Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Strategy: 2001-2005

Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Committee
Wetlands International - Asia Pacific, 2001
ISBN 983 9663 30 5

2. Placing the Asia-Pacific region into context

This chapter provides an overview of waterbirds and flyways in the Asia-Pacific region, threats to the waterbirds and their habitats, and current conservation frameworks and initiatives. It identifies regional priorities and the need for coordinated action to achieve conservation and sustainable use of migratory waterbirds and their habitats.

2.1 The geographic region

This Strategy broadly covers the breeding, staging and non-breeding areas of migratory waterbirds using the three major flyways in the Asia-Pacific region. It encompasses the Asian continent east of the Ural mountains and south to the Caspian Sea and Arabian Gulf, across all the countries of the former Soviet Union and Asia, to Alaska (USA), Australia, and island countries and territories of the Pacific Ocean east to the Pitcairn Islands (as presented in Map 1 and listed in Annex 1).

Map 1.


Implementation area of the Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Strategy: 2001-2005

2.2 Major waterbird flyways

In the Asia-Pacific region waterbirds generally migrate in a north-south orientation. For the long-distance migrants, especially shorebirds, three flyways are recognised, based on biological and geopolitical considerations:

  • Central Asian-Indian Flyway
  • East Asian-Australasian Flyway
  • West Pacific Flyway

The detailed picture of migration within the region is complex, as different species and populations vary in their migration strategies. Some populations do not follow these general flyways and spend the non-breeding period in areas covered by two or more flyways. There is also considerable overlap between the flyway areas, especially at northern latitudes where the birds breed. A conservation framework that encompasses the entire geographic region is needed to achieve conservation of these waterbirds. Within this framework, actions need to be implemented at the flyway level.

2.3 Waterbirds in the Asia-Pacific

The Strategy adopts the definition of waterbirds of the Convention on Wetlands in its broadest sense as being "birds ecologically dependent on wetlands". Twenty families of waterbirds with the exception of wetland raptors are accepted under the definition, and these are listed in Table 1.

There are at least 243 migratory species of a total of 404 waterbird species that are recorded in the region. They visit at least 57 countries and territories in the Asia-Pacific region.

Waterbirds in need of special action

The conservation status of waterbirds across the Asia-Pacific region varies greatly, and there is limited information on the sizes of most populations. A 2000 publication by BirdLife International Threatened Birds of the World identifies 50 species of threatened migratory waterbirds in the Asia-Pacific region (Figure 1 and Annex 2). Efforts to conserve these species are needed. In addition to these globally threatened species, it is also necessary to identify biogeographical populations of migratory waterbird species that are "threatened" in the Asia-Pacific region. Conservation efforts should also be targeted at maintaining (or restoring) viable populations of these waterbirds in their natural ranges.

Greater efforts to identify and promote conservation of globally threatened species and populations will be a priority of the Strategy: 2001-2005.

Waterbird families included in the Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Strategy
Taxonomic Group
English Name
Podicipedidae Grebes
Phalacrocoracidae Cormorants
Pelecanidae Pelicans
Ardeidae Herons, Egrets and Bitterns
Ciconiidae Storks
Threskiornithidae Ibises and Spoonbills
Phoenicopteridae Flamingos
Anatidae Swans Geese and Ducks
Gruidae Cranes
Rallidae Rails, Gallinules and Coots
Heliornithidae Finfoots
Jacanidae Jacanas
Dromadidae Crab Plover
Haematopodidae Oystercatchers
Recurvirostridae Stilts and Avocet
Glareolidae Pratincoles
Charadriidae Plovers
Scolopacidae Sandpipers
Laridae Gulls, Terns and Skimmer
Note: Collectively, shorebirds include jacanas, crab plover, oystercatchers, stilts and avocet, pratincoles, plovers and sandpipers.

2.4 Overview of threats to waterbirds and wetlands

The Asia-Pacific region supports more than half of the world's human population and in recent years has achieved one of the highest economic growth rates. The effect of high economic growth has also been the rapid and often unsustainable use of natural resources and degradation of the environment. The two main threats to the conservation of migratory waterbirds that are linked to this growth are the loss and degradation of habitat. Other threats include the introduction of exotic species and unsustainable harvesting of waterbirds.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Status of 49 threatened migratory species in the Asia-Pacific region

Status of 49 threatened migratory species in the Asia-Pacific region (see Annex 2 for details)

A review of the status of wetlands in Asia undertaken during the late 1980s
(Scott 1989; Scott & Poole 1989) revealed that 85% of important wetlands
were under some form of threat. The main threats included general disturbance from human activities including settlement and agricultural encroachment; drainage and reclamation for agriculture; domestic, industrial waste water and pesticide pollution; over-exploitation of fishery resources and associated disturbance; commercial logging and other forestry activities in wetland-associated forests; and degradation of watersheds resulting in increased soil erosion and siltation and decreased water quality. Fifty percent of these wetlands were reported to be under moderate or severe threat, providing an indication of the severity of human impacts on the habitats. The Wetlands Policy of the Commonwealth Government of Australia (Environment Australia 1997) notes the loss of wetlands and major factors leading to degradation and loss; it also states that the greatest threat, even today, remains ignorance of the importance of wetlands and the roles they play. Wetlands of the Pacific Islands region, while generally subject to lower population pressure than in Asia, are nevertheless increasingly under threat from expansion of agriculture, logging and unsustainable harvest of marine and freshwater resources (R. Jaensch, unpublished).

In order to address waterbird conservation issues, therefore, it is vital to address issues associated with conservation
and sustainable use of wetlands and other habitats used by the birds during their annual migratory cycles.

2.4.1 Loss of habitat

The loss of habitat through changes in land utilisation practices is the most severe threat to the conservation of waterbirds. Drainage and reclamation of wetlands, for example for agriculture and aquaculture, continues in most countries. In contrast to habitat loss in the temperate and tropical regions, there has been less impact in the high arctic region, where the great majority of migratory waterbirds breed. However, expansion of oil and gas developments in Alaska and Russia could adversely affect waterbirds on their breeding grounds.

2.4.2 Degradation of habitat

In addition to the loss of habitat, degradation of the quality of habitats occurs due to the over-exploitation of wetland resources (inland and coastal fisheries, mangroves, reeds, etc.) and changes in the watersheds resulting from logging and mining, urban, rural and industrial developments. Siltation and increased sediment loads from deforestation and urban developments are adversely affecting many inland and estuarine wetlands. Pollution and eutrophication from industrial, agricultural and domestic operations are creating severe problems for inland and coastal wetlands; these contaminants directly and indirectly affect waterbirds. Degradation of habitat reduces the ability of the habitat to support a high density and diversity of birds.

2.4.3 Threats due to introduced/exotic species

Wetlands across the region have been adversely affected by the introduction of plant species such as Water Hyacinth Eichhornia crassipes, Salvinia sp. and Mimosa pigra. These plants have led to long-term changes of the nature and biodiversity of the wetlands; in turn, this has had significant effects on the use of these wetlands by waterbirds and other species. Precedents from elsewhere in the world suggest that other introduced species, including fishes, mammals, birds, and reptiles, may have negative impacts on waterbirds, although quantitative information is lacking from the Asia-Pacific. Human development in the arctic region has resulted in increases in natural predator populations with adverse effects on breeding waterbirds.

2.4.4 Harvesting of waterbirds

Migratory waterbirds, their eggs and young are traditionally harvested/collected in several countries for their high subsistence value, to trade domestically or internationally, or for sport. Whilst in some countries hunting is strictly regulated by legislation, uncontrolled and illegal activities are still a major problem in many important staging and non-breeding areas. Unregulated and poorly monitored harvesting of waterbirds may have serious consequences on the species, leading to rapid declines in populations. When unmanaged harvesting is combined with the destruction of habitats, species are vulnerable to faster rates of declines or extinction.

2.4.5 Effects of climate change

Coastal ecosystems, islands and atolls, with their mangroves, inter-tidal mudflats and coral reefs, are prone to predicted "climate change" impacts such as increased sea levels. Increasing sea levels may adversely affect the present spatial distribution and dynamics of coastal ecosystems and their flora and fauna. Several species of migratory waterbirds, especially, shorebirds depend on these habitats and it is likely that sea-level rise would have serious implications for their populations. In addition, global warming is believed to lead to the slow drying or raising the salinity of inland wetlands, especially in areas where rivers are diverted from the wetlands for irrigation or other uses. However, more information is required before the effects of these potential impacts are understood.

A priority of the Strategy: 2001-2005 will be to highlight the need for measures to protect migratory waterbirds from threats to their habitats and to encourage conservation and sustainable use practices in the harvesting of birds, their eggs and their young.

2.5 Information needs for waterbird and wetland conservation

Baseline information is a prerequisite to plan and monitor management actions for waterbirds and their habitats. Without scientifically robust time series information on population status and distribution, success or failure of conservation actions cannot be assessed.

Comprehensive information on breeding ranges, migration routes, important staging areas, non-breeding sites, feeding requirements, quality of habitat and carrying capacity and seasonal/annual usage of habitat and population changes is not available for many waterbirds. Monitoring of bird distributions and populations during the migration cycle is still in its infancy; thus population sizes and trends of many species remain unknown. As well, quantitative information is lacking on the socio-economic importance of the harvest of waterbirds in the Asia-Pacific region. The exchange of information on waterbirds and their habitats will facilitate their conservation. Such information exchange can benefit greatly by the use of computer-based information storage and retrieval systems, especially as access to and skills to operate computer-based systems increase across the region.

There are four main global/regional computer-based databases that store information on waterbirds and their habitats:

  • Database of Wetlands of International Importance (Convention on Wetlands)
  • Important Bird Area Database (BirdLife International)
  • International Waterbird Census Database (Wetlands International)
  • World Bird Database (BirdLife International)

The Asian Waterfowl Census, part of the International Waterbird Census, collects, collates and disseminates
information on the distribution of waterbirds and wetlands. The programme needs to be expanded in the Asia-Pacific
region. An Asian Wetland Inventory database is being developed to collect standardised information on wetlands of
international importance across Asia.

Improved data collection and information dissemination are priority elements in the Strategy: 2001-2005.

2.6 Frameworks for migratory waterbird conservation

2.6.1 National policies and legislation

Across the region there are a variety of national policies and legislative measures for the conservation of migratory
waterbirds and their habitats. Policies and legislation relating to the sound management and designation of important wetlands as conservation areas are lacking in many countries. Implementation of conservation measures in accordance with national laws to regulate development activities within and outside designated areas is often a challenge, especially where laws conflict with local interests or national development plans. The level of enforcement of legislation varies due to the numbers of trained staff, resource allocations, and levels of public awareness and poverty.

Government agencies in most countries are undertaking conservation activities, such as designation of protected habitats, regulation of hunting and related activities, management and restoration of habitats, studies on the breeding, feeding and migration ecology of waterbirds, and activities to increase education and public awareness.

For the conservation of migratory species and their habitats, a flyway approach to the harmonisation of legislation throughout the region would be a valuable approach to support conservation efforts, especially for threatened species. Multilateral conservation initiatives such as the Strategy: 1996-2000 and Strategy: 2001-2005, Ramsar and Migratory Species Conventions and Memoranda of Understanding on Siberian Cranes and Slender-billed Curlew provide a framework and guidance to achieve this objective. Increasingly, countries are supporting international initiatives by joining and participating in implementing actions under various conventions (see 2.6.3, page 10) and in supporting the Strategy and its Action Plans.
Additionally, cooperative projects are being pursued in several nations based on bilateral treaties for the conservation of migratory waterbirds and their habitats.

The Strategy: 2001-2005 will give priority to working towards achieving greater harmony in policies and legislation in the Asia-Pacific for the conservation and sustainable use of waterbirds and their habitats.

2.6.2 Conservation activities by non-government organisations

NGO's contribute significantly to waterbird and wetland conservation at the international, national and local level. Initiatives are being implemented in collaboration with governments, conventions, other NGOs and local people. The most active international NGOs include:

  • BirdLife International
  • International Crane Foundation
  • Wetlands International
  • World Conservation Union
  • World Wide Fund for Nature

Key initiatives include:

  • Co-ordinating the production of A Directory of Asian Wetlands, A Directory of Wetlands in Oceania, A Directory of the Wetlands of the Middle East and several national wetland directories.
  • Collection of information on wetlands and waterbirds through programmes such as the Asian Waterfowl Census, Asian Red Data Book and Asian Important Bird Areas.
  • Organising international and national training courses on wetland study and waterbird identification and monitoring techniques.
  • Organising international and national workshops and conferences on wetland and waterbird conservation.
  • Organising education and public awareness campaigns to increase people's awareness on the importance of conservation.
  • Development of management plans and management of important waterbird areas.
  • Supporting in implementation of conventions at local, national and international levels.

The Strategy: 2001-2005 recognises the important role that non-government organisations can play in achieving outcomes for the conservation and sustainable use of waterbirds and their habitats.

2.6.3 International conservation conventions/agreements/frameworks

There are several international conventions, international/regional initiatives, and bilateral agreements that are relevant to the conservation of migratory waterbirds and their habitats in the Asia-Pacific region. However, as yet there is no governmental multilateral agreement for the conservation of migratory waterbirds and their habitats.

International conventions

The key inter-governmental conventions are:

  • Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
  • Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention or CMS)
  • Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar, Iran, 1971), also known as the Convention on Wetlands or the Ramsar Convention

Membership of these conventions by countries in the Asia-Pacific region is growing, as more nations recognise the need and support provided for conservation and sustainable use of biological resources and habitats. As at 31 December 2000, 52% were Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention, 19% to the CMS and 83% to the CBD (Annex 1).

Meetings of the Conference of Parties of the Ramsar Convention in 1996 (CoP6) and 1999 (CoP7) approved three resolutions and recommendations that are directly relevant to the Strategy: Recommendation 6.4 the "Brisbane Initiative" on the establishment of a network of listed sites along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway; Recommendation 7.3 on multilateral cooperation on the conservation of migratory waterbirds in the Asia-Pacific region including supporting the implementation of the Strategy and considering the development of a multilateral agreement or an other arrangement; and Resolution VII.21 on enhancing the conservation and wise use of intertidal wetlands (Annexes 3, 4 & 5).

The 1996 Meeting of the Convention on Migratory Species (CoP5) called on Parties, through Resolution 5.4, to take an active role in the development of a conservation initiative for migratory waterbirds of the Central Asian-Indian flyway (UNEP/CMS 1997). The 1999 CMS CoP6, through Resolution 6.4 and companion document UNEP/CMS/Conf. 6.12, called on Parties to support and provide input to the Strategy: 1996-2000 and "future related initiatives that may lead, at an appropriate time, to a formal multilateral Agreement among States of the region, under the auspices of CMS".

Regional initiatives on nature conservation

At least five regional inter-governmental initiatives provide a framework for international cooperation for the conservation of nature, natural resources and the environment. They are:

  • Association of the South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Environment Programme
  • Convention on the Conservation of Nature in the South Pacific (Apia Convention)
  • Convention for the Protection of Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific (SPREP Convention)
  • South Asian Agreement on Regional Cooperation (SAARC)
  • Programme for the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF)
Bilateral migratory bird agreements/treaties.

Ten bilateral agreements/treaties with others under discussion, deal with the conservation of migratory birds (Table 2). These agreements provide a useful and effective mechanism for the promotion of actions at a bilateral level and international level to promote conservation of migratory waterbirds.

Table 2 Bilateral agreements/treaties on the conservation of migratory birds in the Asia-Pacific region
  Australia China,
India Japan Korea,
D. P.R.
Korea, R. Russia U.S.A
China, P.R Yes              
Japan Yes Yes            
Korea, D.P.R                
Russia     Yes Yes Yes Yes    
U.S.A   Yes   Yes     Yes  

A priority of the Strategy: 2001-2005 will be to promote synergistic actions for migratory waterbird and wetland conservation in all of the various regional and bilateral arrangements for nature conservation.

International frameworks to promote migratory waterbird conservation.

Regional action for the conservation of migratory waterbirds has been promoted under the following key initiatives:

  • Strategy: 1996-2000, Action Plans and Site Networks for three species-groups. Three Action Plans were
    developed under the Strategy: 1996-2000 - for Anatidae in the East Asian Flyway, cranes in North East Asian Flyway, and shorebirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. The key element of these Action Plans has been the establishment of networks of appropriately managed sites that are internationally important for migratory waterbirds. The network concept is based on the successful model of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network that operates in the Americas. The networks of sites and people, enable site owners, managers, local people and participating organisations to gain national and international recognition and support for their conservation efforts. Conservation efforts at network sites aim to conserve all species of waterbirds and other fauna dependent on the site.

    Site networks provide an ideal framework for the development of site-based activities, including basic training and public awareness, management planning and support, monitoring and research of wetlands and waterbirds, information and personnel exchanges. Government agencies, NGOs and conventions are increasingly recognising the value of the networks and enhancing their support to them. More information on these networks is available on the web site of Wetlands International (

    To be effective, these networks need to be further developed and strengthened, by extending site coverage and by enhancing network activities. In order to increase synergy between different regional groupings, sites that are important for more than one group of waterbirds will benefit from being nominated under the various networks.

    The conservation of important sites in other flyways in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly the Central Asian-Indian Flyway would benefit through the development of site networks. This continental flyway comprises large semi-arid habitats with limited wetland areas, particularly in the staging and non-breeding areas and different groups of migratory waterbirds appear to overlap considerably in the usage of important sites. An evaluation of the migration routes, main staging and non-breeding sites of the main waterbird groups is needed to guide the development of networks in this flyway.

A priority of the Strategy: 2001-2005 will be develop the migratory waterbird networks and to build greater co-operation between sites and flyways.

  • Action plans for other species-groups. International Action Plans have been developed for cranes (Meine & Archibald 1996), grebes (O'Donnel & Fjeldsa 1997), herons (Hafner et al. 2000) and Anatidae (Callaghan et al. in prep.) by the IUCN Species Survival Commission in conjunction with Wetlands International Specialist Groups, BirdLife International, International Crane Foundation and others, and for Eider Ducks (Circumpolar Seabird Working Group 1997). These plans aim to raise awareness and promote conservation at the global and national level. Action plans for globally threatened species. International Action Plans have been prepared for two threatened species: - A Memorandum of Understanding concerning Conservation Measures for the Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus was developed in 1993 under the auspices of the CMS. The Memorandum and accompanying Conservation Plan (UNEP/CMS 1999a) aim to ensure the survival of the globally threatened Siberian Crane through co-operative action in the nine participating range countries. - An Action Plan for Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor was developed in 1995 by BirdLife International partners in Asia (Severinghaus et al. 1995). It is proving a successful mechanism of promoting cooperation for the conservation of this species.

The Strategy: 2001-2005 will continue to provide an international framework for conservation measures for migratory waterbirds through the development and implementation of Action Plans for species-groups and globally threatened species.