HBW 1 - Foreword introducing the HBW project by Christoph Imboden

The study of birds represents a very special contribution to our appreciation of the world around us. Birds are better researched than any other group of animals or plants. They hold a special place within a large number of cultures throughout the world. They also act as biological indicators, showing us the implications of environmental change. To understand birds is to begin to understand the world.

There are more than 9000 species of birds. Today, over 1000 of these are threatened with extinction; another 5000 are declining. The facts hardly seem to do justice to the grim realities. Each of these species is unique. To lose one species is to deprive future generations of the opportunity to share our sense of wonder and joy. Once gone they will never return. For many of us the potential loss of a single bird species is sufficient to ring the alarm bell; yet there are excellent reasons why we should concern ourselves with the conservation of our threatened and declinig birds. They are the small, visible tip of a large iceberg: for every threatened bird species there are numerous other, less conspicuous animal and plant species that inhabit the same ecosystem and are threatened by the same factors as the birds. Globally, at least one million plant and animal species are threatened. They represent an important proportion of the world's finite genetic resources. Today, mankind does have the power to stop this accelerating loss of species, but we all must show willingness to use that power.

The study of birds represents a very special contribution to our appreciation of the world around us. Birds are better researched than any other group of animals or plants. They hold a special place within a large number of cultures throughout the world. They also act as biological indicators, showing us the implications of environmental change. To understand birds is to begin to understand the world.

There are more than 9000 species of birds. Today, over 1000 of these are threatened with extinction; another 5000 are declining. The facts hardly seem to do justice to the grim realities. Each of these species is unique. To lose one species is to deprive future generations of the opportunity to share our sense of wonder and joy. Once gone they will never return. For many of us the potential loss of a single bird species is sufficient to ring the alarm bell; yet there are excellent reasons why we should concern ourselves with the conservation of our threatened and declinig birds. They are the small, visible tip of a large iceberg: for every threatened bird species there are numerous other, less conspicuous animal and plant species that inhabit the same ecosystem and are threatened by the same factors as the birds. Globally, at least one million plant and animal species are threatened. They represent an important proportion of the world's finite genetic resources. Today, mankind does have the power to stop this accelerating loss of species, but we all must show willingness to use that power.

I am delighted to endorse this marvellous Handbook on behalf of the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP). I have always believed that any contribution to our knowledge of birds is an additional step towards ensuring their conservation. I am particularly pleased to be associated with this series of volumes because it recognises that birds are not a national possession but a global treasure. When we start to acknowledge the world's birds as our own then we are recognising our responsibility to the whole planet. ICBP is a global organisation. We represent people from every continent. Together they constitute a deep appreciation for the role that birds can play in demonstrating the delicate balance in the environment. We upset that equilibrium at our peril.

We live on a small and vulnerable planet. Our actions as individuals can either contribute to the well-being of our collective home, or they can destroy it. Let us all learn to study and enjoy the birds of the world. In doing so we are adding to our ability to save the world.

Dr. Christoph Imboden,
Director-General,
International Council for Bird Conservation.
ICPB and the Conservation of the Birds of the World

 

We have every reason to acknowledge the foresight and vision that characterised the small group of people who gathered in London in 1922 to form the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP). International action to conserve birds was a unique and unheard of concept at that time. They met when the world had recently lost the last Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet. The Eskimo Curlew stood on the edge of extinction while the Whooping Crane and the Trumpeter Swan were each reduced to a mere handful.

Over the following years the pressing need for international action to save birds has become ever more apparent. Since the 1950's, four major studies have identified the number of globally threatened bird species. It is clear that there has been a steady increase in that figure. Rising from 95 species in 1958 to 220 in 1971, 290 in 1979, and 1029 species in 1988. The latest information, without doubt, represents the most complete and reliable picture so far. In fact, earlier studies may well have underestimated the scale of the problems through lack of detailed information.

ICBP, as the principal organisation concerned with the birds of the world, establishes the status of every species. It is through painstaking research, frequently using ICBP's vast network of professional ornithologists and committed amateurs around the world, that the status of each species can be classified. Such information should be an impetus for conservation action. With each threatened species added to the list comes the stimulation to act both to save those species that are immediately threatened, and also to halt the decline of others.

The considerable increase in the number of species categorised as threatened reflects a disturbing trend for avifauna generally. It is estimated that approximately 5000 more bird species are declining. When added to the list of threatened birds this means that around two-thirds of all bird species are suffering long-term population reductions.

Seventy years on from that historic meeting to form ICBP, the problems facing birds and the environment have never been greater. How can we respond to such a challenge? For ICBP the answer is clear. The response must be based upon hard-headed research providing us with the ability to understand the problems clearly, and then deliver viable solutions. Inevitably this involves prioritisation. There are never enough resources to allow organisations such as ICBP to address all of the issues simultaneously. Difficult decisions have to be taken on the most effective way to act.

So what and where are the priorities for international bird conservation? In accordance with the World Conservation Strategy, and its successor Caring for the Earth, these priorities are concerned with the preservation of biological diversity, the maintenance of ecological processes and systems, and the sustainability of any utilisation of species and habitats. Therefore, priorities can be categorised in several ways.

The number of threatened species in each country or geopolitical unit can be assessed and then ranked. Such an approach provides us with a top three of Indonesia, Brazil, and China. Alternatively these units could be ranked for the number of threatened endemics only. Once again Indonesia and Brazil top the list, although by this method they are joined by the Philippines.

Another way of approaching the task is to identify the key groups of birds. In other words we can include those families and genera with a high proportion of threatened species. Among the obvious candidates for such a list are groups are parrots, which have a high degree of speciation and suffer heavy exploitation by trade, and raptors, which are major indicators for terrestrial ecosystems owing to their vulnerable position at the top of the food chain.
A further approach is through the selection of key sites for bird conservation. These can be determined, for example, by virtue of their holding more than one threatened species, by being sole home to one threatened species or by holding major populations of particular species, but also because they represent critically important areas for populations of certain species (notably in the case of wetlands).

Inevitably any decision on prioritisation will include a mix of the above criteria and take into account a number of other factors. For bird species, subspecies and populations to remain viable in the long term, substantial representative portions of the full range of the world's naturally occurring habitats and ecosystems require conservation. In practice it is essential to concentrate on tropical forests, both wet and dry, as the generally overriding priority, but with high recognition of wetlands, grasslands and islands as major custodians of the world's remaining biological diversity; also important are temperate old growth forests, in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres, which have become increasingly exploited and fragmented.

The difficult decisions on priorities must then be translated into action. For ICBP the key to success is creating links between organisations and people that transcend political boundaries. ICBP brings people together in collaboration and partnership, to take action wherever the need is greatest. This also necessitates the bringing together of developed and developing countries to work in cooperation and to transfer resources to where they are urgently required. ICBP plays a vital role in facilitating closer links between those who can provide those resources and those who need them most.
As a federation, ICBP has more than 360 member organisations, spanning 110 countries, with the backing of around ten million individual members. ICBP's direct conservation programme has in excess of 60 projects running in the field at any one time. These will range from survey work through to large-scale sustainable development projects. Through its member organisations, hundreds of conservation projects are taking action for birds throughout the world.

ICBP has achieved many notable conservation successes, but perhaps the story of the Seychelles Warbler is the best proof that even very small populations can be resurrected with careful management and wise use of resources. When ICBP bought Cousin Island, the last remaining home of the Seychelles Warbler in the l960's, the world population had reached an all time low of just 30 individuals. But through careful habitat management the numbers began to increase, and by the early l980's, the warblers had established a healthy population of some 400 individuals on the island.

Despite this early success, ICBP's project workers realised that while the birds were confined to just one island, the possibility of disease, or of a hurricane wiping out large areas of available habitat, meant that the species was still not completely safe. So, in l988, the decision to translocate 29 warblers to the nearby island of Aride was taken. The birds were closely monitored, and as the Cousin warblers bred in January, the new birds on Aride were expected to take a few months to settle in before the breeding season. In fact, as history reveals, they needed only two days to start building the first nest, and today, the population has climbed to more than 200 individuals. The warbler has now also been introduced to Cousine Island and is one of the few species actually to be removed from ICBP's list of threatened species.

ICBP is running a number of similar species-rescue projects covering priorities in all parts of the world. Amongst the birds which are benefiting from these initiatives are: Gurney's Pitta, confined to a tiny area of forest in southern Thailand; Bannerman's Turaco, known only from the montane forests of Cameroon's Bamenda Highlands; the Imperial Amazon parrot, endemic to Dominica's threatened rainforests; the Seychelles Paradise Flycatcher, found only on the tiny island of La Digue; and many more.

Although birds remain the driving force behind ICBP's activities, much of the work to save the world's most threatened species depends upon the involvement of people and the protection of the broader environment. This is inevitable when one realises that the principal factors causing the serious decline of so many species are completely attributable to the behaviour of people. Habitat destruction, over-exploitation, introduced predators - the pressures driving birds towards extinction are numerous, and almost exclusively a result of human actions. Yet equally it is within our compass to act positively to halt the decline in distribution and abundance of so many of the world's birds.

ICBP represents a worldwide recognition of the value and importance of birds. Not simply for the sense of joy and wonder that they bring, but also for their role as indicators of the state of our common world. Birds provide us with an index to the health of the environment, locally, regionally, and on a global scale. In saving birds, we save our world, and ultimately ourselves. There can be no better incentive to act. ICBP has taken a lead, it falls to each of us to ensure that others follow.

 

ICPB