Stopping bird trapping
Good progress is being made to stop bird trapping on the spoon-billed sandpipers’ non-breeding grounds. Bird trappers sign agreements to cease hunting, in return for small grants to buy fishing equipment. The East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force estimates that as many as 80-90% of hunters in the Bay of Martaban, Myanmar (the most important wintering site in the world for spoon-billed sandpiper) have now signed an agreement to stop hunting and surrendered their trapping equipment.
But even if everything goes well and winter mortality is halved every five years from 2011, population modelling shows that the population will still be extremely small and highly vulnerable to extinction for more than a decade. Without spoon-billed sandpipers in captivity, there would be no safety net against extinction in the wild.
The conservation breeding programme is needed to boost the wild population with captive-reared juvenile birds while we tackle the threats is faces. And, if the worst happens and the wild population is lost, birds reared in captivity can be used to reintroduce the species to the wild.
Before the conservation breeding programme was started, the project team used population modelling to assess the effect of taking eggs on the wild population. Using the estimated population size and information available on adult survival, productivity and recruitment the models indicated that any effect would be negligible.
A captive flock is now established in specially-designed biosecure aviaries in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire. Through breeding, the size of the flock will be built up to the point where some eggs can be transported to the Russian Far East, to be hatched, reared and released on the breeding grounds.
The second element of conservation breeding is ‘headstarting’, in which specialists take eggs from incubating birds into captivity and raise the chicks by hand to fledging age in the Russian Far East, before release back into the wild.
In the wild, of every 20 eggs laid, just three chicks survive to adulthood. Our headstarting programme increases this likelihood by five times. Their chance of survival leaps from a mere 15% to 85%.
Headstarting has major strategic benefits:
1. Currently, very few fledglings survive to return to the breeding grounds two years later. Hunting in Myanmar and Bangladesh is thought to be a major factor in this. Already measures to reduce hunting are showing significant progress and within two years we could start to see more birds surviving to return to breed. If numbers at this stage have been boosted by headstarting, the population will stabilise and recover more quickly.
2. By rearing birds in captivity, we have the chance to attach leg-flags. Like rings, these give us the chance to track them through their flyway and detect when the number of birds returning to the breeding grounds starts to increase. This will help us assess and adjust our conservation strategies.
3. Head-starting also gives us critical experience of in-the-field methods that will potentially be needed when eggs are returned from the Slimbridge flock