Fourteen Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers were hatched in captivity at Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire this week, a first for the UK and only the second flock ever to have been born in captivity. These latest chicks are part of an emergency conservation breeding mission to ensure the species against imminent extinction in the wild. Four further eggs are expected to hatch in the coming days and, if successful, will bring the total flock size to 30. The size of the flock is critical to triggering breeding behavior in the birds, which are mature enough to reproduce at two years old.
The birds were hatched from eggs taken from the tiny remaining wild population which breeds on the sub-Arctic tundra in the Russian Far East, and flown by helicopter and plane on a week-long journey via Anadyr, Moscow and Heathrow before arriving at WWT Slimbridge. The dramatic decline in Spoon-billed Sandpiper numbers was first observed in 2000. Now fewer than 100 pairs are thought to remain. Russian and international field workers travel each year to the breeding grounds in Chukotka to monitor numbers and have been critical in raising the alarm.
Although the long term decline of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is thought to have been driven by inter-tidal habitat loss in East Asia, the roots of the current problem have been identified some 5,000 miles (8,000 km) away in coastal Myanmar and Bangladesh, where the birds spend the majority of the year outside the breeding season. Bird trapping by some villagers is suspected to have driven the steep decline in numbers. Local and international conservationists have had some success in stopping this practice by helping villagers find and fund alternative livelihoods. Once these threats have been tackled, birds from the conservation breeding program will be returned to the wild to increase the remaining wild population.