It is a call to action, not an ‘all is lost’ message. Nonetheless, it is sobering. Very sobering
By Martin Hellicar
The latest State of the World’s Birds report, just out from BirdLife International, lays out how almost half of the bird species on our planet are in decline, their populations losing numbers. At the sharp end, just over one in eight birds are at risk of global extinction. Exotic Sapphire-bellied Hummingbirds and Olive-backed Woodpeckers, more familiar European Turtle Doves and Northern Lapwings, plus 1,405 other wonderful birds, are all about to drop over the dark precipice of no return.
Both these statistics – on decline and on extinction risk – are terrifying evidence of just how bad things have become. Hard evidence of how far we have pushed our planet’s life support system off balance. However, the fifth BirdLife State of the World’s Birds report is also packed with examples of how action to save species and restore nature can work. It is a call to action backed with encouraging evidence – some of it even drawn from Cyprus – of how things can be turned around, if we choose to do so.
There are almost 11,000 recognised bird species worldwide and 5,412 of these (49per cent of the total) have declining populations, with 38 per cent of bird species stable in number and only 6 per cent increasing. Often, these declines involve common and widespread species – such as Swifts, House Martins and Rollers in Europe – and though they may not be steep enough for these birds to be at risk of global extinction at present, the loss of bird numbers can lead local extinctions and has a big impact on the healthy functioning of ecosystems. It puts a ‘dent’ in the natural systems we ultimately rely on, impoverishing them and making them less productive and stable.
Then there are the 1,409 species – just over one in eight – threatened with global extinction. While wildlife population declines can, and in some cases have been reversed, there is no way back from extinction. What is worse is that the extinction risk among birds is escalating. We have recorded 187 bird species losses since 1500, mostly from small islands. Since the first State of the World’s Birds report in 1988 (when birds became the first species group to undergo the full International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ‘Red List’ assessment of extinction risk) some 436 bird species have moved to a higher risk category, while only 93 species have moved the other way, to become less threatened over the last 35 years.
This amounts to yet more evidence that we are entering what many scientists now agree is the sixth big extinction event our planet has known, and the first man-made one, clearly linked to our failure to manage resources and use the land sustainably. Over the past 500 years – and over the past five decades in particular – humans have triggered a wave of extinctions and local population declines that may be comparable in both rate and magnitude with the five previous mass extinctions in Earth’s history. And that includes the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event that saw the end of the dinosaurs and the loss of three quarters of species on earth.
Extinction has always been part of the natural order of things, but the current rate of extinction – across all species – is estimated to be between 100 and 1000 times higher than the background rate over the last 10 million years. One in eight birds threatened with extinction is shocking, but among mammals the proportion is one in four, while one in three amphibian species currently occupy the extinction Red List.
The overall rate of biodiversity loss has been estimated at one species an hour. That means something in the order of 160 more species gone forever between my writing this on a Wednesday afternoon and your reading it over your morning coffee a week later. This eye-watering rate of biodiversity loss is expected to accelerate, especially as climate change impacts grow. The rate of local extinctions is of course much higher than the rate of global extinctions. Wildlife is losing ground almost everywhere: the WWF has just reported that across the globe, wildlife population sizes have plummeted by 69 pr cent on average since 1970.
Returning to birds and homing in on Cyprus, we have seen the disappearance of six breeding species from our island since 1950: the Black Vulture, Lesser Kestrel, Marbled Duck, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Dipper and, as recently as the 1980s, the Eastern Imperial Eagle. The Griffon Vulture could be next, unless we can save it through our ongoing restocking programme and our ‘end the poisoning’ actions. Six species may not sound like a big number to have lost over seven decades, but in ‘normal’ times, with background rates of extinction, it is probably fair to say that a person born in Cyprus in 1950 should only have witnessed one such loss over a lifetime.
Across the EU and North America – the parts of the globe with the best bird monitoring data – over three billion birds have been lost over the last half-century. In the EU, there has been a well-documented 57 per cent decline in common farmland bird populations since 1980, a disaster for farmland ecosystems. Even in less developed and less-well-bird-monitored parts of the world, the declines are shocking. For example, Costa Rica recorded a 62 per cent decline in numbers of birds in tropical farmland habitats between 1999 and 2010, while Japan saw a staggering 94 per cent decline in forest bird numbers between 1850 and 2016.
The main drivers for the declines and extinctions are well documented and are there again in the latest State of the World’s Birds report.
Agricultural expansion and intensification, which drive habitat loss and degradation. Building and road development swallowing up and sealing habitats. Logging, remains a particular threat for forest birds (including in Europe), with seven million hectares of forest being lost every year. Invasive alien species – introduced by man – are linked to 46 per cent of recorded extinctions and also likely play a part in general declines in bird numbers. In China, introduced cats kill up to 5.5 billion birds a year. Overexploitation is a threat to birds in most places on our planet – 45 per cent of all bird species are exploited, mostly for the pet trade but also for food. Unsustainable hunting has been linked to 50 bird extinctions since 1500, while fisheries by-catch remains a huge threat for seabird species, 30 per cent of which are threatened. Climate change is an important and growing problem, forcing birds to shift their ranges as climate shifts, while the threat of wildfires is fueled as temperatures rise. There were over 2,500 major fires documented across the Amazon in 2020 alone.
All very bleak. But the latest ‘state of our birds’ report has a strong focus on solutions, and includes a wealth of examples from across the globe of how things can be changed for the better. The evidence is that when resources and political will are invested, species can be saved from extinction and can be helped onto a path of recovery. If we protect key wildlife sites and manage them well, if we begin to effectively tackle our energy use issues, restore natural systems to mop up CO2 and support farmers to farm and our fishers to fish in eco-sensitive ways, then it can be done. We can even make significant progress in tackling ingrained problems such as illegal bird killing: Cyprus is highlighted in the BirdLife report as a shining example of how this can be done, with an 84 per cent reduction illegal bird trapping achieved since 2002 thanks to collaborative effort involving authorities and NGOs like BirdLife Cyprus. In the much-deleted Atlantic rain forest of South America (85 per cent of which has been lost), BirdLife partners in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay are working together to protect over 50,000 ha of the remaining forest and have recently started a restoration effort to bring the tree cover back, with 60 ha regrown so far.
BirdLife International – the global partnership that is the official Red List authority for IUCN – recently celebrated 100 years of active conservation effort. A century of monitoring birds and trying to bring about action to save them and nature, across the globe. The solutions for saving birds and nature are largely known and have been shown to work when implemented.
The BirdLife call to action is that we have ‘a decade left to act’ to implement these solutions and find new ones, for the sake of birds, the planet and ourselves. Failing that, the risk is that the rate of ecological collapse becomes simply overwhelming.
The full State of the World’s Birds 2022 report is free to download from the BirdLife website www.birdlife.org. Martin Hellicar is director of BirdLife Cyprus