Dr Stuart Butchart: Shot by bandits, saved by 'The Birds of Mexico'

It was a two-inch thick bird book that saved the life of Dr Stuart Butchart. Paralysed by a vicious attack, he continues to devote his life to saving the world's birds
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The Independent Online

Jacanas are incredible birds, Dr Stuart Butchart tells me in a calm professorial tone. "They have an extraordinary mating system where females are dominant and have harems of males that do all the parental care. A modified wing bone allows the males to scoop up two chicks on each side. You see them running across the lily pads to get away from some danger with eight little legs dangling beneath their wings."

If anyone knows about the bronze-winged jacana (Metopidius indicus) it's Butchart. It was his doctoral thesis, based on three years observation of the birds at Vembanur Lake near the southern tip of India, that explained their odd behaviour. "Only a dozen out of 10,000 bird species have a breeding system like this."

Listening to Butchart's low, gravelly voice as he describes other rare species he's watched around the world is a bit like having Sir David Attenborough in the room practising the voiceover for his next documentary; even without stunning visuals, you can conjure up the birds in your imagination.

Ornithology has soared in the past 20 years. When Butchart was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he and his friends organised summer expeditions to research avian biodiversity in remote areas of the world, including islands off Indonesia that had not been surveyed since Alfred Russel Wallace – Charles Darwin's great rival – and other Victorian naturalists first explored them in the 19th century.

"We rediscovered a couple of species," he says nonchalantly. "Wallace's hanging parrot (Loriculus flosculus) hadn't been seen, apart from one observation in the Seventies, since its discovery. They're incredibly agile, crawling through the leaves like squirrels – rather than flitting from branch to branch – and hanging from one foot to eat fruit."

That sort of expedition into the unknown would be hard to do today, he says with a note of remorse in his voice. He means that few truly unexplored areas remain in a world girded with satellites, jumbo jets and the internet. But I can't help thinking that, for him, exploration is immeasurably more difficult now than for most people.

The moment passes and Butchart moves on to his next point. Bird scientists still have lots to learn, but the most important facts are known: the number of bird species (189) on the verge of extinction, for example, and what needs to be done to save them, and what it will cost. "£19m over five years," he says.

It's a trivial sum by almost any standard, especially so when matched against the ecosystem services that nature provides to humans, such as pollinating crops and maintaining the atmosphere and the global water cycle. That's worth $33 trillion (£16.5 trillion) a year by one estimate, he says: "And that's 1997 dollars; it's more than that now."

Birds can't claim credit for all of that, but they are good markers for the health of habitats. They can be found in some of the world's most inhospitable climes, from Antarctic waters to the deserts in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. And, like canaries in coal mines, when they start dropping, it's often advance warning of worse trouble to come. "We're using birds as indicators for biodiversity," he says. "We can use them to tell us which places are the priority sites.

"We're playing a giant game of Jenga with the planet. Six billion people are pulling blocks out of the stack. Sooner or later that huge structure is going to come tumbling down," says Butchart, whose current job is global species programme co-ordinator for BirdLife International, the umbrella group for national organisations such as Britain's RSPB. Among other things, he's one of the scientists who decide which birds go on the Red List of endangered species. His big challenge now, however, is to get that £19m from corporate and individual sponsors – each adopting a specific endangered bird – into the hands of local groups that stand ready to implement the prepared conservation plans.

The Preventing Extinctions programme launched last month has already recruited four corporate sponsors and Butchart seems confident that more will soon follow. The first four all have ties to the world of birds, but talks are under way with at least one global brand name, and a string of announcements is expected over the coming weeks and months.

Dragging 189 species back from the brink may seem a daunting task, but conservationists are much better now at identifying and dealing with threats such as introduced predators or loss of habitat. In the five centuries since 1500, 150 bird species have been lost, says Butchart. In the past decade alone, three disappeared, but, encouragingly, 16 others were saved, sometimes from population levels so low that the number of individual birds could be counted on your fingers.

A dramatic tale is that of the black robin (Petroica traversi) on Chatham Island off New Zealand, which had only two breeding females in 1980 and now has a population of 500. I worry that species grazing so close to extinction will suffer from inbreeding, but Butchart reassures me that, as many of them are island birds, this shouldn't be a problem. "They've probably gone through evolutionary bottlenecks before," he says.

Continental birds, being less isolated, face different threats, but conservation is not impossible. Populations of the three species of vulture – including the slender-billed vulture (Gyps Tenuirostris), pictured right – declined by 90 per cent on the Indian subcontinent after veterinarians introduced a new pain-killer, diclofenac, for cattle. It turned out to be toxic to the vultures, so BirdLife International persuaded India and Nepal to ban the drug in favour of a less deadly alternative, meloxicam. "There are direct human health consequences. Vultures play a key role as scavengers and their decline has led to massive increases in feral dog populations and now rabies is rising," says Butchart.

His interest in birds started early, at his family home in Kent. "My grandfather showed me a spotted flycatcher [Muscicapa striata] in our garden when I was six," he recalls, but the "epiphany" came later. "I was 12 when I cycled to my local gravel pit and crawled under a barbed wire fence and through a gorse bush and saw a pair of great crested grebes [Podiceps cristatus] displaying to each other. Grebes are beautiful, elegant waterbirds with fantastic golden ruffs on the heads and ear coverts that they erect. It was wonderful, almost ceremonial."

While he talks, his hands move restlessly, and the two thick silver rings on his thumbs make me think of the bands used to track birds. He laughs at this idea, insisting that I'm the first to suggest the parallel. But it reminds him of the day six and a half years ago when his life changed and he pauses. "It was when the bandits pulled my arm out from under me to get my ring that I woke up to what was happening," he says.

Butchart was in Guatemala for a busman's holiday as 2000 drew to a close. On the first day of the new millennium, he and a friend walked into the Biotopo Cerro Cahui nature reserve, not in search of anything in particular but enjoying the sights they found. "I vividly remember the last bird I saw, a yellow-breasted chat [Icteria virens], a migrant from North America.

"I turned a corner and walked into an ambush by a gang of four masked bandits. I turned around and one shot me. I was lying there on the ground for 45 minutes thinking I was probably going to die."

Fittingly, perhaps, it was his love of birds that saved his life. Had the bullet passed right through him, he would almost certainly have bled out on the spot. But the shot hit and stopped at the fifth thoracic vertebra. He's sure that it must have been slowed by passing through his 2in-thick copy of A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America.

He has no way of checking; the book disappeared with his rucksack, watch and rings, taken by the bandits. It took 24 hours to get him out of the jungle and fly him to Houston, Texas, but his recovery after that was remarkably quick. He spent just seven weeks in hospital, compared with months, if not years, for the typical spinal injury patient in Britain. But the attack left him paralysed from the chest down. It's tempting to say that he's confined to a wheelchair, but that would be misleading. He has the build, and attitudes, of an outdoorsman, and moves with a grace and independence that I can only envy.

And while his injury might have made expeditions into the wilderness more difficult, they haven't stopped him. My first glimpse of Butchart was in a photograph of a trip he made two years ago to Cameroon. He's in a dugout canoe, so narrow that the titanium wheels of his chair are dangling over its sides.

That wasn't the rough part of the visit, he says. The photograph was taken on a leisurely side trip during a conference. Once the meeting was over, he started a two-week trek through the rainforest, alone except for the guides who had to manhandle him through swamps, over fallen logs and across rivers. "I had one wheel on a six-inch wide plank and the other borne aloft by porters up to their necks in the raging water," he says. "They thought I was completely mad.

The rain was incessant. "It's the only place I've been where termites have evolved to build umbrellas over their mounds," he says. At their destination, the expedition waited for a glimpse of a grey-necked picathartes (Picathartes oreas), a species found in rich jungle close to caves and overhanging boulders. "They build nests under these rocks, like swallows' nests but much bigger. We were at the back of a cave when one suddenly appeared. They've been called the Gollums of the bird world because they have strange long necks, large heads with bare, violet and red skin, and they sort of bounce around on their long legs.

"I was determined from an early stage that I would carry on doing the stuff that I'd done before," he says. That included chasing dragonflies in Norfolk and snorkling with killer whales off Norway. One trip took him to South Africa, where he visited colleagues from Cambridge running a long-term study of a meerkat colony in the Kalahari.

"They've become completely used to humans," he says. "When they want to climb up and look around for predators they will run up your body and stand on your head. I had pups running through the spokes of my wheels."

But it's clearly the birds that inspire him most, and despite the "frightening destruction and degradation" that he's seen in habitats around the world, he remains optimistic about their future: "We can turn this around."

Feathered friends: For the birds

Species guardians

In Focus (optics specialist): White-shouldered Ibis, below

Leeds Castle Foundation: Blue-crowned Laughingthrush

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