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Numbers of waterbirds in Asia are rapidly declining


Waterbirds in Asia are in trouble. Rapid and poorly-planned human development leading to a lack of adequate official conservation of their important wetland sites are key reasons for their declining numbers. These are the conclusions of the newly published report by Wetlands International, covering over 6,700 wetland sites in 27 Asian countries.

Every year, millions of waterbirds migrate up and down between Australia, South and Southeast Asia towards Russia, China and Alaska. These waterbirds depend on networks of productive wetland sites in all the countries. They need these chains of wetlands to rest, feed and breed during their incredibly long and exhausting annual migrations and to help them survive the severe winters in more northern latitudes.

Unfortunately, a critical gap exists in designation and proper management of many important wetland sites, together with a lack of international measures leaving them vulnerable to human development pressures. Wetland reclamation is the most destructive cumulative threat to the wetlands and their use by waterbirds. Others include over-fishing, agriculture, hunting, excessive cattle grazing, pollution of wetlands through pesticides, fertilizers, and sewage.

Yellow Sea wetlands

For example, new industries, urban development and pollution along the Yellow Sea are reducing habitats of critical importance to millions of waterbirds. Tidal flats are being reclaimed to create port facilities, agricultural land and other purposes. This happens so quickly that existing field monitoring capacity is being challenged to keep track of the impacts on biodiversity, or on the livelihoods of the human communities who depend on the many natural services these productive coastal regions provide.

Photo: Port development in the Yellow Sea. By Jan van der Kam. From: Invisible Connections: Why migrating shorebirds need the Yellow Sea

Counts of shorebirds around the coast of the Yellow Sea between China, Korea and Japan have revealed that this enormous wetland complex is a vital link in the lifecycles of at least 20 species of these waterbirds. It is home to the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus), the endangered Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis), and vulnerable Relict Gull (Larus relictus), amongst others. The degradation of Yellow Sea’s wetlands will push these species further towards extinction.

Impact mitigation

The impacts of economic development on the wetlands can be mitigated by carefully planned and enforced national wetland conservation and management measures of the remaining important sites. One example is to designate a specific wetland site to the Ramsar List of Internationally Important Wetlands and to manage it properly. This and other protection measures contribute to the reversing of significant declines in waterbird species.

Therefore, Wetlands International urges governments in the region to improve the management and conservation status of these wetlands.

New waterbird publication

Wetlands International has gathered the results of twenty years of waterbird monitoring in Asia in the new publication entitled Status of Waterbirds in Asia - Results of the Asian Waterbird Census: 1987-2007. For the first time using rigorous statistical methods,  the publication indicates that four of the eight most numerous dabbling duck species in East Asia are declining, with habitat loss identified as the principal cause.

The species which is identified to be in strongest decline in East Asia is the Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, decreasing by around 10% per year over the past ten years. Furthermore, example trend graphs indicate that Northern Pintail Anas acuta, Common Teal Anas crecca and Spot-billed Duck Anas poecilorhyncha decreased around 1% per year between 1998 and 2007.

The news is not all bad. The Baikal teal (Anas Formosa) and Black-faced Spoonbill (Latalia minor) in East Asia have increased over the monitored period.

Wetland sites

The results of the analysis in Status of Waterbirds in Asia include information on waterbird numbers at a large variety of sites designated under various international and national instruments including: 116 Ramsar sites, nine World Heritage sites, eight Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Heritage sites, nine Man and Biosphere (MAB) reserves, 502 Important Bird Areas, 55 East Asian-Australasian Flyway Network sites and 417 nationally protected areas. This means that out of 6,700 wetland sites in Asia covered by the report only 1116 have some form of protected status.

Photo: Zuiten Tsukamoto, Director of the Wildlife Division, Nature Conservation Bureau of the Japanese Ministry of the Environment is presented with the AWC publication by Taej Mundkur, Flyway Manager of Wetlands International, at the 4th Meeting of East Asian - Australasian Flyway (EAAF) Partnership in Incheon, Republic of Korea. By Doug Watkins

The publication highlights the value of long term monitoring of waterbirds and wetlands, and the need for strengthening national networks of thousands of volunteers who collect the necessary data.

Click to download or to order a copy online.


For further information:

Invisible Connections: Why migrating shorebirds need the Yellow Sea 


Taej Mundkur

Programme Manager Flyways

Wetlands International

Tel. +31 (0) 318 660 940




Alex Kaat

Wetlands International

Tel.+31 (0) 6 50 60 1917




Status of Waterbirds in Asia - Results of the Asian Waterbird Census: 1987-2007

The publication covers 349 waterbird species and 74 wetland-dependent species recorded during this period by the Asian Waterbird Census (AWC). It provides species status accounts, accompanied by 328 maps, for 396 species, including 52 Globally Threatened species and 24 Near Threatened species.

The Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) was initiated in 1987 and runs in parallel with other internationally coordinated waterbird censuses carried out in Africa, Europe, Central and West Asia and Latin America under the umbrella of the International Waterbird Census (IWC), which is organised by Wetlands International. The IWC is the largest and longest-running internationally coordinated faunal monitoring programme in the world. The AWC started on the Indian subcontinent in January 1987 and has grown rapidly to cover the rest of Asia, Australasia and eastern Russia.

The AWC is conducted annually, during mid January, and is carried out by thousands of volunteers interested in collecting information on waterbirds and wetlands to promote their conservation.

The AWC has been extremely successful in achieving its primary objectives of: 

  • providing the basis for estimates of waterbird populations;
  • monitoring changes in waterbird numbers and distribution by regular, standardised counts of representative wetlands;
  • improving knowledge of little-known waterbird species and wetland sites;
  • increasing awareness of the importance of waterbirds and their wetland habitats at local,
  • national and international levels.

The AWC has also built and strengthened national networks of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers and facilitated their training as an integral part of achieving its objectives.

As a result of their increased awareness, local people and governments are now setting about the conservation of important sites in most of the countries covered by the census. However, coverage and conservation efforts vary considerably, and the increasing pressure on wetlands and their biodiversity highlights the need to strengthen the programme to tackle ever-growing challenges. These include global climate change and its far-reaching impacts on changes in distribution and types of wetlands, as well as seasonal variations linked to probable changes in the carrying capacities of the wetlands used by the waterbirds for feeding, nesting and roosting.

The Asian Waterbird Census programme has produced a wide range of publications, reports and reviews that are available online on the Wetlands International website. The full reference to latest publication is:  Li, Z.W.D., Bloem, A., Delany S., Martakis G. and Quintero J. O. 2009. Status of Waterbirds in Asia - Results of the Asian Waterbird Census: 1987-2007. Wetlands International, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. ISBN: 978-90-5882-012-9

The publication is available from the Natural History Book Service and can be downloaded from the Wetlands International website 

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