Do Migratory Birds Connect our World: Analyzing from the Perspective of Collective Legal Response


Authors: Prakash Sharma and Partha Pratim Mitra

On May 09, the world celebrated the World Migratory Bird Day in order to raise awareness of migratory birds and the importance of international cooperation to conserve them. For the year 2020 the theme is “Birds Connect our World”. It is organized by a collaborative partnership among two United Nations treaties i.e. the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), and the Colorado based non-profit organization, Environment for the Americas (EFTA).


Migratory Birds play an important role by conserving and restoring the ecological connectivity and integrity of ecosystems that support the natural cycles that are essential for the survival and well-being of migratory birds. Over the years, migratory birds are facing severe existential threat. Factors like loss of habitat, climate change, poisoning, power lines, and illegal killing have contributed immensely to the threat. It is realized that individual State effort wouldn’t bring desired results, however, sincere collective actions from all nation-states, across the world, has the potential to better protect migratory birds and the habitats they need to survive and thrive.

In this regard, CMS brings together the nation-states through which migratory animals pass, the Range States, and lays the legal foundation for internationally coordinated conservation measures throughout a migratory range. Migratory species threatened with extinction are listed on Appendix-Iand those migratory species that need or would significantly benefit from international co-operation are listed in Appendix-II of the Convention. Listing generally leads to concerted actions in different national jurisdictions in which a species range. Actions may include cooperation among range countries, harmonization in policies etc. through regional agreements. CMS has working groups specializing in various fauna families, and a scientific council that advises research-based solutions for conservation.

Endangered and Threatened Bird Species

At least 1,317 bird species have been recorded in India against around 10,000 species found worldwide. Of the 1,317 species recorded in India, 72 are endemic to the country. According to an assessment of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 2018, a total of 100 species of Indian birds are classified as ‘threatened’. Of these, 17 are categorized as ‘critically endangered’, 20 as ‘endangered’, and 63 as ‘vulnerable’.Besides these threatened species, there are several other species that are marked by sparse population size and restricted range and are generally considered rare by conservationists.

COP-13, India: Relevance

The conservation of wildlife and habitats has long been part of the cultural ethos of India.In February 2020the 13thsession of the Conference of the Partiesto the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals(COP-13) was held in Gandhinagar, India. The COP-13 had the theme titled “Migratory species connect the planet and together we welcome them home”. The COP-13resulted in the adoption of seven new species including migratory birds like Great Indian Bustard, Bengal Florican, Little Bustard, Antipodean Albatross to Appendix-I of the CMS. In this regard, the Government of India also issued a special stamp edition featuring the Great Indian Bustard as the mascot of COP-13.

COP-13 was the largest ever in the history of the Convention, with 2,550 people attending including 263 delegates representing 82 Parties, 11 delegates from 5 non-Party countries, 50 representatives from United Nations agencies, 70 representatives of international NGOs, 127 representatives of national NGOs and over 100 members of both national and international media.COP13 adopted the Gandhinagar Declaration, which calls for integration of migratory species and the concept of ‘ecological connectivity’ in the new framework (to be adopted at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in October).Interestingly, COP-13 is perhaps the first COP ever inaugurated by the Head of Government of the host-country.

Convention on Migratory Species and its Agreements and MoUs

The CMS was initially signed by 21 nation-states in Bonn, Germany on 1979 and came into force in November, 1983. Presently, CMS has 130 nation-states as its Party while several other nation-states, although not Party to the CMS are Party to one or more of the agreements and/or have signed one or more of the Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs). The CMS was mainly drafted by Francoise Burhenne-Guilmin who later became head of IUCN’s Environmental Law Commission. CMS is species specific and covers terrestrial, marine and avian migratory species. According to Philippe Sands and Jacqueline Peel migratory species can be classified into four general categories; (1) Marine species which breed on the shores of coastal states but migrate to sea during adult life, e.g. seals, sea turtles, anadromous fish; (2) Highly migratory marine species which travel between exclusive economic zones and high seas e.g. tuna or whales; (3) Territorial species with a well-established migration pattern e.g. birds; and (4) Territorial or marine species which live in border areas and regularly cross jurisdiction boundaries e.g. gorillas or elephants.

Interestingly, however, the CMS itself does not apply any direct measures, but directs the “range states” to make ancillary agreements. So far six regional agreements and seven non-binding MoUs have been convened on various migratory species, like AEWA, 1995whichis an intergovernmental treaty dedicated to the conservation of migratory water birds including 255 species of birds ecologically dependent on wetlands for at least part of their annual cycle and their habitats across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Likewise, the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), 2001 was made to recognize the need for international cooperation for marine migratory species like Albatrosses and Petrels.

Similarly, the MoU concerning conservation measures for the Siberian Crane, 1993 was entered to protect Siberian Cranes. The MoU concerning conservation measures for the Slender-Billed Curlew, 1994 was formed with an aim to safeguard the Slender-Billed Curlew. The MoU on the conservation and management of the Great Bustard, 2001 was also made to correct the continuous decline of the Great Bustard and degradation or fragmentation of suitable habitats and hunting pressure in Middle-European States etc

Migratory Bird Treaties:From 1916 onwards

Prior to the multilateral international conventions, migratory bird treaties (MBTs) were main instruments for bird protection. The United States of America(USA) is pioneer in entering into the treaty regime of ‘nation-state conservation policy’. Perhaps, the thought was to successfully strengthen the domestic laws and thereafter facilitate the international cooperation for avian conservation. The 1916,The United States signs a treaty with Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada, then part of the British Empire)to stop all hunting of insectivorous birds and to establish specific hunting seasons for game birds. In order to implement the treaty, the USA Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, 1918 and replaced the Weeks-McLean Act, 1913.The said treaty is known to be one of the oldest sources of international environmental law.Later, USA signed a treaty similar to the one entered between Great Britain with Mexico in 1936 for the protection (through laws and regulations) of migratory birds in their movements across the two signatory nation-states.USA signed treaty with Japan in 1972 for protection of migratory birds except if an open season has been established. Likewise, USA entered treaty with Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1976 to improve cooperation between the contracting parties as the conservation of migratory birds passing between their territories.

The success of MBTs to facilitate, encourage, and justify expensive and often low-priority bird conservation and research facilities rubbed onto other nation-states. For instance, Japan in 1973 signed a treaty with USSR to promote cooperation in the conservation of birds migrating between the contracting parties’ territories and of endangered species of birds. In 1974, Australia signed an identical treaty (the one entered between Japan and USSR) with Japan. In 1981, Japan entered an agreement with Peoples Republic of China (PRC) for the prohibition of the taking of birds listed in an appendix to the treaty, establishment of bird sanctuaries, and for the exchange of research results. This bilateral migratory bird agreement has been instrumental in building research capacity in PRC for the study of migratory birds.

There are certain little known yet significant MBTs, for example, the 1984 agreement between India and USSR, which is applicable to species of birds for which there is a positive evidence of migration between the two countries and also to species or sub-species common to both countries and listed in the appendix attached with the agreement. Both nations agreed to promote joint research programs and establish bird sanctuaries and endeavour to preserve and improve the natural environment of migratory birds. Another, treaty entered between Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation in 1994 (is the only bilateral treaty entered in 1990s)was on mutual cooperation for taking measures for the management and protection of migratory birds and their habitat and the prevention of the extinction of certain birds. It recognized that many species of birds migrate between and seasonally live in both countries and that certain species of birds are in danger of extinction.

Though, the merits of MBTs are mostly limited to migratory bird species and is limited between the nation-states party to such treaties. Nevertheless, from the perusal of above-discussed MBTs, it is argued that MBTs are still a beneficial tool since multinational treaties tend to be inflexible, cumbersome, and politically driven. They act as a useful tool for international wildlife conservation (even after the emergence of multinational treaties like CMS). At the same time, it would be much too simplistic to conclude that any one category or model of MBT is better than any other, In fact MBTs have starting to form a network of international conservation efforts.

Concluding remarks

The last flocks of passenger pigeons were reported in 1888, the last confirmed sighting occurred in 1900, and the last passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1914 in Cincinnati zoo.In 1850 Alexander Wilson, an ornithol­ogist,watched migrating flock of passenger pigeons and wrote that their passing had darkened the sky for more than 30 minutes(containing 2 billion birds spread over 384 km long and 1.6 km wide, in the sky). Both passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) were most dramatic bird extinction ever recorded. Both were the victim of human consumption. Even thereafter, the human desire did not stop, birds which were frequently around 10 years ago, have become rare and in certain cases extinct. In the times, when most of the world’s population is under some form of restricted movement due to the COVID-19, this theme “Birds Connect Our World” carries a particular relevance and poignance. The need of hour is multiple efforts, for instance, during recently concluded COP-13, the Indian Prime Minister pledged to focus on the conservation of migratory birds along the Central Asian Flyway, announced the establishment of an institutional research facility for the conservation of migratory birds and marine turtles, and confirmed efforts to reduce pollution from micro-plastic and single-use plastic etc. It is desired that human-beings collectively act to prevent the destruction of birds. This would demand adherence of stringent domestic laws, and measures that conserve and protect their habitats and their flyways.

* Partha Pratim Mitra has written a book titled, Birds, Wetlands and the Law: Indian and International Perspectives (Thomson Reuters, 2019).

Prakash Sharma
Prakash Sharma
Assistant Professor, VSLLS, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, New Delhi.