By James Robinson
Last October, I attended the 13th Conference of Parties of the Ramsar Convention, in Dubai. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, and meetings bring together governments, organisations and business from across the world to create the framework for international wetland conservation. Last year, the Convention released a major new report, ‘Global Wetland Outlook’ (http://bit.ly/2kUl6UT), which presents, for the first time, an analysis of the state of the world’s wetlands. The messages in it are stark and deeply worrying.
Globally, we have lost more than a third of wetlands since the 1970s, at a rate three times that of the loss of natural forests. A quarter of wetland species are at risk of extinction and, although waterbird species have a relatively low threat of global extinction compared with other taxonomic groups, most populations are in long-term decline. The parlous state of the world’s wetlands was raised again by the widely reported Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) global assessment (http://bit.ly/2lVJoOK), which reports wider challenges for global biodiversity and the need for transformational change.
This new evidence shows that there has never been a more important time for the work of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (https://www.wwt.org.uk). I began my career in conservation at WWT and returned to take on the role of Director of Conservation in the spring of 2018. Created with the vision of Sir Peter Scott, the organisation has a long track record of success, especially in waterbird research and conservation and the creation of Wetland Centres where people can get close to wetland biodiversity. It is an organisation that is action-oriented, often taking on some of the world’s most difficult conservation challenges. Recently, for example, we have worked with partners to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea and created 490 ha of new wetland at Steart Marshes, in Somerset, in partnership with the Environment Agency.
We cannot save the world’s wetlands on our own and so we form partnerships with governments, communities and businesses to solve the threats to wetlands and the waterbirds they support. We work hard to make sure that we’re an organisation that people can work with constructively. The challenges we face also demand that we keep pace with a changing world, and it’s crucial that charities like WWT focus their resources on the biggest threats where we can have a meaningful impact. So, what does the future look like for WWT?
In the UK, we will continue to inspire and create ‘working wetlands’, where the benefits to birds and other wildlife will be linked to the benefits these places provide to humans, for example those that help to tackle flooding, mitigate climate change or create sustainable urban drainage. We know we have to continue to make an inspiring case for wetlands, so that more are created and restored and those which remain are being better managed for wildlife and people.
WWT’s nature reserves will be increasingly used to influence and improve the management of the wetland landscapes where they sit and we will get involved to help species back into these landscapes. Our experience of successfully headstarting Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa in the Fens is already being transferred to helping the (Near Threatened) Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata survive in lowland habitats as part of a wider recovery project, and we will identify new wetland species for this type of hands-on conservation action.
We will continue to identify and tackle the threats to migratory waterbirds that use the Northwest European Flyway, focusing on the causes of declines in species such as Bewick’s Swan Cygnus columbianus and Common Pochard Aythya ferina, which is now listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. Our nature reserves will maintain their role of offering safe refuge for these birds.
Farther afield, we will continue to work with governments and local communities in Madagascar and Cambodia to help to conserve the seriously threatened wetlands in these countries, benefiting species like the Madagascan Pochard Aythya innotata and Sarus Crane Antigone antigone among so many wetland birds. We are planning on building a long-term presence in these countries, establishing country offices. And we will significantly increase our work along the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, the most biodiverse and threatened of the global flyways, supporting efforts to secure the future for freshwater wetlands that are a home for Baer’s Pochard A. baeri and the millions of shorebirds (including Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris and Nordmann’s Greenshank Tringa guttifer) that use the intertidal coastline along this vast avian superhighway.
On top of all this, the WWT’s Wetland Centres and nature reserves will continue to provide a means of getting people close to wetlands. We plan to ensure that our centres focus even more effectively on inspiring people and enabling them to get involved in wetland conservation. Our formal education work is also evolving, ensuring that we play our part in creating the next generation of informed youngsters and wetland managers in the UK and beyond.
I believe that WWT is well placed to tackle the challenges set out in the ‘Global Wetland Outlook’. I want WWT to be a global leader for wetland conservation and to play a critical role in saving those waterbirds that we all enjoy when birding at wetlands, either at our local patch or farther afield. I want future generations to enjoy healthy wetlands, ones that support the swirling flocks of Red Knot C. canutus at the Solway Firth, the noisy gatherings of wintering Pink-footed Geese Anser brachyrhynchus at Martin Mere, and the ‘wickering’ call of breeding Black-tailed Godwits in the Fens. And I encourage all BB readers to join us in our fight for them too.
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