Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In Need of a Spoonful of Sugar

‘Eurynorhynchus pygmeus’— the small broad nose. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s scientific name is accurate in portraying its namesake physical characteristic, their unique spatulate bill, yet says nothing about the heartbreaking decline that this tiny shorebird is suffering. Listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered, the last possible listing before ‘Extinct’, the global population of Spoon-billed Sandpipers tentatively rests at a dangerous level— a meager 100 breeding pairs remain. Breeding in Russia and flying thousands of miles to wintering grounds in Southeast Asia, they are dependent on the health of ecosystems worldwide. Their shockingly small numbers, combined with a high mortality in young birds, puts them at risk for disappearing in the next ten years…and perhaps even within the next five. For a bird whose population was in the thousands just a few decades ago, this is a terribly depressing realization. Their buzzy trills once so common in Russia might soon be silenced forever.

         Spoon-billed Sandpipers find their most immediate concern in the trapping practices of hunters at the birds’ winter homes. Since pockets of breeding birds are so scarce, this species has no room for even a single loss, and the subsistence hunting of shorebirds in Asia poses a dire threat. Additionally, their stopover sites on their migratory paths, critical “refueling” points on a very long and demanding journey, are rapidly disappearing. Due to human development of intertidal habitat, the places which these birds, along with a wide array of other migratory shorebirds, utilize during migration are being converted into agricultural areas. With nowhere to rest and feed after days of nonstop flight, birds simply die of exhaustion. Each migration could be the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s last. In a few short years, spring on Russia’s coastal tundra could arrive without the rolling voices of its rarest shorebird.

         Clearly, immediate and effective conservation action is desperately needed to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Concerned scientists from around the globe have collectively begun a movement to boost the recovery of this special bird, beginning with addressing the issue of hunting in Asia. Poor families in countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar collect hundreds of shorebirds, hoping to make enough money to sustain their struggling families. While these people are as desperate to survive as the sandpipers themselves, it is vital to the existence of the birds that this hunting be ended immediately. How to help the people, though? It is a relatively simple solution: replace the birds with another way of life. In the case of Myanmar, the locals receive funding and training for fishing in return for their cessation of hunting sandpipers. According to the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force, up to 90% of hunters in critical Spoon-billed Sandpiper habitats have agreed to stop trapping the birds.

         This is a tremendous achievement for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, but their numbers are so low that stopping hunting alone cannot ensure the survival of the species. Further action must be taken, and a multitude of international bird organizations, including BirdLife International, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Moscow Zoo have partnered up in order to create a captive-breeding program. Birds will be hand-raised until they are fit for release into the wild; this practice will build a captive population of the birds to have as “back-up” in the event that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper vanishes from the wild entirely. Captivity in itself is a sensitive subject, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and in the case of Eurynorhyncus pygmeus, there is no time to debate. Action must be swiftly taken if these precious birds are to survive. Captive breeding has shown success in other species, and so is a grand hope for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s future.

         What, though, makes the Spoon-billed Sandpiper so worthy of saving? Why not ignore its plight, for such few birds remain. The species is on a fast track to extinction, and in a very short window of time. Why spend thousands of international dollars to help such a small and scarce shorebird?
         The question we should be asking, however, is “Why not?”
Every single living organism on Planet Earth has its biological niche to fill, and every species is a thread in the web of life and energy in our biosphere. One loss has global consequences. The disappearance of one species can directly cause the death of another. From phytoplankton to fin whales, Earth’s beings and the ecosystems in which they live are constantly balancing on a thin rope, ready to topple over at any moment.
         Beyond these biological facts, however, lies a deeper reason to preserve even the rarest creatures: they are, like us, individuals. They are living, breathing, thinking, feeling beings who deserve the most basic of pleasures—the freedom to live. No matter their outward appearance, no matter their place in the ecosystem, no matter how uncommon or how abundant they are. They are alive, and it is only just to ensure that they are able to run the course of their brilliant and beautiful lives and pass the secrets of this life to future generations. Every life matters, and the 200 Spoon-billed Sandpiper lives still flying through our skies deserve our time and effort as good as anyone. This sparrow-sized shorebird may be rare, but compassion is not. The efforts of caring individuals can, and will, restore the symphony of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’s song for many seasons to come. 

•• Learn more about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and the efforts to protect them! ••