World Bird News October 2017

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India closes the loophole threatening the recovery of Asia's vultures

This week, the Indian Government took an important step towards preventing the extinction of Asia’s Critically Endangered vultures by upholding the ban on large vials of diclofenac, a painkiller that is fatal to vultures. The judge was on the vultures’ side throughout, preferring to call them “sanitary workers” rather than “scavenging birds”.
Despite pleas from two major pharmaceutical companies, on the 25th of October the Madras High Court upheld the ban on large “multi-dose” vials of diclofenac, of a large enough volume to be used on livestock for veterinary purposes. The illegal practice was banned in India in 2006 after years of lobbying from environmental groups like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS, BirdLife in India) and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK). This was after it was revealed that traces of diclofenac in livestock carcasses were triggering large-scale poisonings of vultures across the country, leading to population collapses of up to 99.9% in some species.

Yet despite the ban, pharmacies continued to sell the drug in suspiciously large 30ml multi-dose packets –allegedly for human use, but frequently diverted to animals as a slightly cheaper option than its legal, and vulture-safe, alternatives (such as meloxicam). In 2015 the Indian Government banned these large packets too, limiting vial sizes to 3ml, and stood their ground despite the protests of big names in the pharmaceutical industry.

A "cynical" way for pharmaceutical companies to facilitate illegal use of the drug

Achieving and maintaining the ban has always been a priority for SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction, a consortium of conservation groups including BirdLife International). SAVE programme manager Chris Bowden said:

“There is really no legitimate need for larger vials in human medicine, so the production of the larger vials has been a cynical way that the pharmaceutical companies have been facilitating illegal use of the drug.”

“We warmly welcome this ruling which is an important step for vulture conservation in the region, and credit to the Indian authorities for upholding this important measure.”
“The court battle has taken over two years, and I have done my best to attend most of the hearings, submitting relevant scientific documents”, says Bharathidasan S. of SAVE associate Arulagam. Core SAVE partner BNHS was also a vital presence throughout the proceedings.

Authoring the judgement for the bench, Justice M. Sundar highlighted Gyps bengalensis (the White-rumped Vulture), Gyps tenuirostris (the Slender-billed Vulture) and Gyps indicus (the Indian Vulture) as the key species that will benefit from the new law.

India, Nepal and Pakistan were the first to lead the ban in 2006, with Bangladesh following suit in 2010. Thanks to the ban, and our hard work introducing Vulture Safe Zones, South Asia’s Critically Endangered vulture populations have been stabilizing, albeit at precariously low levels, since 2012.

The hope is that, if India’s support and pride in its vultures continues, they may soon be on the road to a full recovery. This fantastic news comes at a time when we’re lobbying for an international Multi-Species Action Plan to combat the vulture crisis.

Is the Yellow-breasted Bunting the next Passenger Pigeon?

Is the Yellow-breasted Bunting the next Passenger Pigeon?

Wide-scale, unchecked hunting has, in the space of just three decades, driven frightening declines in two widespread bunting species, on both sides of the Eurasian landmass. Armed with our scientific findings, the BirdLife Partnership is now working to help buntings recover.

We are all familiar with the cautionary tale of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius — once the most abundant species in North America, and possibly the entire world. Numbering well into the billions at the peak of its existence, flocks of Passenger Pigeons flying overhead were likened to deafening hurricanes. It seemed unthinkable that this superabundant bird could go extinct.

Yet, it did. Unchecked hunting and the widespread clearance of hardwood trees, which provided the bulk of its diet, drove a steep decline in numbers in the late 19th Century. By the time we realised what was happening, it was too late to reverse the decline, and Martha, the last known Passenger Pigeon, died in captivity in 1914. This sorry tale serves to remind us that although many birds are classified as Least Concern by BirdLife on behalf of the IUCN Red List, if we ignore the warning signs, no species is immune from the threat of extinction.

In the mid-1990s, the observed decline of the Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola in Hokkaido, Japan alerted conservationists that another super-abundant species might be in trouble. Now we know it has suffered a huge decline, possibly as much as 95 percent of its population, in the span of just two to three decades. Prior to 2004 the Yellow-breasted Bunting was not regarded as of conservation concern, but since 2013 it has been listed as Endangered, and this year the discussion on BirdLife’s Globally Threatened Birds Forum concerned a potential further uplisting to Critically Endangered.

The main reason for its decline is also comparable to that of the Passenger Pigeon: the species migrates in huge flocks, which are hunted in massive numbers. Again paralleling the Passenger Pigeon, the Yellow-breasted Bunting’s plight has been worsened by improvements in communication and transportation. The species gathers in large numbers at night to roost, making the birds easy to trap in high numbers.

The species is known as the “rice bird” in China, where it is hunted for food — a practice that has been illegal since 1997, but continues on the black market to this day. Such unsustainable and mostly illegal hunting on migratory passerines in Asia has pushed not only the Yellow-breasted Bunting to the edge of extinction; according to preliminary monitoring projects performed in Amur Region (Russia) and Hong Kong SAR (China), all migratory bunting species in eastern Asia are declining.

In order to address and confront this little-known crisis, BirdLife International co-organised an international workshop on conservation of the Yellow-breasted Bunting with the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (BirdLife in China (Hong Kong)) and the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China in November 2016. The purpose of the workshop was to collect information and opinion for drafting an International Conservation Action Plan on the Yellow-breasted Bunting, and to form an international conservation network on this and other migratory passerines.

More than 50 experts from almost all major range countries attended the workshop. The main recommendations from the workshop were that the Yellow-breasted Bunting should be officially protected in all range countries, that its migration patterns should be managed using colour banding and geolocators, and that its breeding, migration and wintering sites need to be identified, surveyed, protected, and managed. It is also imperative to study the effect of agrochemicals on migratory passerines that use farmlands, and promote wildlife-friendly farming practices. International cooperation on the research and conservation of this species and other migratory passerines is necessary if we are to stabilise the numbers of Asia’s vanishing migrants.

The International Conservation Action Plan of the Yellow-breasted Bunting is expected to be published by 2019, as good consultation with different countries and stakeholders, including some regional and national workshops, are needed. However, important actions are already underway. In the breeding season of 2016, BirdLife International and Birds Russia conducted a preliminary study on the Yellow-breasted Bunting in Sakhalin, Russia. The result was alarming: it has seemingly disappeared completely from southern Sakhalin, and could only found at a few localities in northern and central parts of the island.

The next year, a joint team from BirdLife International, Wild Bird Society of Japan (BirdLife Partner) and Birds Russia visited northern Sakhalin and colour-banded eighteen Yellow-breasted Buntings so we could study its migration. Geolocators will be used in the breeding season of 2018 if the banded birds have proven they are returning to the same breeding sites.

Curlew crisis deepens: vital Australian wetlands under threat

The curlews are one of the most widespread and far-travelling of all the bird families — and also one of the most threatened. It seems that wherever they roam, habitat loss and human encroachment follows. We can’t let the Far Eastern Curlew go the same way as its fellows.
The Numeniini — a tribe of large waders including curlews and godwits — is one of the most threatened bird groups on the planet. The once-abundant Eskimo Curlew Numenius borealis of the Americas is now considered Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct), having last been spotted with certainty in the 1960s. But the plight of the Numeniini also extends over the Atlantic into the Old World. Here, the extensive drainage of wetlands across the Mediterranean and North Africa — important wintering grounds for many migratory birds across the African-Eurasian Flyway — has rendered another species, the Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris, missing in action for almost a quarter of a century.

With each year that passes, it becomes more likely that Europe has suffered its first avian extinction since the Great Auk croaked its last in 1852

Like the Eskimo Curlew, the possibility of the extinction of the Slender-billed Curlew cannot be confirmed for sure until we have scoured the entirety of its known breeding grounds in the Siberian wilderness for a remnant population. And although it hasn’t been recorded with confidence across its wintering range since February 1995, it’s possible that a few remaining Slender-billed Curlews — gregarious birds by nature — are still making the long trip south as part of a flock of a more common species, such as Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata or Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus.

Attempts to track down a straggling Slender-billed Curlew population continue, with the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) recently using environmental data, gleaned from tiny atoms harvested from museum specimens, to pinpoint a potential breeding ground in the Kazakh steppes. But with each year that passes, it becomes more likely that Europe has suffered its first avian extinction since the Great Auk Pinguinus impennis croaked its last in 1852.

But while chasing ghosts is all well and good, those who don’t learn from history, as the saying goes, are doomed to repeat it. Attention must now be given to helping to protect the members of the Numeniini tribe that we know are still with us — and of this group, there is none more imperiled than the Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis.
The Far Eastern Curlew is the largest and one of the most threatened migratory shorebirds in the world. Found only across the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), this long-billed, intrepid traveller is finding it harder and harder to complete its gruelling migration journey each year, as its habitat continues to disappear along the flyway. Like most migratory shorebirds along the EAAF, the biggest conservation challenge for the Far Eastern Curlew is the urgent need to protect remaining intertidal habitat in the Yellow Sea, a bottleneck for shorebirds on both their northward and southward migrations.

While protecting habitat in the Yellow Sea is critical to the future of the Far Eastern Curlew, we also need to ensure that this magnificent bird, assessed by BirdLife as Endangered due to its recent, rapid population declines, has access to sufficient, high quality habitat across all stages of its epic migration journey.

Australians’ love for the coast has no doubt contributed to the Far Eastern Curlew’s decline

Australia has a particularly important role to play. For almost six months of the year, over 70 per cent of the world’s Far Eastern Curlews call Australia home. It’s the last stop on their southward migration and where they build their energy and fat stores to prepare them for the migration back to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. The scale of habitat loss in Australia may not be as dramatic as in the Yellow Sea, but Australians’ love for the coast has no doubt contributed to the decline in the world’s Eastern Curlew population.

Growing demand for coast-side developments and the ever-increasing amount of human activity on our beaches has meant that, for Far Eastern Curlews, who are notoriously wary of humans, there is less and less undisturbed feeding and roosting habitat at the southernmost end of their migration journey. This makes the places in Australia that still support large numbers of Far Eastern Curlews even more important to the survival of this species.

Moreton Bay in Queensland is one such place. The vast mudflats of Moreton Bay provide a haven for over 40,000 overwintering migratory shorebirds each year, including over 3,000 Far Eastern Curlews. For this reason, it is recognised by BirdLife as both an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) and a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA).
Moreton Bay is also an important place for juvenile Far Eastern Curlews, with many young birds remaining in the bay for up to two years after their first southward migration. Here, they master the foraging skills they’ll need to sustain them for many migrations to come. In theory, Moreton Bay should continue to remain a safe place for Far Eastern Curlews. Listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, it’s protected under this international treaty and Australian domestic law as one of the most important wetlands in the world.

Yet, it’s possible that the Australian Government could soon approve a marina and residential development within the Moreton Bay Ramsar site, destroying important habitat for Far Eastern Curlew, and setting a dangerous precedent for the future protection of Ramsar-listed wetlands across the world.

The scale of habitat loss that would be caused by the proposed Toondah Harbour development might pale in comparison to that in other parts of the flyway, but if this development goes ahead, Australia will be sending a clear message to the international community that even the most important wetlands in the world are not safe from destructive development. For the Far Eastern Curlew, this does not bode well. Migratory shorebirds in the EAAF and across the world are in desperate need of stronger international collaboration and conservation, not actions that erode and undermine one of the most important international environmental treaties.

We can’t afford to sanction the destruction of the world’s most important wetlands

It’s crazy to think that the Australian Government could be responsible for setting such a dangerous precedent at a time when they are otherwise leading in international efforts to save the Far Eastern Curlew. The development of the International Single Species Action Plan for the Conservation of the Far Eastern Curlew, recently endorsed by the EAAF Partnership, was led by the Australian Government. Remaining habitat for Far Eastern Curlew across the EAAF is precious, and must be protected.

A development within the Moreton Bay Ramsar site, one of the most important places for this species in the world, will not only be bad news for those Far Eastern Curlews who call Moreton Bay home, but Far Eastern Curlews and other threatened waterbirds across the world. We cannot afford to wind back protection and sanction the destruction of the world’s most important wetlands.

BirdLife Australia supporters have been actively calling on the Queensland and Australian Governments to make the right decision and respect Ramsar, rather than sanction a development in a Ramsar-listed wetland. If they don’t, then for the Numeniini, already facing the possibility of two extinctions, bad things could happen in threes.

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | World Bird News | World Bird News 2017 |  World Bird News October 2017

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