The blurb on the WWT website trails this amazing DVD with the words: “Shot guerrilla-style, in the field by its stars, saving the spoon-billed sandpiper brings real-life human drama to the nature documentary format. The film features stunning footage of spoon-billed sandpipers, as a handful of the last remaining pairs attempt to breed in the fleeting Arctic summer.”
Stirring stuff, and while I don’t really understand what ‘guerilla-style’ means (it seems to be ‘using hand-held digicams’ which is what you’d expect given the terrain and its remoteness) I have absolutely no quibble at all with the description or the sentiment. The film does feature stunning footage, it is dramatic, and the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is indeed down to its last few remaining pairs…
I won’t waste anyone’s time explaining what a Spoon-billed Sandpiper is (I’m confident that anyone who finds their way to this particular website will already know) except to say that it is one of the most threatened shorebird species on the planet. It’s being hammered by a combination of threats on the once-remote Chukotka breeding grounds (by eg climate-change, range-expansion of predatory Slaty-backed Gulls into the region on the back of growth of the fishing industry etc), by ongoing massive reclamation of the Yellow Sea tidal-flats they and a host of other staging shorebirds depended on for refuelling stops, and by reclamation and casual hunting on the few known wintering grounds. Never abundant the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is now right on the very edge of extinction, its global population shrinking by a quarter every year as not enough immatures are surviving to adulthood to replace ‘natural’ loss.
The decline of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is nothing new or especially sudden though – even if the majority of the world’s conservationists and birders didn’t realise it at the time. Still listed as just Vulnerable as recently as 2001 in the ‘Threatened Birds of Asia: The BirdLife International Red Data Book‘ with a population optimistically estimated at ‘between 2,000 and 2,800 pairs’ it is now – just a few years later – recognised as being Critically Endangered. There are almost certainly not much more than 30 breeding pairs left. As a co-founder of Birds Korea I’ve been passionate about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper for more than a decade and as an organisation we’ve been asking for years for urgent action to be taken to save the species.
I recognise that that’s always been easier said than done of course. Both China and the Republic of Korea (countries which border the Yellow Sea) have policies in place that make destroying tidal-flats far easier than here in Europe. They are immensely wealthy and powerful countries that have historically had little regard for NGOs or environmentalists. Except for Russian scientists and researchers like ArcCona’s Christoph Zockler few people were able to visit the breeding-grounds (for logistical reasons in the main), and the presumed wintering grounds were vast and partly lay inside Myanamar, a country that at the time was virtually closed to outsiders. The data was difficult to collect in other words, and apart from observable declines in Chutotka (which couldn’t entirely rule out breeding birds moving to new unexplored areas) it wasn’t until Birds Korea’s ‘Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Programme‘ (2006-2008) that figures were obtained which demonstrated just what a catastrophic impact industrial-scale tidal-flat destruction was having on shorebirds using the East-Asian/Australasian Flyway (EAAF).
Readers of this article may be wondering why I’m filling a review of a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust‘s DVD with a history lesson. It’s because I think it’s vital that the incredible efforts that (in particular) WWT’s Nigel Jarrett and Martin McGill went to in their mission to travel to Russia, collect (under licence and with full permission of course) Spoon-billed Sandpiper eggs, and bring the hatched chicks back to the UK, must be seen in the context of just how much work still needs to be done.
I don’t suppose there’s an interested party anywhere who has anything but respect and admiration for Nigel, Martin and the rest of the team (and particularly for WWT’s Dr Debbie Pain who is as committed a conservationist as you could wish to meet). In the DVD Nigel and Martin don’t as much as even hint that they might think of themselves as ‘heroes’ – but that’s what they are. The conditions they worked in, their care and attention to detail, and the energy they devoted to the chicks underpins the DVD. For all the beautiful scenery and the unprecedented footage of the breeding-plumaged adult birds, I’d be willing to bet that it will be the looks of both exhaustion and elation on Nigel and Martin’s faces that will remain in the memory longest.
‘Shot guerilla-style’ or not this is a remarkably well-made, well-edited, and highly insightful DVD. It’s well-soundtracked too, and not a minute too long at just over an hour. I’m not really in a position to urge anyone to buy it, but I would definitely recommend anyone thinking about doing so to go ahead. Not least because the money – it’s just GBP9.99, less than most birders probably spend on coffee in a week – will fund the conservation work that a truly admirable conservation organisation does (and forget any redundant thoughts you may have that WWT is all about tame ducks and teashops, it does fantastic conservation work around the globe now).
But if you do buy it please then spend some time looking into the subject after you’ve watched it. Have a look at what is happening on the EAAF, have a look at the work that is being done regionally and along the EAAF, and ask questions. Yes, while there is now a very welcome conservation-breeding programme and a ‘reservoir’ of Spoon-billed Sandpipers in protection, how will those birds ever get back on the Flyway if there is no habitat to support them? How would they survive if hunting pressures aren’t alleviated? How will anyone KNOW when it’s safe to put them back if there’s no funding to ensure research can take place in Russia, Korea, China, Myanamar etc? The answers are that without continued funding they won’t…
I don’t mean to sound churlish in any way (and there’s a danger that I do) but while I’m 100% supportive of WWT and the work they do, we’re actually still a very long way from ‘Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’ just yet…
Founded in 1946 by the naturalist and artist, the late Sir Peter Scott, WWT is the only UK charity with a national network of nine specialist wetland visitor centres. With over 60 years experience of wetland conservation, WWT is committed to the protection of wetlands and all that depend on them for survival.
- The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust website: http://www.wwt.org.uk/
- Buy the DVD at https://www.wwt.org.uk/shop/shop/saving-the-spoonbilled-sandpiper-dvd/saving-the-spoonbilled-sandpiper-dvd/