Many of the world’s most important locations for bird species diversity and abundance are included within a network of over 12,000 key conservation areas, defined by Birdlife International as being Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). Despite being designated as IBAs, some of the most important sites of international significance for the conservation of the world’s birds and other nature are in danger of being lost through a mix of neglect, exploitation, disturbance and development. In the face of such threats, how are we to conserve wildlife effectively with limited resources? Prioritisation of important locations for conservation is a crucial first step but some of these sites, already under the most immediate threat from damage or destruction, need our urgent attention. These are defined as being the IBAs in Danger.
For several decades, BirdLife International has maintained the internationally adopted Red List of Birds, and since 2013, has also published the list of IBAs in Danger; these being the most threatened IBAs, as identified by BirdLife Partners. The updated list for 2017 includes 338 IBAs in Danger in more than 100 countries, including ten in Spain. These are:
The Guadalquivir Marshes, located at the mouth of the River Guadalquivir and encompassing the Doñana National Park, are one of the largest wetlands in Europe. In the north and east, natural vegetation has been replaced by rice cultivation, irrigated cultivation, aquaculture and saltpans, although there are still expanses of halophytic scrub. Marshes, Mediterranean scrub, woodland and sand dunes occur to the south. The marshes are flooded only seasonally, but some remain near permanent rivers and lagoons. The principal human activities include arable agriculture, cattle grazing, hunting, fishing, fish farming and tourism.
The Marshes are the most important wetland in Spain for breeding, passage and wintering waterbirds and passerines, with over 360 species recorded. Wintering waterbird numbers amount to 400,000 individuals, climbing to over six million birds during migration periods. The site is a major migratory bottleneck, through which more than 20,000 storks and raptors regularly pass. The Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca winters here but, despite being a species of global conservation concern, does not meet IBA criteria.
There are numerous threats and problems faced by this IBA, of which the most important relates to the expansion and intensification of agriculture, particularly the uncontrolled use of pesticides and over-exploitation of groundwater. Other threats include a high poaching pressure, intensive crayfish fishing, an increase in fish farming, industrial pollution with heavy metals (which caused a major ecological disaster in 1998), urban development, uncontrolled tourism, hunting and road construction. The IBA has a research station, a water management plan and a sustainable development plan.
The Strait of Gibraltar has been identified as an IBA in Danger because of the numerous threats faced by hundreds of thousands of migrating seabirds that use it every year when transiting between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, including large numbers of Scopoli’s Shearwaters Calonectris diomedea, Balearic Shearwaters Puffinus mauretanicus, Northern Gannets Morus bassanus, Audouin’s Gulls Larus audouinii, Sandwich Terns Sterna sandvicensis and Great Skuas Stercorarius skua. These threats include industrial waste, marine pollution from passing shipping, run-off from freshwater aquaculture, recreational and work activities, industrial and military effluents (including oil spills), and potentially from the effects of oil and gas drilling and extraction within four years.
The Ebro Delta, located on the east coast of Spain south of Barcelona forms a complex of shallow brackish lagoons, saltmarshes, salt lakes and beaches backed by dunes. The site includes approximately 1,500 ha of rice cultivation and other human activities including hunting, fishing, reed harvesting, arable cultivation and livestock farming. This forms one of the most important sites in the Mediterranean for breeding, passage and wintering birds. During the breeding season, c. 27,000 pairs of waterbirds breed here, including more than 60% of the world population of Audouin’s Gull Larus audouinii. Later in the year, upwards of 180,000 birds spend the winter months here. Although designated a National Park, habitats and wildlife have little protection beyond its boundaries, and suffer from many competing interests for land use. Threats include increasing urban development, disturbance of waterbird colonies by tourists, high hunting pressure and lead poisoning of birds from spent shot, pollution from chemicals used in rice production, and a decline in sedimentation rates caused by dams constructed inland along the River Ebro. Bird monitoring is carried out by the regional government.
Situated offshore from the Ebro Delta and adjacent coastlines to the north and south, Columbretes has been upgraded to an IBA in Danger due to the diversity of seabirds that are now under threat. Resident and breeding species here include Scopoli’s Shearwater, Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gulls Chroicocephalus genei, and Little Sternula albifrons, Common Sterna hirundo and Sandwich Terns. In addition, Balearic Shearwater and Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus winter here, whilst the European Storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus is a regular non-breeding visitor but is a trigger species nonetheless. Pressures to the site include fishing and harvesting of aquatic resources, persecution, renewable energy, recreational activities, ecosystem modifications, oil spills and proximity of shipping lanes.
L’Albufera is a freshwater coastal lagoon on the Gulf of València with abundant emergent vegetation and several islands, as well as a coastal Pinus woodland. This is a very important site for breeding and wintering waterbirds, but pollution from agricultural, urban and industrial sources is a serious problem. The area already supports 14,000 ha of rice cultivation, and illegal drainage to extend this is a further problem, along with high levels of hunting, urban and tourism development.
The Famara crag on Lanzarote consists of high sea cliffs with accumulations of landslide and erosion debris at the base of many sectors. The site is important for breeding seabirds and raptors, and the cliffs support important drought-tolerant vegetation. The area is a game refuge where only European Rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus can be legally hunted. The local government ran several marine bird conservation campaigns between 1992 and 1996. Predation by introduced rats Rattus and feral cats Felis catus pose problems for breeding birds, and human activities including fishing, tourism, recreation and illegal hunting, as well as the site being a designated military zone all threaten the site. Other threats are posed by urbanisation, overhead power lines and disturbance to rare breeding birds such as Barbary Falcon Falco pelegrinoides.
Los Rodeos near La Esperanza is an area of grassland, scrub and agricultural land located in northeast Tenerife, bordered by a residential area and the airport. It is the only site where Lesser Short-toed Lark Alaudala rufescens occurs in the Canaries and the best area on Tenerife for grassland species. The site is also important for migrating and wintering herons, waders and passerines and a feeding site for species that breed nearby (mainly raptors and passerines). Plans exist for the construction of an industrial area and a road that will traverse the site. Additional threats are posed by illegal hunting and bird strikes on nearby roads. Monitoring of Lesser Short-toed Lark is undertaken by local ornithologists.
Gallocanta, in Aragon, is a large brackish lake with marsh vegetation in some places and many islets. The surrounding area is dominated by cereal fields. This is the most important site for Common Cranes Grus grus on passage in Spain, where more than 20,000 cranes regularly pass in spring and autumn. It is also a important site for wintering wildfowl and for breeding steppe birds. The main threats come from the over-abstraction of water for agriculture and the increasing disturbance from visitors, particularly to the cranes.
Aldea del Cano is an area of undulating plains dissected by steep-sided rivers between Cáceres and Trujillo in Extremadura. The main vegetation types are dry grassland, garrigue, arable cultivation and patches of dehesa. This is an important site for steppe birds, as well as Black Storks Ciconia nigra on passage, and wintering Common Cranes. Spanish Imperial Eagle Aquila adalberti is resident and a species of conservation concern globally, but does not meet IBA criteria. Human activities in the area include livestock farming, arable agriculture and game hunting, but the main threats are from agricultural intensification and urbanisation. A management plan exists.
The IBA of north and east coasts of Minorca, as well as the island of Aire, comprise a region of limestone hillsides, along with the Es Grao marshes and a coastal lagoon. The vegetation is mainly garrigue and maquis interspersed with Holm Oak Quercus ilex and Aleppo Pine Pinus halepensis forest. This is an important area for seabirds and coastal raptors, but a reduction in the European Rabbit population has reduced prey availability for raptors. Threats to the site include mass tourism, development, poisoning (particularly of Red Kites Milvus milvus), and the installation of overhead power lines. In addition, nine Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis colonies are culled annually. The IBA overlaps with six Natural Areas of Special Interest.
Birds provide a practical focus for conservation areas. They have been shown to be effective indicators of biodiversity in other animal groups and plants – especially when used to define a set of sites for conservation. So, although the IBA network is defined by its bird fauna, the conservation of these sites ensures the survival of a correspondingly large number of other animals and plants. BirdLife International is working hard with its Partners to respond to the growing threats faced by IBAs through campaigns to raise public awareness. It has also helped Partners to develop effective site safeguard measures. During recent years, BirdLife Partners have been active at 232 IBAs in Danger, carrying out a diverse range of activities at the local and national level. Through the Partners, BirdLife works with an estimated 2,500 voluntary Local Conservation Groups around the globe to monitor and care for ‘their’ IBAs.
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