Strengthening conservation of critically endangered White-bellied Heron

The second international workshop, themed “Fostering international co-operation for conservation of the critically endangered White-bellied Heron” on conservation of White-bellied Heron was organized by the Royal Government of Bhutan in collaboration with the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) from 1-6 December, 2015.

The organizers and the wider White-bellied Heron community recognised the urgent need and opportunity to take proactive steps to improve the conservation status of the critically endangered bird across its known current range countries of Bhutan, India, Myanmar and China.

The conference in session

The conference in session

The White-bellied Heron (WBH), one of Asia’s rarest birds, has only 60 confirmed individuals (as per second international workshop) throughout its range and an estimated world population of fewer than 250 individuals according to the IUCN Red List.  The WBH, therefore, qualifies as Critically Endangered, meaning it is at significant risk of extinction should action not be taken to address the continuing, new and increasing threats in its wild habitat, including infrastructure development, such as dams, roads and overhead power lines; hunting and human encroachment; and extractive industries such as mining and sand dredging.

The country reports by representatives from White-bellied Heron community countries was found shocking and urgent need for further conservation actions were highlighted. A juvenile heron was reported in western Yunnan Province of China near the border with Myanmar in 2014. Despite comprehensive surveys, others have not been located.  Several remote valleys remain to be surveyed and it is probable that the juvenile observed was a stray from Myanmar.

A survey conducted in Myanmar in 2011 found as many as 23 herons in northwestern areas near borders with India and China. The researchers said that there is a possibility of many more herons than previously recorded that exist in both surveyed and in areas that remain to be surveyed.

The two breeding pairs and as many as 8 herons have been observed and comprehensively studied in the Namdapha Tiger Reserve of Arunachal State of Northeast India.  Investigations outside this protected area have not resulted in observations of herons, many more urgent actions were recommended for India during the workshop.

The conservation of WBH in Bhutan has been done comprehensively since 2003 with financial support from Felburn Foundation, CEPF, WFN, ICF, Karuna Foundation (Bhutan Foundation), GEF small Grants, WWF Bhutan program and Punatsangchu Hydropower Project Authority I & II.

Currently, WBH conservation project is being partially funded by BTFEC. It is known to exist in Punatsangchu basin from Phochu till Sunkosh, Berti in Zhemgang and Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary currently. Conservation activities covering monitoring of habitats, nest, eggs, fledging patterns and mitigation measures including first ever captive rearing, construction of fishponds and many others are being done by RSPN.

During an annual survey by RSPN in late February 2015, it indicated a minimum population of 28 birds and five breeding pairs fledged 10 juveniles this year. The key actions identified as per workshop resolution to be initiated in Bhutan include to initiate captive breeding centre, fitting satellite tracking devices to young herons before they leave the nest to better understand their dispersal and the threats faced.  The adult birds would also have individual colour rings fitted as opportunity allows. It was also felt pertinent and vital for its conservation to initiate inventories in new suitable habitats throughout the country, monitoring in currently existing areas and annual population survey to be continued as before.

Conference Participants f

Conference Participants on their field trip to White-bellied Heron feeding site.

There are still large potential habitat in remote locations, which are often difficult to access throughout WBH home range countries which need to be surveyed.  Additional efforts will be made to identify areas most likely to be holding unknown populations of the bird. It will be accompanied by extensive awareness programmes in associated communities.

With initiatives of RSPN, in collaboration with DoFPS, a captive population will be established in Bhutan in near future, if fund can be secured. Effective conservation of the White-bellied Heron will need significantly greater resources and could be part of broader efforts to conserve the rich biodiversity of its range across the Eastern Himalayas. The ongoing and increasing collaborative efforts to save this species will be a vital key to its survival.

The participants comprised non-governmental organisations, government officials, academics from each range states, as well as international experts representing organisations such as the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC), Heron Specialist Group, the Asian Species Action Partnership, the SSC Species Conservation Planning Subcommittee, BirdLife International and the International Crane Foundation. They agreed that international collaboration, based on adequate resourcing is vital for the survival of the species.  It was agreed that the IUCN SSC White-bellied Heron Working Group would help to do this. It was financially supported by Synchronicity Earth, IUCN and SSC.

Reported by: Indra Prasad Acharja, RSPN