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Thursday, October 28, 2010

A journey of a thousand miles

As you read these words, day or night, there are birds aloft in the skies over our heads, migrating.
Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, linking the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. It is an enormously complex subject, perhaps the most compelling drama in all of natural history.
 That such delicate creatures undertake these epic journeys defies belief. Only recently have scientists discovered that some shorebirds apparently fly nonstop from the southern tip of South America to the coast of New Jersey, a journey of ten days — 240 hours of uninterrupted flight. In all, scientists guess, more than 5 billion birds annually weave this incredible tapestry across the hemisphere.

Because they travel such extraordinary distances, often with differing requirements for food and shelter along the way, migratory birds pose one of the toughest conservation challenges in the world. In the past, conservation programmes focused on saving breeding areas, but experts now realize they must also save wintering grounds and migratory stopovers if this global web isn’t to unravel.

There are serious signs that the web is fraying. In Malaysia alone, it is estimated that migratory waterbird numbers have decreased by 23% in the last 20 years. Many species of migratory waterbirds depend on interconnected networks of wetlands. These sites also benefit people by providing clean water and opportunities for fishing, agriculture, recreation and tourism. However, despite their importance, wetlands are amongst the world’s most threatened ecosystems. Nature conservationists now realize the smartest approach is to recognize the trouble early and try to stabilize populations while they are still relatively common. This recognition, coupled with an impending sense of crisis, sparked an unprecedented international conservation effort, probably the largest and most ambitious in history, involving many countries in research, education, and habitat protection.

One such multinational approach is the Partnership for the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Launched in November 2006, the Partnership is an informal and voluntary initiative, aimed at protecting migratory waterbirds, their habitat and the livelihoods of people dependent upon them. There are currently 23 partners including 11 countries, 3 intergovernmental agencies and 9 international non-government organisations. An estimated 50 million migratory waterbirds travel along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway annually. Although the government of Malaysia has not yet signed-on to this Partnership, nature conservation organizations like the Malaysian Nature Society, are taking efforts at the site level to raise awareness about migratory waterbirds and to work with local communities and other interested parties to ensure that the important migratory waterbird habitats are regularly monitored, and to advocate for their protection.

In Sarawak, the Bako-Buntal Bay is perhaps the most important stopover site for migratory waterbirds. An estimated 6,000 migratory birds – including some critically-endangered species use this as a feeding and resting area on their annual journey from the cold climate of Siberia to the warmer climes of Australia, and back again.

One noteworthy visitor to the Bay area is the Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes). It breeds in Russia, North Korea, South Korea and mainland China, and then migrates south through Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The main wintering grounds appear to be in the Eastern Visayas (Leyte, Bohol and Cebu) in the Philippines. It is classified as Vulnerable (a ‘Vulnerable’ species is one is likely to become Endangered unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction improve). The biggest threat to this species is habitat loss. The current population is estimated at between 2,600 and 3,400 birds. Annual waterbird counts in the Buntal area over the past years revealed that about 12% of the total world’s population of this species visits the area each year, which makes the area of tremendous global conservation importance.

On Friday, 8th October 2010, about 100 members of the Kampung Buntal community joined MNS-Kuching Branch members and other bird enthusiasts to celebrate the importance of the Bay area for migratory waterbirds.  

Organized as part of the community outreach events under the year-long Sarawak Waterbird Survey project, the event was aimed at raising awareness, particularly among the younger generation living in the area, about the importance of the Bako-Buntal Bay area as a stopover site for migratory birds and the need for everyone to work together to protect the important habitats for these birds.

Rebecca D’Cruz of the MNS Kuching Branch presented a talk on migratory waterbirds and the importance of the Bako-Buntal Bay area. She spoke about the wonders of bird migration and the amazing feats that these tiny feathered creatures are able to perform, the species that regularly visit the Bay area, and the threats that they currently face along their migration route.

The East Asia-Australasian Flyway (the Flyway) is one of nine major migratory waterbird flyways around the globe. It extends from within the Arctic Circle in Russia and Alaska, southwards through East and South-east Asia, to Australia and New Zealand in the south, encompassing 22 countries. Migratory waterbirds share this flyway with 45% of the world's human population.

The Flyway is home to over 50 million migratory waterbirds - including shorebirds, anatidae (ducks, geese and swans) and cranes - from over 250 different populations, including 28 globally threatened species.

There are currently 700 sites recognised as internationally important to migratory waterbirds along the flyway, many of which are located adjacent to human settlement and vulnerable to rapid social and economic development pressures.

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