On Saturday I heard a very educational talk by Nigel Clark who works for the B.T.O. and is deeply involved in the conservation of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus in far-eastern Asia. I was already aware that this species was very rare and that a breeding programme was being undertaken by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, yet it was only in the back of my mind and I was unaware of the details of the species status. The talk left me in various states of shock, partly because of learning the hard facts of how vulnerable this species now is and also the reasons for its decline and the conservation work undertaken so far.
I cannot repeat the whole talk here but the raw facts are as follows:
- The Sandpiper breeds on the coast of the most easterly and northerly point of Russia, in a mostly uninhabited region, it migrates along the coast of China and Japan and winters on estuaries in as many as 17 south-east Asian countries.
- The total world population stands at less than 1000 individuals and is still declining; as such it is listed as Critically Endangered and if nothing is done to save it this bird will be functionally extinct by about 2020 – 5 years time.
- The Yellow Sea and other tidal areas in or around China are of vital importance to this bird as wintering and migration points. Many of these places are under immediate risk of being reclaimed from the sea so that whole new cities and ports can be built there. One location seems to be where nearly all the birds of this species go to moult, this same place is scheduled to be reclaimed and built on later this year.
- A vast estuary in the Adaman Sea is an important wintering ground; poverty-stricken local people catch flocks of waders in nets to sell and for food. Hundreds of Spoon-billed Sandpipers are also caught, but thanks to a brilliant scheme by Nigel and his team the locals have been provided with the apparatus to catch fish instead of birds – the locals have now willingly stopped catching birds and have another source of food and income.
- Infant mortality is very high for this species with very few juveniles returning to breed in Russia the year after they hatched, as a conservation ‘safety net’ a breeding programme based at W.W.T. Slimbridge has been started to create a back-up captive population that can be used to boost the wild population or replace it in the case of extinction in the wild.
- Another plan involves removing eggs from wild nests, rearing the chicks to fledging age then releasing them in their wild habitat. This is known as ‘head-starting’ and may dramatically increase the number of returning juveniles and boost the population.
The situation is literally critical and the threat of land-reclamation in China is an immediate problem – it may yet be the last nail in the coffin for this charismatic species. An intriguing question that anyone who does not have a serious interest in nature may ask is – why does saving this small, obscure bird on the other side of the world really matter? If this little wader becomes extinct; will it make any difference – should we not be spending our time and money on other more important animals? I have asked myself both these questions and thought about why we should care and although there is not a simple answer, the reasons that conservationists are doing what they are doing are certainly worth-while.
Lets imagine (not too difficult at the moment) that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is extinct; what then are the consequences? Well, they may not be immediate or even significant, to be honest there may not be any noticeable change in the world’s ecosystems (to human eyes) but there will be ramifications nonetheless. For starters, we humans will have another black-mark against us (along with the Great Auk, the Dodo, and many others), and we ourselves will lament the loss of what is an attractive and interesting bird (that bill is simply too marvelous for words) and the Earth’s biodiversity will have declined by the significant figure of 1. The Peregrine will also probably decry the loss of a rare delicacy, but more seriously, if one wader becomes extinct because of severe habitat loss along the East-Asian coast, how many more will follow? It would be foolish to expect that the net result of vast swathes of tidal habitat being covered in concrete is the loss of just one species – many bird species rely on the same places as the Spoon-bill and will undoubtedly be effected.
When it comes to extinction and its effect on the Earth as a whole there are three main theories; one is that some species will have more of an effect than others once they are gone, so that the loss of a worm species will make little difference but the loss of a Tiger will destroy whole ecosystems. Another is that each and every species is important and with every one lost the health of the Earth will linearly deteriorate, the last is that the Earth could lose many species without any obvious change, but there will come a critical tipping point where too many have been lost and everything will go to pot with no return. Regardless of which theory you think sounds right and regardless of which one is actually right (if any), the extinction of the lovely Spoon-billed Sandpiper will certainly cause ripples in the environment, we must not lose it – or it will be one of the first major casualties in that great ‘extinction event’ scientists keep telling us is coming.