Bid to save sandpiper at risk of extinction in Russia

Spoon-billed sandpiper chick (image: Elena Lappo, Birds Russia) Will this spoon-billed sandpiper chick make it to adulthood?

Conservationists have embarked on a mission to save one of the world's rarest birds, the spoon-billed sandpiper, from extinction.

Fewer than 200 pairs of spoon-billed sandpipers were thought to exist in 2009, and since then, the population has thought to have declined by a quarter each year.

So a specialist team of bird experts are flying to the sandpiper's home in northeast Russia to collect and incubate eggs and set up a captive breeding population.

Start Quote

This adaptation, entirely unique to its family, makes it one of the most weird and wonderful bird species on the planet”

End Quote Dr Geoff Hilton Head of Species Research, WWT

The captive population of spoon-billed sandpipers will be housed in Moscow Zoo for quarantine purposes, then moved to a specially built unit at the headquarters of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, UK.

The emergency mission is being undertaken by the WWT and Birds Russia, working with colleagues from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), BirdLife International, ArcCona, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force and Moscow Zoo.

Experts fear that, without intervention, the spoon-billed sandpiper could be extinct within ten years.

The count of 200 pairs in 2009 is an upper estimate and there may have been as few as 120 pairs at that time.

Surveys since suggest that the counted population is falling by 26% a year, with juveniles having a particularly low rate of survival.

Spoon-billed sandpipers (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) are a small Arctic wading bird, sporting a bill shaped like a spoon.

"This adaptation, entirely unique to its family, makes it one of the most weird and wonderful bird species on the planet," says Dr Geoff Hilton, Head of Species Research at the WWT.

The BTO's shorebird expert, Dr Nigel Clark, agrees: "There is only one wader that eats with a spoon and we need to try everything we can to save it from extinction."

Children release a captured spoon-billed sandpiper (image: Rob Robinson / BTO) Children release a captured spoon-billed sandpiper

The bird divides its time between northeast Russia and the Bay of Bay of Martaban, Myanmar (Burma) and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh.

Travelling between, they migrate over 8,000km (4,970 miles) on a journey that may pass through Japan, North Korea, the Republic of Korea, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India.

Unsustainable levels of subsistence hunting, particularly within the wintering areas in Myanmar and Bangladesh, are thought to be driving the species's decline.

Degradation and reclamation of the inter-tidal mudflats along many countries in Asia is exacerbating the problem.

No spoon-billed sandpipers currently exist in captivity.

Currently the team are in Russia waiting to locate and collect eggs from the breeding grounds.

They will construct an incubation facility out on the tundra where they will hatch the chicks before transferring the fledged young via sea and air back to Moscow Zoo for quarantine.

"It is absolutely clear that the spoon-billed sandpiper cannot be saved without action to reduce the threats to the wild population, but it is going to be difficult to achieve a turnaround quickly enough to avert extinction. Creating a captive population now may buy us some time," says Dr Hilton.

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