A decade-long project to save one of the world’s most endangered birds has finally found success, with the birth of two chicks. But with an estimated one million species at risk across the world, and nothing like the money and resources to save them all, how do conservationists choose the few they can save?
“You have to wear one of these I’m afraid,” Tanya Grigg says sympathetically, handing me a distinctly unflattering blue hair net. “Any stray hairs could wrap around the birds’ legs and injure them; they’re so delicate.” Tanya has a soft voice and gentle manner that I can imagine putting the most skittish of birds at ease. She shows me into a large aviary.
There are just two, nervous-looking birds inside – both with miniature, shovel-shaped bills and spindly waders’ legs. They hop a little closer to each other and peer at us, apparently suspicious of the intrusion. Then Tanya unfolds a small chair, sits down and scatters some food in their direction. They are immediately, completely engrossed in eating.
These are the only UK-bred spoon-billed sandpipers; two precious specimens of possibly the most threatened bird species on the planet.
Their parents were hatched from eggs gathered – and extremely carefully transported – from nesting grounds of Russia’s Far East. At that point, with just a few hundred birds left in the world, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) concluded that they were running out of time to save the species.
Almost a decade since that rescue mission, the two here are the first to be born in this UK spoon-billed sandpiper ark. Were these two little birds worth it? And how can anyone determine what is “worth it” when it comes to preventing extinction?
‘Eight years and a lot of heartache’
This year – 2019 – was the year that the extinction crisis we are living through was given a number. And it was a very big number. One million species are under threat according to a global report by the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. And that is the fault of us humans.
Each story of a “saved” species represents years, often decades, of the people who grind away in an uphill battle against extinction. In the case of the spoon-billed sandpiper that battle seems, hopefully, to have been won.
Spoonies, as they are affectionately known, were one of the lucky, chosen species. And I feel like I have tagged along on their journey, ever since I first reported on the story of their plight in 2011.
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for wetland birds. Their waddle disguises evolved toughness and grace. Their bills and legs are engineered for sifting, feeding in and plodding through every type of mud. And many are unfathomably epic travellers. The spoon-billed sandpiper’s migration is 8,000km down the east Asian coast.
Spoonies – small and speckled with spatula-like bills that look more like musical instruments than mouths – are also pretty adorable.
Back in 2011, as the mission to save the birds got under way, I had never heard of a spoon-billed sandpiper. Having followed the progress of this mission to save them, I have been surprised by how long it has taken for the birds that were brought to the UK to breed. It turns out, it is far more complicated, long-winded and downright emotionally draining than birds simply laying their eggs. But as Prof Debbie Pain explains, “doing something that’s never been done before can take a long time”.
Debbie is a conservation scientist who who helped instigate Project Spoonie. Now an honorary research fellow at Cambridge University, she recalls that this was “crisis conservation”. A team had to be sent out into the Russian wilderness to rescue the birds before it was too late.
The birds were – and are – in the most urgent category of conservation need. Along with more than 4,000 others, including some real icons of crisis conservation like the snow leopard and the black rhino, it is classified Critically Endangered.
At the beginning, the spoonie population was in freefall. From nearly 3,000 breeding pairs in the 1970s, they declined to about 1,000 in the year 2000, then crashed to fewer than 250 by 2014. Human activity was driving the losses. Birds were being caught – as accidental bycatch – by hunters, and critically they were losing their muddy, coastal habitat. The coastal flats are where the birds feed and fuel up along an 8,000km migration route and they were being reclaimed and developed.
A mission to Chukotka, Russia, was very swiftly organised and a team set out to gather enough eggs to set up its captive breeding “ark”. That meant searching bleak, Arctic, mosquito-infested wetlands for increasingly rare nests.
The WWT’s Nigel Jarrett has been with the project since the outset. He spent several weeks in Russia, searching for eggs and carefully transferring them, via padded, insulated boxes to incubators at a special facility where they hatched.
In footage filmed during the trip, Nigel – an outdoorsy, plain-speaking northerner – was captured on camera whispering as he placed a tiny egg into an incubator. “So precious,” he murmured, either to himself or possibly to the minuscule inhabitant of the egg he was setting down with the most extreme care.
Once they were strong enough, the rescued chicks were brought more than 4,000 miles back to a biosecure aviary at WWT Slimbridge, Gloucestershire.
The WWT team spent five years tuning into the biology of birds that are evolutionarily tailored to an extreme, remote niche. They developed a special, insect protein-rich food, gave them enough space and even found appropriate lighting to mimic their natural surroundings. The captive spoonies needed to feel settled enough to have little spoon-billed sandpipers of their own.
It was to Nigel and the rest of the team’s absolutely delight, when in 2016, two eggs finally hatched, producing tiny, bumblebee-sized fluff-ball chicks with stubby spoons for bills. But the baby birds failed to thrive; they survived only days. “That was absolutely heartbreaking,” says Nigel.
‘Pathetic, isn’t it?’
“If someone had asked me what our chances of success were at the start, I would have said not more than 50%,” says Debbie. ” But there is no shame in failing – there’s only shame in not trying. “The [team in Slimbridge] have tried harder than any people I know. Each year, they’ve come closer and closer to getting it right.”
Two years later – in 2018 – another single chick hatched. Working in shifts, the team in Slimbridge checked, fed and supervised their one, precious creature. It was a few months old when, apparently frightened by a noise one night, it flew into the side of its aviary, injured itself and subsequently died.
The two spoonies now thriving in Slimbridge that hatched this year are the result of years – of hundreds of hours – of fine-tuning and dedicated care.
“Eight years, and just two birds. Pathetic, isn’t it?” Nigel jokes. “But bringing the birds into captivity just means extinction was never going to be an option for this very special bird – that was the aim.” And this, he adds, was always about much more than saving one species. Part of the reason the species was chosen for such particular attention was because the spoon-billed sandpiper “represents” thousands of kilometres of irreplaceable, threatened coastline.
The “flyway” that spoonies migrate along – from Arctic nesting grounds to wintering sites in South East Asia – encompasses some of the most threatened wetlands on Earth. “There’s hunting, habitat loss – huge declines,” explains Debbie. “So this is now a flagship for protecting that flyway.”
Charisma and cuteness are qualities that conservationists have to consider when they are deciding where to focus their attention and resources.
The WWT has spent in the order of hundreds of thousands of pounds on the spoonie rescue mission. And the charity has been able to direct some of that money into wider wetland restoration, education and into new science. Satellite tagging studies of the birds have identified the most important sites along those thousands of miles of coastline. “That could benefit many other plants, animals and people who depend on the wetlands,” says Nigel.
Part of the fundraising for that was built not just on the perilous situation of the spoon-billed sandpiper, but on its cuteness.
There is no shortage of species in similar peril. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “uplisted” 40 different species to Critically Endangered – the highest category of threat. But you are unlikely to see Degranville’s rocket frog on a campaign poster. And I have not been able to find a badge depicting the shorttail nurse shark or the pancake tortoise.
“You can easily raise money for a tiger, whereas forget trying to raise money for some small brown thing no one’s ever heard of,” says Dr Alex Zimmerman, a conservation scientist at Oxford University who specialises in human-wildlife conflict.
“And the fact is that conservationists are competing for limited resources. A loveable icon – something people can get behind – can mean conservation projects are able to raise money and plough resources into protecting a habitat.”
That, of course, is a part of the story of why rhinos, elephants and orangutans have – very deliberately – been made the poster species for conservation missions in India, Africa and South East Asia.
“We value some species more than others – maybe for cultural reasons, or because they’re prettier or more useful,” says Alex. “But then we’ve also seen that throwing money at a conservation crisis is not necessarily the way to solve it. If it were, there would be millions of tigers now.”
There are not. There are, according to recent estimates, 3,890.
‘It’s not an emotional issue’
When there is an impending extinction, as there was with the spoonies, investing money in a rescue mission can make the difference between a species disappearing or clinging on. “It can at least buy us some time,” says Debbie Pain.
Not every species on the brink gets assigned a rescue team though. As passionate and driven as many conservation scientists are, they have to temper their ambitions with a cost-benefit analysis.
“As a scientist, it’s not an emotional issue,” Debbie stresses. “It’s about how you maximise your conservation delivery for the money.”
Mark Pilgrim, chief executive of Chester Zoo, estimates that the reintroduction in 2019 of five Critically Endangered black rhinos to a National Park in Rwanda – a country where rhinos had previously been poached to extinction – cost almost a quarter of a million pounds. That amount only covered the reintroduction itself – transportation crates, special flights and temporary enclosure in the Akagera National Park. That does not include the cost of four decades of conservation breeding efforts in European zoos, which meant the young rhinos existed in the first place.
“But if you manage an area for black rhinos, you get a big return,” says Mark. “Rhinos need a huge area – you’ll inevitably benefit a whole lot of other species.”
Conversely, some of the small, brown creatures that no one has heard of can be kept and transported far more cheaply.
Consider another wildlife relocation project this year led by Chester Zoo. It saw thousands of previously extinct-in-the-wild Bermudan land snails brought back to their natural habitat for an estimated cost of £10,000.
Dr Paul Pearce-Kelly, curator of invertebrates – and an advocate for the smaller, slimier and unsung creatures – points out that any effort to save a species is worthwhile. He led a mission this year that reintroduced 15,000 tiny tree snails to the island forests of French Polynesia, where they had been wiped out by an introduced, so-called “invasive species” of predatory snail.
There are, Paul stresses, now more species under threat than any traditional conservation approach could ever respond to. Rebuilding French Polynesia’s natural ecosystem to a point where lovingly captive-bred snails can be brought back has taken decades – changing policies, protecting landscapes and providing local people with job opportunities in conservation.
“For conservation to succeed anywhere in the world, everyone needs to be involved,” says Paul. “It can’t just be a bunch of experts stepping in. It has to be a societal effort.”
‘Species need their champions’
Like Paul, many conservationists spend their careers trying to persuade people to advocate for the wildlife on their own doorstep. Sadly though, our own dependence on the natural world can seem intangible until it reaches a crisis point.
The spoonie crisis was a clear example of this: In the Gulf of Mottama in Myanmar – an important site for spoon-billed sandpipers in the winter – overfishing of the wetland forced local people into hunting birds. Spoonies then became a bycatch of that hunting. So unsustainable exploitation of the wetland led people to hunt birds, which then led to spoonies being caught and killed.
Two years years ago, though, as a result of spoonies’ growing international profile, that same area was given international protection. That should mean local fishing communities’ livelihoods are now protected, along with wetland birds.
Species, as Chester Zoo’s Mark Pilgrim puts it, “need their champions”.
“The sad truth is that we won’t be able to save everything,” says Mark, “so we have to find and do the things we can do that we know will make a real difference – for people as well as wildlife.”
As Alex Zimmerman puts it: “There’s the science, there are our human priorities, there are emotions and the fundraising to take into account.
“All these pressures combine, and somewhere in the middle of that a decision is made about what we can do that will help.”
‘It’s a fire that’s worth putting out’
Even the effort of simply trying to breed spoon-billed sandpipers in captivity had an unexpected impact in Russia. Prior to the rescue effort, most of the few chicks hatched in the wild were being lost to predators.
When Nigel Jarrett and the WWT team realised they could hatch eggs safely in Russia, they devised a scheme to give new chicks there a “head start”.
“We take the eggs that would otherwise be eaten by predators and bring them into a captive situation in Russia,” he explains. “We raise the babies in protected pens and release them when they’re less vulnerable.
“We’ve increased productivity massively year on year,” he says.
‘We know we’re fire fighting’
Debbie Pain stresses that spoonies have not officially been “saved” just yet. “I don’t think anyone could say with confidence it won’t go extinct – a lot could still happen and the world is changing rapidly.”
The very foundation of all human-made threats to the natural world, climate change, is transforming almost every habitat on Earth. By shifting the environment that every species inhabits and – and every conservationist lives and works in – climate change is fuelling the extinction crisis in ways that are difficult to predict.
“We know we’re fire-fighting,” says Debbie. “And no species should be allowed to go extinct, but some will – we know that.
“But it’s a fire that’s really worth fighting and putting out as much as we can. If we weren’t fighting it, many more species would go. The world would be impoverished – it would lose a lot of its beauty, its joy – and the services that sustain life.”
Twenty-twenty could be the year that nations sign up to an agreement to protect the natural world – for our own sake as much as for any other species.
Meanwhile, conservationists continue to champion the large, the small, the magnificent and spineless creatures that might otherwise slide, under the radar, to extinction.