Why we need to protect endangered waterbirds

Birds are often referred to as a barometer for the health of our planet. They are ‘ecosystem engineers’ thanks to their role as seed dispersers, pollinators and scavengers.

But as the latest State of the World’s Birds report shows that birds and our planet are in trouble. One in eight bird species is threatened with extinction, and the status of the world’s birds continues to deteriorate.

The report finds that migratory waterbirds are among the species most at risk. The biggest threat they face occurs during their annual round trip migrations between their summer breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere and their feeding areas in the south.

Last week, Member States, intergovernmental organization representatives and NGOs adopted a series of resolutions and guidelines to improve biodiversity loss and the conservation of 255 waterbirds listed under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) backed African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA).

Research shows that biodiversity loss is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the planet today. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment warned that humanity was losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. One million species could go extinct in the near future if current trends are not reversed.

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the only global convention specializing in the conservation of migratory animals, their habitats and migration routes, confirmed this trend.

A CMS report presented at the 13th Conference of the Parties (COP-13) found that up to 73 per cent of its listed species were in decline. The loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, both of which sustain humanity, is nothing short of an existential crisis, said experts.

“Migratory animals are an essential part of the ecosystems in which they are found,” said Amy Fraenkel, the Convention’s Executive Secretary. “They directly contribute to the functioning and the balance and the makeup of healthy ecosystems which provide us with countless benefits, such as pollination, food, pest control and many economic benefits.”

Because migratory species cross-national, regional, and even continental boundaries, CMS has pioneered a framework that supports global cooperation – the kind that is needed to address multifaceted global challenges like biodiversity and climate change.

Hope ahead

Despite dire assessments around species loss, several Multilateral Environmental Agreements and projects are offering hope for the future of the planet’s biodiversity.

AEWA is one of nine regional legally-binding instruments developed under the CMS framework. It covers 255 species of migratory waterbirds across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, Greenland and Canada.

The Northern Bald Ibis is one of the waterbirds listed under the Agreement. Once revered as the spiritual guide of ancient Egypt’s pharaohs, the Ibis is globally endangered, having dwindled to a population of approximately 700 individuals left in the wild in Morocco. The bird’s decline owes to habitat and land-use changes, pesticide poisoning, human disturbance of nesting sites, and hunting.

To save this iconic species, Member States established a Species Action Plan under the African European Waterbird Agreement. The implementation commenced in 2005. Ongoing priority actions aim to improve breeding conditions in Morocco and to reintroduce the Ibis to Algeria, amongst others.

While the Ibis’ rebound is currently taking place in two countries, the conservation of the Slaty Egret hinges on regional cooperation. The total population of this rather shy bird is believed to be somewhere between 3,000-5,000 with Botswana’s Okavango Delta as its stronghold.

The Slaty Egret is the only globally threatened heron or egret on mainland Africa, and its declining conservation status owes to habitat conversion and the degradation and destruction of wetlands. To address these issues, the AEWA Species Action Plan for the species aims at habitat conservation measures as a priority.

This bird’s action plan will benefit species from other regions that migrate to wetland habitats within its range. The improved health of wetlands, which provide food, fresh water and other resources, are expected to boost local livelihoods and wellbeing.

Global cooperation

Countries also work together under CMS on challenges that span continents such as the Intergovernmental Task Force on Illegal Killing, Taking and Trade of Migratory Birds in the Mediterranean.

The task force brings together the countries of the Mediterranean with experts and other organizations to stop the killing of protected birds, many of which migrate between Africa and Europe. It supports conservation across two continents and serves as a model that is now being replicated to stop the illegal killing and trapping of migratory birds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

The impacts of  CMS are as visible as the birds in the sky. As highlighted during the 2021 World Migratory Bird Day, people have increasingly sought out birds and their songs as beacons of hope.

Preserving these wonders of the world is what CMS, along with UNEP and other partners is working to achieve for future generations.