0) 1733 866810


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