Jun 6

A team of conservationists has flown out to the Russian far east in a last-ditch attempt to save one of the world’s rarest birds, the spoon-billed sandpiper, from extinction. 

The spoon-billed sandpiper is a shy, elusive, Arctic bird with a unique spoon-shaped bill. It is also one of the rarest waders in the world, and in 2009 no more than 200 breeding pairs were thought to exist.

Photo of spoon-billed sandpiper wading, in summer plumage

The spoon-billed sandpiper population is decreasing by about a quarter each year, mainly due to low survival in juvenile birds

In fact, today the total population of the spoon-billed sandpiper may be as low as 60 pairs, as the population is thought to be declining by about a quarter each year. 

The spoon-billed sandpiper divides its time between northeast Russia and the Bay of Martaban, Myanmar, and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. The bird’s 8,000 kilometre long migration also takes it past Japan, North Korea, China, Thailand and Vietnam

Unsustainable levels of hunting, particularly within the wintering areas in Myanmar and Bangladesh, are thought to be driving the species’ decline. Degradation and reclamation of mudflats in many other Asian countries is exacerbating the problem. 

Extinct within a decade 

Conservationists fear that this elusive species could be extinct within a decade unless this catastrophic decline is reversed. 

It is absolutely clear that the spoon-billed sandpiper cannot be saved without action to reduce the threats to the wild population, but it is going to be difficult to achieve a turnaround quickly enough to avert extinction,” said Dr Geoff Hilton, Head of Species Research at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), who are coordinating the mission.

Photo of spoon-billed sandpiper foraging

The spoon-billed sandpiper is the only wader with a spoon-shaped bill

Captive breeding 

In the remote far east of Russia, near the Chukotka region, the team hopes to collect and incubate eggs and set up a captive breeding population. The captive population of spoon-billed sandpipers will be housed in Moscow Zoo, for quarantine purposes, then moved to a specially built unit at the headquarters of the WWT in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, UK. 

No spoon-billed sandpipers currently exist in captivity. 

Conservationists are also working with local communities in critical areas along the species’ migration path, to try to increase the species’ chances of survival. Hunters will be compensated for birds they release alive, as well as for the loss of hunting if they give up some of their nets. 

WWT is launching a public fundraising appeal to raise the £350,000 needed to save the spoon-billed sandpiper. 

Find out more about the spoon-billed sandpiper on ARKive

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author