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

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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

Travel overview

Stanghalespove

A race against time

Spoon-beaked sandpiper

Hear its call

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The spoon-beaked sandpiper, a small shorebird with a black beak like a spatula, shows what effect this can have on a species. Tilting to the brink of extinction, there are fewer than 800 spoon-beaked sandpipers left in the world.

In northeastern Russia, the spoon-beak sailor has drastically declined

Population estimates of spoon-beaked sandpiper pairs between 2003 and 2021 in the Meinypilgyno region of Russia.

Source: Spoon-image Sandpiper Task Force

They breed in northeastern Russia and overwinter in Southeast Asia and refuel in places along the Yellow Sea along the way. One such place is the Saemangeum in South Korea, where more than 100 spoons (as they are affectionately called) used to gather each year, according to a 2016 report on the decline in coastal birds.

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

Since then, only a handful of spoon-beaked sand pipes have been seen there, says Nial Moores, director of Birds Korea.

But conservation can and does make a difference

Black-faced spoon stork

Take the black-braided spoonbill, a large, white wading bird found only in East Asia, with a long scaly beak, which it scrapes along the shallow water for food.

The population reached its nadir in the 1990s, with only a few hundred birds left. However, the protection of nesting sites and the restoration of breeding and wintering sites have helped the species regain its numbers.

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

The number of black spoonbills has returned

Global stock 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 Flyway Initiative will help both birds and biodiversity recover.

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

Potential sites for the Regional Flyway Initiative

  • East Asian-Australasian Flyway
  • Potential places of initiative

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Source: BirdLife International


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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization


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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

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

Waterfowl populations have risen as a result, with a reserve recording more than tripling the number of birds on the site in 2018 compared to two years earlier, and nearly 3,000 jobs in ecotourism, sustainable fishing and agriculture have been created, the bank says . In 2019, the Yancheng wetlands were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a prestigious title that will help further protect the area.

But there are still challenges. The mission is dependent on the acquisition of governments from more than 22 countries – many with different languages, cultures and political situations – and continued funding from both public and private donors.

This is where ADB comes into the picture. A huge institution accustomed to handing out loans to major infrastructure projects, such as railways or power plants, it has relations with finance ministries around the continent.

“Our goal in this project is to connect these ministries and convince them to invest in nature,” said Duncan Lang, senior environmental specialist at ADB.


May_po_ Wetlands
Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong, with Shenzen City rising behind. Credit: Martin Harvey / Getty Images

There is an economic incentive for governments, he adds. Wetlands act as natural fungi that protect areas from floods and storm surges, and they are carbon stores. “The money they invest is repaid by the money they do not have to pay in storm damage,” and potential carbon savings could contribute to a nation’s climate pledge, Lang says.

By showing that nature conservation can make economic sense, Zurita believes this initiative can become a worldwide conservation plan. She says BirdLife has already had interest from development banks on other continents that want to protect their flight paths.

Birds fly from pole to pole across all continents on Earth. They are seen as the well-known “canary in the coal mine” – indicators of ecological health. And their decline sends a message that the natural world is in danger.

Protecting their flight paths can help preserve ecosystems across the entire planet.

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Patricia Zurita CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

What you can do to help

Patricia Zurita

Patricia Zurita Call to Earth guest editor, CEO of BirdLife International, a global conservation organization

spread the word

“Most people do not even know that this is actually happening, and it is so far away from their day to day that unless we let people know that this is a problem, we will not be able to change anything. “


Give nature a home

“Remember, we are part of millions of species on this planet, and provide homes and food for birds that are on their way to you.”


Buy locally and use less energy

“Think about the things you buy and the way you transport yourself. The more energy I use – the more gas, the more oil and the more petrol I use – the more climate change happens. And the more nature suffers actually.”


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Migratory birds around the world are at risk, but there are things we can do to help. Start by spreading the message.

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