Naturalists set up 'air traffic control' network to save birds
By Severin Carrell
12 October 2003
Naturalists are to set up a global "air traffic control" network to
protect the nesting and feeding sites of tens of millions of endangered
Ornithologists are alarmed by fresh evidence that dozens of geese,
wader and duck species now setting off on their annual migration south
are facing extinction or, at best, a steep decline in numbers.
Some migratory birds face imminent extinction, such as the sociable
lapwing, which flies from the Russian steppe to the Middle East.
Others, like the red knot, which migrates the full length of the
Americas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, are facing extreme and sudden
Many of Britain's best-loved waders - such as the oystercatcher and
ringed plover - have declined by up to 15 per cent since the 1980s. The
Greenland white-fronted goose, which nests in summer in northern
Britain and Ireland, is also dying out.
Now, in a concerted attempt to tackle the crisis, conservationists met
in Edinburgh last week to begin drawing up the first world-wide
tracking and planning system to protect the "air lanes", nesting sites
and feeding places these birds use. Dr David Stroud, senior
ornithologist at the UK's main conservation science agency, the Joint
Nature Conservation Committee, said: "It's not a pretty picture at the
"These birds are flying long distances as part of their biological
cycle, but they need fuel and Britain's estuaries, for instance, are of
major importance. Clearly, if you remove a key feeding site, these
birds just don't have the physical ability to continue their migration.
If you remove one link, then the whole migratory pattern can fall
Last month, experts meeting in Spain heard that almost half of all the
world's wader species, such as the long-billed plover, the dunlin and
the bristle-thighed curlew, which flies non-stop from Alaska to the
south Pacific, were in decline owing to human pressures, climate change
and habitat loss.
The "air traffic control" proposal will focus on the world's nine major
"flyways", by asking countries to monitor the numbers and types of
birds flying through their airspace, plot their flight paths and
protect or repair their nesting, breeding and feeding grounds. In some
cases, governments will have to set up schemes to track poorly
understood species - potentially using satellites and tagging
The scheme will provoke clashes over economic developments. One battle
ground is Iceland's decision to build a massive hydro-electric dam at
Karahnjukar, which will destroy the breeding sites of pink-footed and
greylag geese. Despite being a major staging post in the "east Atlantic
flyway" - which takes more than 90 million water birds from the Arctic
through Europe to southern Africa - Iceland has refused to join a
European and African scheme to protect migratory birds. And in South
Korea, naturalists are furious at plans to reclaim a 155 sq mile
inter-tidal wetland which could kill off the extremely rare
spoon-billed sandpiper. The site is a crucial feeding place on the
"East Asian-Australasian flyway" that runs from the Arctic to Australia
and the south Pacific.
In the US, controversy surrounds the horseshoe crab fishery in Delaware
Bay, a key feeding place on the "Atlantic flyway", which is blamed for
a sudden decline in red knot numbers. The bird feeds on the crab's eggs
but the crab is being chronically overfished.
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