One of the world’s rarest ducks, there is now thought to be as many Baer’s Pochards in captivity as there are in the wild. As conservation measures are being discussed, is it time to move away from a ‘pinion and exhibit’ approach towards something more caring and natural – especially as the eyes of one of the most densely-populated regions on earth are looking towards existing conservation organisations for inspiration and examples of ‘best practice’?
Baer’s Pochard: overview
Baer’s Pochard Aythya baeri is a migratory diving duck breeding in East Asia and confined to the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF). It is one of just a handful of duck species around the world listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Critically Endangered (ie facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild).
The decline of Baer’s Pochard has been rapid and catastrophic. Described in the 1910s by the Irish ornithologist La Touche as “extremely abundant” on migration through Hebei province in China, it was also noted as “common” or “quite numerous” by a number of other contemporaneous authors. Counts of hundreds of individuals exist for countries within the core of its former wintering range, which includes Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand.
By the late 1980s, however, with fewer and fewer birds being seen at recognised staging and wintering sites, it was realised that perhaps fewer than 25,000 individuals remained. In 1994 the species was added to the IUCN Red List (which ‘grades’ the threat of extinction to both animal and plant species) as Vulnerable. It was uplisted to Endangered in 2008, and following an assessment that strongly suggested a population of fewer than 1,000 individuals it was moved to Critically Endangered, the most severe threat level, in 2012. There it joined a second Aythya species, the Madagascar Pochard A. innotata. Probably the world’s rarest duck, most are held by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) in a purpose-built facility on Madagascar while habitat restoration is being undertaken.
Current Status (or ‘what don’t we know’)
The reasons behind Baer’s Pochard’s decline from ‘abundant’ to Critically Endangered are poorly understood. Many formerly occupied wetlands have been destroyed or are considerably degraded, but others do appear to still be in reasonable health. Unregulated hunting in Russia, especially in spring, and China is likely causing declines in many duck species. However, unless Baer’s is being specifically targeted by hunters (perhaps unlikely considering its rather unremarkable appearance) shooting may not now be the significant factor it once was. ‘Harvesting’ of waterbirds using both nets and poisons is still widespread in China: both methods are indiscriminate and Baer’s Pochards may well be an ever-dwindling part of the take, but it’s large flocks of birds that are normally targeted and any continuing losses will probably be incidental by now.
Compounding this frustrating lack of certainty is the recent realisation that even regional experts are unsure exactly what plumage variations Baer’s Pochard might display across all of its development stages. This latter point is especially important because of a closely-related Eurasian species, the Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca. Unlike Baer’s, the Ferruginous Duck appears to be doing well in East Asia. Its population is increasing, and is expanding northwards into areas that may well now be home to the last breeding pairs of Baer’s Pochards. Many duck species freely interbreed with each other (both in captivity and in the wild), and the range of resulting hybrids include ‘subtly different’ birds right through to ‘distinctly different’.
It appears from, for example, recent photographs taken in China, Korea and Japan that some (many?) of the few wild Baer’s left are already hybridising with Ferruginous Ducks, but precisely what the full range of these hybrids might look like – and how many hybrids have already been included in the visual counts that make up the current Baer’s Pochard population estimates – is also unknown.
A database is now being planned which will include recent and older photographs of both wild and captive Baer’s Pochards to discover just what the plumage variations might be (some of the latter birds be genetically-tested to ascertain their purity before cataloguing). This is welcome, but whether it will now make much difference to the wild population is moot: while the species former range does includes areas that are still largely unexplored and inaccessible, focussed surveys in 2012 and 2013 strongly suggest that the situation for Baer’s Pochard may well be even worse than thought just a year or two ago. There are now perhaps fewer than 100 Baer’s Pochards left in the wild, with a slightly larger number held in captivity – including around fifty in the UK.
Plans to conserve Baer’s Pochard are now (belatedly) in development. A grouping of conservation organisations and governments coordinated by The Partnership for the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAFP) is putting together a Working Group to develop a Single Species Action Plan. Members include WWT (and will probably include Birds Korea).
Strategies will likely follow those put in place for other Critically Endangered birds, including international cooperation to monitor and protect the wild population, awareness raising across the species’ range, and the development of protocols for the birds already in captivity.
The starting point though, as is often the case when moves are made to protect the last individuals of a species, is that Baer’s Pochard has an unknown population size, occupies an unknown range, and can’t be identified with absolute certainty in the field even by those regional experts who know it best.
An enormous task faces conservationists, then, which – especially at this point – must make leaving every option open extremely important.
Pinioning and Baer’s Pochard conservation
A version of this article was originally written to be shared with the Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS), a UK-based charity leading the campaign to end the use of animals in entertainment. Why did I think that it would be of interest to CAPS members?
CAPS has recently been campaigning strongly against the pinioning of birds held in collections and zoos. Pinioning is the permanent removal of the end of a bird’s wing. This means that the primary feathers (which the bird needs for normal flight) will never grow. The pinioned bird, in other words, will never fly (either to migrate or escape predators) and can never be released back into the wild. Pinioning is therefore very different to clipping, where the primaries themselves are cut. While a clipped bird can’t fly, feathers don’t have nerve endings and they grow back normally after each moult. Clipping is painless and temporary, and the option to release the bird – or at least for it to be exhibited in a more natural state – remains.
The CAPS campaign, and discussions I’ve had subsequently, has greatly influenced my thinking about the way we keep birds (especially wetland birds) in captivity and pinioning. I agree with the arguments CAPS lay out, and that shift in my thinking has, in my opinion, made (for example) recent Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) media statements about the Baer’s Pochards they hold in captivity seem rather clumsy. While I unhesitatingly acknowledge that WWT employs some exceptionally dedicated and knowledgeable staff (and I am convinced that everyone with an interest in waterbird conservation will agree with that statement), many of us were shocked to learn that Baer’s Pochard ducklings in their collections were being routinely pinioned and prepared for exhibition.
Already highlighted by CAPS as having the largest collection of pinioned birds in the UK, their decision to pinion Baer’s ducklings at the Trust’s Martin Mere centre was confirmed in a tweet. The story of Baer’s Pochard ducklings bred at the Trust’s Slimbridge centre in 2013 was relayed via a staff member who wrote that “I’m no outright conservationist, but the work I do at WWT goes to support the conservation department. It is my job to breed endangered captive species for exhibit”.
While again acknowledging the excellent conservation record of WWT, looking at these actions objectively surely they run counter to what should be expected of best modern conservation practices?
Take the examples of programmes rearing eg: endangered cranes and condors. In these cases young birds are usually kept fully-winged. In some instances they are fed and looked after using hand-puppets, away from other bird species. They are also often completely isolated from people to avoid imprinting and to minimise problems associated with tameness. These protocols are vitally important for preparing individuals of any species subject to hunting and illegal collection pressures for re-introduction into the wild.
Clearly pinioning and exhibiting ducklings to a constantly changing human audience removes any prospect whatsoever of those birds ever being released onto the very East Asian-Australasian Flyway that the EAAFP monitors.
I am not a trained scientist, but I have spent my life observing and learning about birds and other wildlife – and of course I’ve made many visits to the Republic of Korea (as well as Japan, Hong Kong and other locations along the EAAF). The accusation has often been made that birdwatchers/welfare activists like myself are simply wrong to think that ducks ‘care’ whether they are pinioned, that waterfowl that are safe and well-fed don’t ‘notice’ that they can’t fly. That seems an extraordinary justification for mutilating an animal that has evolved over countless generations to fly (especially a strongly migratory species like Baer’s Pochard) in any case, but whether that argument is valid or not those that make it are missing a major point.
The future of Baer’s and a growing number of East Asian animal species (from the Spoon-billed Sandpiper to the Amur Leopard) will depend not on a relatively few well-meaning experts, no matter how respected the partnerships they form, but on how they are valued by the huge human populations that share these species’ shrinking range. If people along the northern parts of the EAAF (in Russia, China, and the two Koreas for example) don’t act to save their habitat or protect them from hunting/poisoning pressures then Baer’s Pochard has little chance of a long-term future in the wild.
The importance of leading by example
If it seems unfair to single out the WWT for criticism in this article, it’s important to remember (and for WWT conservationists themselves to remember?) that they are considered to be world-leaders in waterfowl conservation. Their practices are closely studied, and it is hard for the non-expert to clearly separate what perhaps should be two distinct wings of the same organisation: the exhibition of tamed waterfowl, and the conservation of some of the world’s rarest ducks and geese.
People everywhere are looking for leaders and/or organisations to help shape their thinking, and those along the EAAF are no different. Getting information out to them on Baer’s and the best ways to protect (and increase) the birds that are left will be key. That information needs to be focussed as much on welfare issues as on conservation.
The small but growing number of conservation organisations within the region in turn need positive examples of best practice to help inform their work. Decision-makers within governments, largely lacking experience of modern welfare and conservation practices, have already started looking to established organisations outside of the region to see ‘how it’s done’.
Instead of cancelling wetland infilling projects and managing wetlands for biodiversity, the evidence suggests that at least some regional local governments want to go down the ‘wetland park’ route, replicating compounds for pinioned exhibits observed on fact-finding visits overseas. A newly-built centre constructed within a few kilometres of Suncheon (a vital wetland site in the Republic of Korea) boasts a ‘WWT wetland’ (so-named on advertising for the centre) stocked with flamingos and pinioned Whooper and Black Swans for example. The irony that the Whooper Swan is a declining winter visitor to the region’s once abundant lowland wetlands is impossible to ignore.
Local councils/governments seldom want to be outdone by local rivals. It seems very likely that there will be more plans to build wetland parks and to import an animal welfare model set up early last century. With very few experts available to provide an opposing view, some of these governments will undoubtedly even claim that what they are doing is in the best interests of threatened wildlife, continuing wetland reclamation while stating that they are actually protecting wetland birds – like Whooper Swans – by keeping them in their ‘parks’.
If the existing practices of major conservation organisations lead to more pinioning, more zoos, and more birds being exhibited surely these practices need to be revised? I don’t speak for CAPS, but I do know that neither they nor Birds Korea are suggesting that the cages simply be opened and the animals released. Pinioned birds that can’t escape predators would clearly not survive for long. I am arguing, though, that what is needed for the 21st century is a newly-devised conservation strategy that includes at its core respect for the individual animals concerned. The message going out to the world – supported by the actions we take – needs to be that nature is not ours to do with what we want. And from an East Asian perspective it’s particularly important that birds like Baer’s Pochard are recognised as having an intrinsic value that is unrelated to their value as an exhibit.
It’s often said that people won’t conserve what they don’t care about. Organisations that hold caged wildlife and that also work in conservation are regularly quoted as saying that allowing the public close access to animals ‘converts’ them to conservationists. There are actually no properly-designed tests or data available to unequivocally prove this, but either way it’s a dangerous argument to use in this context. How long will it be before it’s suggested within East Asia that capturing wild Baer’s Pochards and exhibiting them to raise money for their conservation is the best way forward?
Even if it is ever proven that the public has to be able to see a living animal to want to save it (which I’m sure would come as a surprise to award-winning documentary-makers everywhere), shouldn’t they be seeing those animals in as natural a state as possible? In a setting that clearly explains how badly wetland reclamation is impacting migratory species along the EAAF and the current threats to critically important wetlands like China’s Rudng. With birds that are fully-winged, wary, and with the option to move away and out of sight of visitors if they choose to. If that can’t be done, then those animals should not be captured and they should not be exhibited. At any rate no modern, ethically-based conservation strategy should include the mutilation of ducklings for exhibition purposes – regardless of whether or not they are part of a total global population (wild and captive) of around just a few hundred individuals.
Conservation is facing problems that seem insurmountable: an ever-growing human population with its demand for space and resources; governments that constantly push a message that infrastructure development is vital for a country’s economic well-being; climate change that will have impacts on land use and land availability we’ve yet to understand. Very difficult decisions have to be made by organisations that are working with budgets that are dwarfed by those available to industrial corporations. I have every sympathy for the researchers and scientists that make those decisions, but for anyone to use Critically Endangered birds as flightless, profit-making studs seems to me a horribly anachronistic example of ‘care’ and ‘conservation’.
Desperate times (apparently) call for desperate measures, but is it really the case that in 2013 part of what we need to do to secure the future of Baer’s Pochard as a wild species is mutilate its young and exhibit them in a zoo?
- Charlie Moores helped co-found Birds Korea and writes about conservation and animal welfare issues.
If you would like to learn more about the Captive Animals Protection Society or would like to join the ‘Fight for Flight’ campaign today to end the cruelty of pinioning please go to http://www.captiveanimals.org/birds/