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Spoonie, Sonadia and a Sacred Combe

spoonbill conservation

Rob Sheldon (RDS Conservation) takes a look at the success stories of the endangered Spoon-Billed Sandpiper on Sonadia…

The Sacred Combe by Simon Barnes is one of my favourite books of the last few years, essentially it is a personal view of what makes places special. Everyone has their favourite Sacred Combe, I have many. One of them is a rather special place called Sonadia Island, near Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. Now it is not a particularly magnificent area, it is no tropical island paradise, it is heavily used by fishermen and people live on the various interconnected islands that make up Sonadia. But in the context of my many visits to Bangladesh, Sonadia is a welcome relief from the intense hustle and bustle and horn-blowing madness that characterises much of the country. Bangladesh is relatively small and has a large population and a high density of people crammed into most corners of the country. Sonadia Island is a welcome escape from the crowds and one of the few places you can escape the hordes of people. As well as being one of my favourite places, it is also home to one of the most threatened birds on the planet, the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper, a small Arctic breeding wader thought to number just a few hundred pairs. It is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, and has declined dramatically over the last few decades. I started visiting Sonadia when I used to work for the RSPB in the International Species Recovery Team, and have returned many times since.

The Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project (BSCP), led by Sayam Chowdhury, have had some notable successes in their work to protect ‘Spoonie.’ One of the key threats that was identified in 2010 was the impact of illegal subsistence shorebird trapping by poor local villagers trying to eke out a simple living from the local natural resources. Shorebirds were being trapped using nets on the mudflats, and although small shorebirds such as Spoonie, weren’t the intended target, trapping was indiscriminate. Had trapping continued, the unique Spoon-Billed Sandpiper would have continued to slip towards extinction. After just two years of working with the local communities, shorebird trapping ceased, and Spoonie and Sonadia started to co-exist in harmony. The BSCP team identified and supported various alternative livelihoods for the local villagers to develop, such as watermelon growing, a tailoring business, and the provision of equipment to transfer fish to local markets.

Another key threat that ebbs and flows like the tidal waters around Sonadia is the development of a large deep-sea port that would have devastating consequences for the mudflats, both through direct habitat loss as well as a significant increase in disturbance. Sonadia is one of the top two or three wintering sites for Spoonie in south-east Asia and such a development could have serious implications for the long-term future of the species. For now though the development remains on hold, but for how long remains to be seen.

Long-term monitoring of the Spoonie population on Sonadia has shown that the number of wintering birds has largely remained the same between 2010-2017. Between 25-35 Spoonies spend their winter in Sonadia arriving in October and departing for the Arctic in April. A key finding in recent years has been the presence of colour-marked birds as part of the head-starting programme. Head-starting is an innovative method used to boost productivity on the Arctic breeding grounds. In simple terms, eggs are taken from nests and hatched with the resulting chicks released just as they fledge. After initial clutches are taken some of the adults lay another clutch of eggs, this boosting productivity even further. Further details and regular updates on head-starting can be found on the Saving Spoon-billed Sandpiper project blog. When chicks are head-started they are marked with a unique coloured flag and number allowing individual identification. Two head-started birds have been observed at Sonadia over the last two winters, and this year ‘3C’ and ‘3M’, both from 2017 were located feeding on the mudflats. The intrepid ‘3C’ was also observed on Yabu Island, South Korea on the 23 Sept 2017.

Mohamad Foysal and Sayam Chowdhury surveying (Photo credit: Rob Sheldon)

Over two days, last week, Mohamad Foysal, Sayam Chowdhury and myself counted several thousand shorebirds, including a minimum of 13 Spoon-Billed Sandpipers. It was rewarding to locate Spoonie ‘3C’ foraging intensively amongst other small waders, probably getting ready for the long journey north back to the Arctic breeding grounds. Locating marked individuals allows researchers and conservationists to build up a detailed pattern of migration routes and timing, as well as survival rates.

Interestingly a recent piece of work commissioned by BSCP to assess the impact of some of their early work has shown some incredible results. On Sonadia Island local people were interviewed and asked if they knew about Spoonie and a whopping 99% had. The study identified the most effective awareness raising methods were those that had been targeted at school kids and also a boat race that was organised aimed at fishermen. It clearly shows the value of putting awareness raising and campaigning at the core of conservation projects and not just as an add-on, or to tick a box.

Spoonie awareness raising Sonadia (Photo credit: Rob Sheldon)

The legacy of the project initiated in 2010 is already evident. A local villager on Sonadia continues to be employed and to patrol the creeks and mudflats, he must be getting bored as the hunting has yet to return after more than 5 years! Spoonie numbers are stable. Local villagers continue to share their home in harmony with the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper, a tiny, but unique wader from the north.

Illegal killing has stopped in just a few years, wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve such results in the UK?

The BSCP have also starting working in Meghna Estuary, see their excellent video HERE.

For regular updates and to make a donation, see the Saving Spoon-billed Sandpiper website HERE.

Check out the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) website for an overview HERE.

The Save Our Species Fund was a significant funder in the early stages of this project HERE.

Header Image Credit: Rob Sheldon

About the Author: Rob Sheldon has worked in nature conservation for almost 20 years, including 12 years with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Since 2013, he has been the Chairman of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, The Caucasus and Central Asia (OSME). Most recently he has worked for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) as the Director of the King Khalid Wildlife Research Centre (KKWRC) in Saudi Arabia. He now works freelance as a consultant through RDS Conservation. For further information on what services RDS Conservation can offer, please follow this link.