Spoon-Billed Sandpipers
Spoon-Billed Sandpipers

Conservationists have escorted 13 spoon-billed sandpipers, one of the most endangered species on the planet, into Heathrow and onto their new home at Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) headquarters at Slimbridge.

This is the final stage of an epic journey for the birds, which have been brought from their Russian Far-Eastern breeding grounds, via quarantine in Moscow Zoo, and now to the UK.

The arrival of these birds marks the start of a conservation-breeding programme intended to help prevent the extinction of the spoon-billed sandpiper, a shorebird whose unique appearance and extreme rarity have given it near-mythical status among birdwatchers all over the world.

"Taking one of the world's rarest birds across 11 time zones by boat, plane and now by road has been the most nerve-wracking job I've ever done. The spoon-billed sandpiper is but a hair's-breadth from extinction and the birds will receive 24 hour care in Slimbridge," said head of conservation breeding at WWT Nigel Jarrett.

"We and the many other organisations working on this species must gather support for action to tackle the hunting and habitat loss that has left these birds in such peril," Jarrett added.

Throughout 2011 conservationists from Birds Russia have been working with WWT and the RSPB on an emergency rescue mission for the species. This culminated in an expedition to the remote Russian Far East to take eggs from some of the nests and hatch them in captivity. The birds have now been brought to the UK where the climate is suitable for their year-round care and expertise and facilities exist to start a breeding programme.

The spoon-billed sandpiper is threatened by loss of essential intertidal feeding sites along its 8000km migration route from Russia to its wintering grounds in South and South-east Asia, and also by trapping on its non-breeding grounds. Although these issues are being tackled, the conservation breeding programme has been started because the population is now so low.

At fewer than 100 pairs left, and declining by a quarter each year in recent times, there may be too little time to reduce hunting and habitat loss before the species disappears completely.

"Flying 16,000km every year, raising a family in one of the remotest places on earth and threatened by hunting and the destruction of their winter homes, spoon-billed sandpipers lead a perilous existence. Captive breeding is not something conservation organisations enter into lightly, but in this case it's the best chance - possibly the only chance - the birds have," said Director of RSPB's International Operations Tim Stowe.

He further said, "Unfortunately this problem isn't a cheap and easy fix; it will take a take a long time and requires a lot of money."

"The ultimate goal is to release the offspring of this captive population back to the wild. In the meantime, we must tackle habitat destruction and subsistence hunting, and give this enigmatic little bird a new beginning," Evgeny Syroechovskiy of Birds Russia said.

The most immediate threat to the birds - unsustainable levels of subsistence trapping on their wintering grounds in Myanmar - is being addressed by conservationists working with local communities to find other livelihoods.

In response to the loss of inter-tidal mudflats along the coasts of East Asia, the international conservation movement is pressuring governments to conserve the most important wildlife sites, and acknowledge their great natural value to human society. As their value as fisheries, shell-fisheries and for coastal protection is appreciated, it is hoped that their reclamation for development will become less attractive.

Once the birds have left quarantine and been released into their new home at Slimbridge, WWT hopes to stream video of the birds to the visitor centre once they are settled, so visitors can see the species that has become something of a Holy Grail for bird-lovers worldwide.