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The planet’s most endangered flight path and the $3 billion plan to protect it


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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

Trip overview

Band-tailed Godwit

A race against time

Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Hear his call

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The Spoonbill, a tiny shorebird with a black spatula-like bill, shows the impact this can have on a species. On the brink of extinction, there are fewer than 800 spoon-billed sandpipers left in the world.

In the northeast of Russia, the spoon-billed sandpiper has decreased significantly

Population estimates of Spoon-billed Sandpipers between 2003 and 2021 in the Meinypilgyno region of Russia.

Source: Spoon-billed Sandpiper Working Group

They breed in northeast Russia and winter in Southeast Asia, foraging at sites in the Yellow Sea along the way. One such site is Saemangeum, South Korea, where more than 100 spoonbills (as they are affectionately known) congregated each year, according to a 2016 report on shorebird decline.

But in the 1990s construction began on a 33-kilometre-long seawall across the tidal flat, which was completed in 2006, and much of the area is still being converted to agricultural or industrial land. .

Since then, only a handful of spoon-billed sandpipers have been spotted there, says Nial Moores, director of Birds Korea.

But conservation can and does make a difference

black-faced spoonbill

Take the black-faced spoonbill, a large white wading bird found only in East Asia, with a long, spoon-shaped bill that it scrapes along the shallows for food.

The population reached its nadir in the 1990s, with only a few hundred birds remaining. But protecting nesting sites and restoring breeding and wintering grounds has helped the species regain its numbers.

In 2022, more than 6,000 black-faced spoonbills have been recorded.

The number of black-faced spoonbills has rebounded

Worldwide population of black-faced spoonbills.

Source: Hong Kong Bird Watching Society

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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

Zurita hopes the regional flyways initiative will help both birds and biodiversity rebound.

First, it plans to focus on restoring 50 of the most critical wetlands along the route. While these locations are still being determined, BirdLife has mapped out a long list of potential sites – many centered on the Yellow Sea.

Potential sites for the Regional Flyways Initiative

  • East Asian-Australasian Flyway
  • Potential initiative sites

The planet’s most endangered flight path and the $3 billion plan to protect it

Source: BirdLife International


The planet’s most endangered flight path and the $3 billion plan to protect it

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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization


The planet’s most endangered flight path and the $3 billion plan to protect it

Your browser does not support the audio element


Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

A pilot project in Yancheng Wetlands in China shows the potential scale of success. The area had been heavily degraded due to urbanization and pollution, but by creating nature reserves and forest farms, more than 45 square kilometers of wetlands have now been restored, according to the Asian Development Bank (AfDB) .

As a result, waterbird populations have soared, with one reserve recording more than triple the number of birds at the site in 2018 compared to two years earlier, and nearly 3,000 ecotourism jobs , sustainable fishing and agriculture have been created, according to the bank. In 2019, Yancheng Wetlands was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of natural World Heritage Sites – a prestigious title that will help further protect the area.

But there are still challenges. The mission relies on the buy-in from the governments of more than 22 countries – many of which have different languages, cultures and political situations – and continued funding from public and private donors.

This is where the AfDB comes in. A huge institution accustomed to granting loans for large infrastructure projects, such as railways or power plants, it maintains relations with the continent’s finance ministries.

“Our goal in this project is to connect these ministries and persuade them that they need to invest in nature,” says Duncan Lang, Senior Environment Specialist at the AfDB.


The planet’s most endangered flight path and the $3 billion plan to protect it
The Mai Po nature reserve in Hong Kong, with the city of Shenzen behind. Credit: Martin Harvey/Getty Images

There is an economic incentive for governments, he adds. Wetlands act as natural sponges, protecting areas from flooding and storm surges, and they are carbon reservoirs. “The money they invest is repaid by the money they don’t have to pay out for storm damage,” and the potential carbon savings could contribute to a nation’s climate commitments, Lang says. .

By showing that conserving nature can make financial sense, Zurita believes this initiative could become a model for conservation across the world. She says BirdLife has already attracted interest from development banks in other continents wanting to protect their flyways.

Birds fly from pole to pole on all continents of the Earth. They are considered the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” – indicators of ecological health. And their decline sends the message that the natural world is in danger.

Protecting their flight paths could help preserve ecosystems across the planet.

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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

What can you do to help

The planet’s most endangered flight path and the $3 billion plan to protect it

Patricia Zurita Guest Editor of Call to Earth, CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

make known

“Most people don’t even know it’s actually happening, and it’s so far out of their daily lives, that unless we let people know it’s a problem, we won’t be able to change anything.”


Give nature a home

“Remember that we are one of millions of species on this planet and we provide homes and food for the birds that come your way.”


Buy local and use less energy

“Think about the things you buy and how you ship. The more energy I use – the more gas, the more oil and the more gasoline I use – the more climate change happens. And the more nature really suffers.


You can act now

Migratory birds around the world are in danger, but there are things we can do to help them. Start by spreading the word.

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