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Conservation science

Hunting the cause of a population crash

The enigmatic spoon-billed sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus is famed for its bizarre cutlery-shaped appendage and the challenges of observing it.

Sadly, it's also known for its perplexing plunge towards extinction. It is estimated that only 120–220 pairs remain. The bird's summer breeding grounds on the Russian Chukotskiy peninsula are inaccessible to all but a few ornithologists, and — despite occasional sightings across a vast range from India to Malaysia — the main wintering sites were unknown. Zöckler and colleagues, however, now show both what the likely threats are to the overwintering birds and how those threats might be reduced (C. Zöckler et al. Wader Study Group Bull. 117, 1–8; 2010).

Credit: C. SCHENK/FN/MINDEN/FLPA

With no apparent sign of habitat degradation at the breeding site, Zöckler and colleagues searched for the birds' wintering area. In January 2010, they found an estimated half of the global overwintering population in the Bay of Martaban in Myanmar. The team identified one bird that had been tagged with a leg flag on the breeding grounds in 2003. Analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes from the few, winter-grown, feathers collected when the bird was tagged showed that this individual was in the centre of the densest data cluster, implying that it was in the heart of the wintering area.

Zöckler et al. went further. On making enquiries, they found that local hunters use mist nets to catch birds for the pot: an estimated 30,000 shorebirds are killed annually in this single bay, which harbours up to 150,000 migratory shorebirds. Most of the 26 hunters from 15 villages who were interviewed were familiar with spoon-billed sandpipers, and reported regularly catching them.

Paradoxically, this second discovery could be good news. Only five of the interviewees were full-time professional hunters and their main targets are much larger birds. The authors propose that incentives should be offered to the villagers to conserve the birds; village elders may then ensure that there is no hunting. Such mechanisms have worked elsewhere in Myanmar.

Zöckler et al. say that, without intervention, the spoon-billed sandpiper could become extinct within 10–20 years. But now, thanks to their persistent investigation and willingness to engage with local people, it may not. The story illustrates how conservation is as much a social science as a biological one. When the two come together, there is hope for real change.

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Székely, T., Sutherland, W. Hunting the cause of a population crash. Nature 466, 448 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/466448a

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