The incredible spoon-billed sandpiper is hurtling towards extinction perhaps faster than any other bird species. Probably fewer than 100 pairs remain and the population is in freefall. Without urgent action, it will be gone within a decade.
The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of the world’s rarest and most unusual birds. It is a wading bird, barely larger than a sparrow, born with a spoon-shaped bill. No other bird hatches with such an adaptation.
It faces a multitude of threats between the tropics of South Asia and its breeding grounds on coastal tundra in Russia’s Far East, 5,000 miles away.
Chief among them is illegal trapping and the reclamation of wetlands along their migration-route. Trapping kills many young spoon-billed sandpipers before they reach maturity, meaning they never even get a chance to breed. The loss of coastal wetlands severely reduces their chances of surviving the long journey to the breeding grounds.
It's not just spoon-billed sandpipers. Millions of other waterbirds are at risk from the same threats.
Saving the spoon-billed sandpiper
WWT has a long history of bringing species back from the brink of extinction. The Hawaiian goose or nene fell to just 30 individuals in the 1950s, but Sir Peter Scott, WWT's founder, helped set up successful breeding programmes in Hawaii and at Slimbridge. Reintroductions have raised the number in the wild to 2,500.
We are attempting to do the same for the spoon-billed sandpiper. None had ever been kept in captivity before, so there was no safety net in case of extinction in the wild. So the first objective was to secure eggs from the few remaining nests at the spoon-billed sandpiper's remote breeding grounds. This was achieved over two years and we now have the nucleus of a conservation breeding programme.
A small flock of young birds is thriving in specially designed quarters at WWT Slimbridge. This summer, we are preparing for the first spoon-billed sandpipers to be bred in captivity.
In the meantime, our avicultural experts have been returning to the Russian breeding grounds each summer to boost the numbers of fledglings. This helps sustain the global population while the international conservation community focuses on halting the loss of wetlands and stamping out illegal trapping.
Once the world is a safer place for spoon-billed sandpipers, the captive flock at Slimbridge should be breeding successfully and producing eggs for returning to Russia for release.
You can follow the team’s progress on our spoon-billed sandpiper project blog.
The bigger picture
The spoon-billed sandpiper is just one of many birds that feed on the soft mud along the shores of South and East Asia. We work directly and with partners to to protect the tidal wetlands and the birds that feed on them.
The challenge is to help communities find alternatives to hunting for waterbirds. We know that spoon-billed sandpipers are caught as bycatch in nets which people use to catch bigger birds for food. They are too small to provide much food so they tend to be thrown away.
The spoon-billed sandpiper is the tip of an iceberg. If we save the spoon-billed sandpiper we improve life for millions of birds from hundreds of species, many of which are also at risk of extinction.
They alluse the same migration route, extending thousands of miles from breeding grounds in the Russian Arctic, along the eastern seaboard to southern Asia. Some species continue even further south to Australia and New Zealand.
More than 50 million migratory waterbirds share this flyway with 45% of the world's human population.
Your support is vital
We are entirely dependent on your support to see through our hopes of saving the spoon-billed sandpiper.
Alternatively you can call our fundraising team on 01453 891250.
The spoon-billed sandpiper conservation breeding programme is a collaboration between WWT, Birds Russia, Moscow Zoo and the RSPB working with colleagues from the BTO, BirdLife International, ArcCona and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force.
The project is supported by WWT, RSPB, Darwin Initiative and Save our Species, with additional financial contributions and support from BirdLife International, the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, the Convention on Migratory Species, Heritage Expeditions, the Australasian Wader Study Group of Birds Australia, the BBC Wildlife Fund, Avios, the Olive Herbert Charitable Trust, the Oriental Bird Club, British Airways Communities & Conservation Scheme, Leica Camera AG (exclusive optic partner for the spoon-billed sandpiper project) and many generous individuals.