Waterbirds flock to well-run countries, new study shows

Waterbirds flock to well-run countries, new study shows

A country’s citizens aren’t the only ones to benefit from living in a place that’s run well. In a new study, a team of scientists reports that the most important factor that determines the conservation status of waterbird species is how effectively a country is managed.

“Political instability can weaken legal enforcement, and consequently promote unsuitable, often illegal, killing even in protected areas,” Tatsuya Amano, a conservation biologist at Cambridge University in the U.K., said in a statement. “Although the global coverage of protected areas continues to increase, our findings suggest that ineffective governance could undermine the benefits of these biodiversity conservation efforts.”

White frontedGeese TatsuyaAmano
A flock of greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) at Miyajima-numa, Japan. The species is one of several that were shown in this study to have declined in western Asia. Photo by Tatsuya Amano/Cambridge University.

Amano is the lead author of a paper published Dec. 20 in the journal Nature.

Conservation scientists have long understood that efforts to protect wildlife are harder to get off the ground in poorly run countries. But until now, they didn’t have enough data to zero in on an identifiable trend.

To tackle that problem, Amano and her colleagues tabulated yearly totals of more than 460 waterbird species from nearly 26,000 spots across the globe, looking into how species’ numbers fluctuated between 1990 and 2013.

The team then compared those changes in waterbird abundance with a dataset from the World Bank called the Worldwide Governance Indicators, which measures factors related to how countries are managed, such as corruption levels and the selection process for leaders.

Their analysis showed, for the first time, that if a country is governed well, it was more likely to have higher bird numbers. What’s more, in those places, conservation efforts were more likely to succeed. This factor had a bigger influence on the bird populations studied than climate change or spikes in the number of people in a given country.

In nations with management issues, particularly in parts of Asia, South America and Africa, bird numbers have dipped more than in their better-run counterparts in Europe, though even there, many species appear to be trending downward.

Crab Plovers Whimbrel Oman TaejMundkur
Migratory crab plovers (Dromas ardeola) and Eurasian whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) flock to Bar Al Hikmann, a critically important coastal wetland in Oman. Photo by Taej Mundkur/Wetlands International.

Poor governance has likely led to damaged important wetland or the loss of watery habitats altogether in several spots, the authors write. Lax hunting laws, too, might be helping drag down the numbers of waterbirds, which include ducks, flamingos and pelicans.

The researchers also found that a quickly rising GDP — or gross domestic product, a measure of the value of a country’s economy — was linked to larger drops in bird numbers.

The authors chose waterbirds because of the copious data available on them, collected by groups such as Wetlands International and the National Audubon Society. The wetlands that many of them depend on are also important for humans because they provide services such as clean water, habitat for fish and protection of coastal areas, but they’ve also been negatively impacted by humans more than other ecosystems. As a result, waterbirds serve as indicators of the pressure that mismanaged countries are likely having on other types of wildlife.

“Our study shows that waterbird monitoring can provide useful lessons about what we need to do to halt the loss of biodiversity,” Szabolcs Nagy, an ecologist with Wetlands International and an author of the paper, said in the statement.


Amano, T., Székely, T., Sandel, B., Nagy, S., Mundkur, T., Langendoen, T., … Sutherland, W. J. (2017). Successful conservation of global waterbird populations depends on effective governance. Nature. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature25139

This article was written by T. Amano and was first published by Mongabay on 29 Dec 2017.


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