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Even chance favours the panda

Posted by on November 6, 2012

Campaigning for the spoon-billed sandpiper

Zara’s last blog introduced the “Save a Species” election that was held at our Parliamentary launch during Biology Week. I now share the highs and lows of my experience representing the spoon-billed sandpiper in an attempt to save this critically endangered bird from extinction.

As a quick reminder: Six candidates were chosen, each to represent a different endangered species. The species were the giant panda, spoon-billed sandpiper, belalanda chameleon, arrow cichlid fish, dark guest ant and Hibiscadelphus woodii. We put the case forward for our species, and guests voted on which one to save.

I was pleased to campaign for the spoon-billed sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus), a small arctic wading bird. Like many other shorebirds, the sandpiper population is in decline.  What is such a concern is just how rapidly its numbers have fallen in the past decade. Population estimates indicate that the number of breeding pairs has dropped from approximately 1,000 in 2000 to just 120-220 in 2009. According to the WWT, there are now fewer than 100 pairs. The reduction to less than 10% of the 2000 numbers is shocking and indicates that, if this trend continues, the spoon-billed sandpiper will soon face a similar fate to the dodo.

Long–term decline of the species has been linked to loss of intertidal habitats in Asia, but the accelerated decline over the last decade has been attributed mainly to trapping on the wintering grounds.

Guests were supportive of the sandpiper cause. They understood that the unique spoon-feeding behaviour of the bird was something that needed to be admired and protected. My feathery friend is the only wader that eats with a spoon, and weird adaptations in nature are useful for scientists to study.

Unfortunately, we were up against the panda. Pandas are also weird, not to mention cute, popular, cuddly and the omnipresent poster boy for endangered species everywhere. Would anyone hear the sandpiper’s tune above the huge din that panda PR seems to generate? The answer was, surprisingly, yes! When the results came in and it was announced that the sandpiper was the joint front-runner along with the panda, I was elated. The panda was finally being forced to share some of the limelight.

The point of the vote was to highlight how challenging it is to allocate conservation resources and this meant that only one species could be saved. The fate of the spoon-billed sandpiper and panda was left to the toss of a coin and the appearance the Queen’s shiny head quickly turned my elation to despair.

It seems that even chance favours the panda.

But we can’t leave the fate of these wonderful birds to chance and drastic action is needed to ensure that the spoon-billed sandpiper does not become extinct.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) have a campaign to save the sandpiper and progress is being made to stop bird trapping and breed larger numbers of the birds.  BBC’s Saving Species recently covered the spoon-billed sandpiper, speaking to conservationists working on the breeding programme in Gloucestershire, where chicks are being hatched. They also spoke to Debbie Pain, Director of Conservation at the WWT, who explained that the sandpiper had a high profile at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in South Korea this September. She explained that a situation analysis showed incredible threat of the coastal wetland habitat of the bird and that this analysis should provide a positive basis to move forward and improve conservation of those areas.

If enough attention is given to stop bird trapping, repopulate sandpipers with breeding programmes, and to protect their wetland habitat then there is still hope for the spoon-billed sandpiper. And chance has nothing to do with it.

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