Poor connections: Urgent action needed to strengthen Asian Flyways

By Eric Wikramanayake, WWF Lead Asian Flyways Initiative

Boasting a wingspan of just 50 centimetres, the Red Knot somehow manages to migrate over 10,000 kilometres from Australia to its breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle — and then back again. Astonishingly, this small bird flies for up to a week without stopping to rest or feed: just one of the extraordinary tales of the great Asian Flyways.

World Migratory Bird Day is an opportunity to celebrate these long-distance bird migrations. To marvel at the variety of birds that are part of this ecological and evolutionary phenomenon — from cranes and storks to much smaller birds, such as curlews, sandpipers, ducks and, of course, knots, which undertake a task that seems so completely out of proportion to their size.

It’s also a day to reflect and focus attention on the grave threats to migratory birds and the wetlands that are the foundation of the Flyways. And to inspire people around the world to demand urgent action to safeguard them.

Because Asia’s two great flyways — the Central Asian and East Asian Australasian Flyways — are now collapsing. Bird populations are rapidly declining, and many species are close to extirpation or extinction. These flyways are some of the world’s greatest connectors but they are weakening. The wetlands that provide stop-over sites, breeding grounds and over-wintering areas for the migrating birds rely on are being rapidly drained and converted for urban, industrial, and agricultural uses. Over 80% of East and Southeast Asia’s wetlands are now classified as threatened due to human activities.

The result is that over 60% of the waterbird populations in Asia are now showing signs of declining or have gone extinct in just over two decades. It is a flashing red warning sign. What’s happening to these bird populations and to the flyways is indicative of what’s happening to our world — our home — which is coming apart. We have to fix it if we — and these marvellous migratory birds — are to survive.

Taking remedial conservation action to sustain the wetlands that sustain these migrations is safeguarding our own well-being. Along with providing ‘stepping stones’ and homes for migratory birds, wetlands along Asia’s great flyways are also essential for our survival. Healthy wetlands are critical for our societies, inclusive economic growth, and climate mitigation and adaptation. They defend our shorelines from worsening storms and rising seas, help to protect our cities from extreme floods, and reduce the impact of droughts as well as being important natural carbon stores.

Healthy wetlands really are central to climate adaptation since the impacts of climate change on people will “most immediately and acutely expressed through water.” Thus, sustainably conserving and restoring wetlands will not only stop the rapid decline in migratory bird populations but also build more resilient communities, cities and countries.

What is needed is a sea change in the way we tackle the threats — an ambitious initiative that brings a wide range of partners together to deliver real impact at scale, such as WWF’s Asian Flyways initiative. It will coordinate among the various organizations and stakeholders to ensure that the flyways are conserved as landscapes with ecologically connected, ‘stepping-stone corridors’, which will sustain the long-distance seasonal bird migrations, and ensure that wetland life support systems are managed for nature and people.

We are facing climate and nature crises. The loss of migratory birds — like the 84% decline in freshwater species populations on average since 1970 — is a clear indicator that the planet’s wetlands are degrading and disconnecting.

The theme for this year’s World Migratory Bird Day is ‘sing, fly and soar’ — an apt metaphor given that the Covid pandemic turned much of the human world quiet, leaving in many cases only birdsong. It’s time to work together to heal our planet. It’s time for a New Deal for Nature and People — for countries to agree an ambitious new global framework for nature at the Convention on Biological Diversity conference in China later this year. Together we can chart a new course — one that will enable migratory birds to continue undertaking their extraordinary journeys, one that will restore flyway wetlands so that migratory birds can continue to soar across the sky and enchant us with their songs.

Together, we must pledge to appreciate and enjoy the natural world. To be in awe of the wonder of evolution that has created this diversity. And to promise to protect it for future generations to enjoy.

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