World's waterbirds in decline, study warns

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The Independent Online

A deadly mixture of rampant habitat destruction and global warming is having a catastrophic effect on the world's waterbird population, says a new study.

Researchers from Wetlands International, a Netherlands-based coalition of conservationists tasked with monitoring the state of the world's wetlands, released the report yesterday which reveals that nearly half the world's waterbird species are in decline and that their numbers have fallen across all five continents.

The report found that the global waterbird population has decreased by 44 per cent in the past five years alone. In Asia, however, the figure was closer to a two-thirds reduction as booming economies and fast-growing populations placed enormous pressure on fragile ecosystems.

According to Simon Delany, one of the report's principal authors, unscrupulous destruction of habitats and rising global temperatures have become the principal contributors for the loss of wetlands worldwide.

"Obviously it is still early days when assessing the effects of climate change but droughts are a clear example of where we could be heading," he said.

"In Africa, central Asia and even recently in Australia, where some areas haven't seen rain for three years, droughts have significantly reduced wetland coverage.

"Another effect of climate change is rising sea levels, which have covered vital mud flats and sand banks used by waterbirds."

Land reclamation and destruction of mangrove swamps are some of the principal causes for the drastic decline of wetland birds in Asia, the report found, particularly for endangered populations of the spoon-billed sandpiper and long-billed plover.

In North America, the king rail population was found to be in decline while in Europe ferruginious duck numbers fell. In total, 12 waterbird families have seen a noticeable decline in their numbers since the last report in 2002.

The fourth Waterbird Population Estimate is a comprehensive study into the decline of waterbirds. Working alongside 60 national governments and 15 NGOs, conservationists put in more than 50,000 hours of research across 100 countries to assess the threat to the world's wetlands.

"The situation is definitely much worse in Asia than in countries where the population is steady and where economic growth is not as rapid," said Mr Delany.

Almost half of China's mangrove forests have been cleared since 1949 while in South Korea, nearly a million acres of tidal flats have been reclaimed.

In India, Indonesia and Vietnam, swaths of mangrove swamps have been cleared to make way for shrimp and fish farms, which critics argue offers farmers a "get-rich-quick" incentive but decimates the local environment.

According to Mr Delany, the pressure to keep their economies buoyant stops many countries in Asia from taking action against wetland destruction.

"If you want to maximise your economic development it isn't much good if you don't have a planet left to work with," he said.

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