Today’s guest blog is by Dr Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist, BirdLife International on their latest report ‘Birds and Biodiversity Targets’

Amid a slew of recent news stories on plummeting wildlife populations, missed targets and a lost decade for nature, it would be easy to feel despondent. But birds provide plenty of reasons for hope, with positive trends and examples of success for each of the ‘Aichi Biodiversity Targets’ adopted by governments a decade ago. These show that we have the knowledge and tools to halt declines and put nature on a path to recovery, but far greater action is required to achieve this.

This is the key message from BirdLife International’s ‘Birds and Biodiversity Targets” report launched today –the latest in the State of the World’s Birds series. It should inspire those negotiating post-2020 commitments on nature to aim high.

Targets missed

A decade ago, optimism in the world of nature conservation was high. The world’s governments had just adopted a bold and comprehensive Strategic Plan on Biodiversity for 2011-2020. It contained 20 Aichi targets committing Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to halt human induced extinctions and improve the status of threatened species, expand protected areas, tackle the threats to nature, address the underlying drivers, and facilitate the necessary enabling conditions.

But now we are at the end of the period for those targets, and the recently launched UN Global Biodiversity Outlook-5 makes for grim reading. It shows that we failed to meet any of the targets in full. The assessment draws heavily on information on birds, mostly provided by BirdLife. Birds are well-studied, widely distributed and sensitive to environmental change, so they can help us to take the pulse of the planet. For example, assessment of progress to 12 of the 20 Aichi Targets was based in part on data, indicators and/or examples on birds, reaffirming their importance as biodiversity indicators.

Reasons for hope

BirdLife’s new Birds and Biodiversity Targets report confirms that none of the Aichi targets have been achieved in relation to bird conservation. But in nearly all cases, birds also provide reasons for hope, with positive trends and success for some aspects, sets of species, or locations.

For example, community efforts to tackle unsustainable hunting of birds have been spectacularly successful in some locations (e.g. ending the capture of >100,000 Amur Falcons each year in Nagaland, India), while measures to mitigate unintentional capture (‘bycatch’) of seabirds in fisheries have virtually eliminated mortality of albatrosses in the South African hake trawl fishery. Over 160 native bird species (many of which are highly threatened) have benefited from successful eradications of invasive alien species (such as rats, cats, goats and pigs) on islands.

A South African trawl vessel © Bokamoso Lebepe, ATF South Africa

Conservation efforts have prevented up to 18 bird species from going extinct since 2010, with species like Tahiti Monarch and Puerto Rican Amazon likely to have been lost in the last decade without the conservation efforts that sustained them. Some, like Guam Rail, would have gone extinct without a captive population that has been used to re-establish birds in the wild. Conservation has also slowed the rate at which species are moving from lower categories of risk towards extinction – by 40% over recent decades.

Many of the most critical sites for conservation of birds – Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas –have been formally recognised as protected areas, with their average coverage increasing from 43% to 46% since 2010.

Puerto Rican Amazon would have gone extinct since 2010 without conservation action © Tom MacKenzie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region.

Underpinning these successes have been positive results from efforts to integrate nature into the way we manage the land and seas. For example, data on birds are being increasingly used by financial institutions and businesses to screen for biodiversity risks when planning projects and developments (using the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool, co-developed by BirdLife), while agri-environment schemes have helped to slow or reverse bird population declines in some cases.

Finally, birds have played a major role in helping people to develop an awareness of nature and the biodiversity crisis. Dozens of birdwatching societies have been established in China. Over 140 million bird records are entered into the eBird citizen science platform annually. Individuals and companies are increasingly stepping forward as BirdLife Species Champions to support bird conservation. These examples illustrate how birds are helping us change our relationship with nature.

The Ascension frigatebird returned to breed on mainland Ascension for the first time in 180 years, after feral cats were removed from the island in 2012 © RSPB 

A new plan for nature

These positive trends and success stories should inspire the world’s leaders who are currently negotiating a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework through the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Birds and Biodiversity Targets report also summarises valuable insights from birds for the development and implementation of goals and targets in this framework. Birds point the way to a more effective and ‘smarter’ set of goals and targets, and provide a suite of metrics and indicators for measuring progress. Birds also inform more effective implementation measures addressing enabling conditions such as reporting, verification, resourcing and international cooperation.

The BirdLife report shows that we have the knowledge and tools to ‘bend the curve’ of biodiversity loss and put nature on a path to recovery. We can halt further human-induced extinctions, reverse the declines of wildlife populations, restore natural habitats and limit climate change. This is critical both for our planet, and for our own health, as the ongoing Covid-19 crisis demonstrates. Political leaders around the world must now adopt ambitious commitments and implement transformative changes to ensure our own survival and security, as well as that of the species we share this planet with. We can’t afford to fail again.

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