From Waterways to Flyways International Cooperation Matters

Posted on
08 May 2021

World Migratory Bird Day 2021

Every winter when cold shrouds the beautiful valley of Phobjekha and icy wind sweeps the open hillsides, the local village population wait eagerly for the arrival of heavenly visitors. They are the Black-necked cranes who travel all the way from Tibet to their winter home in Bhutan. The birds arrive in late October and stay on for the whole winter. Their arrival is looked upon as an auspicious sign by the local population, a sign for continued peace, prosperity and happiness. The fondness for the beautiful cranes is not confined to the communities of Phobjekha alone, the birds find their place in local folk lores, traditional songs and murals that adorn the walls of monasteries. In early March the Black-necked cranes fly back to their summer breeding ground high up in the Tibetan Plateau. 

Lower down in Thimphu valley beneath the shrubby vegetation of Forsythia and Spiraea growing luxuriously in Bhutan’s foremost naturalist Rebecca Pradhan’s garden, a couple of Dark-breasted Rosefinches forage for food. They are winter visitors too. In spring, bright and colorful sunbirds flutter amongst the brilliant bloom of Japanese Camellia next to her kitchen window. Another migratory bird that bring delight to Thimphu birders is the Ruddy Shelduck. In winter when the temperature drops and most Thimphu residents prefer to stay indoors, the Ruddy Shelducks are seen wading peacefully on the vast lake-like water of the open sewerage ponds in Babesa.  These water birds have now become a familiar sight to most residents of south Thimphu. Such wonderful display of nature often eludes our eyes but they emanate pure delight if you happen to notice them. Migratory birds come in a variety of color, size and habit, and travel thousands of miles every season. Birds like the Artic Tern fly from north pole to south pole, a feat unrivalled by any other creatures.  While others like the American grouse just make short seasonal altitudinal movements of mere 300 meters.  

In Bhutan, a very familiar migration practice is the seasonal migration of cattle. Migratory herding is still   practiced in some parts of rural Bhutan and it contributes to the livelihoods of a significant section of the Bhutanese people. The pattern of migration is determined by the natural cycle of plant growth in various elevation and climatic conditions. The timing ensures optimal foraging opportunities and comfortable environment for the cattle. The practice of livestock rearing and migration between mountains pastures in warm seasons and lower altitudes in winter, is said to be prevalent since prehistoric times. It is, in a way, human-centric as it provides for the livelihood of the heard owner. On the other hand, it also ensures that the cattle get enough grass all year round. Beyond transhumant practice, seasonal migration is nature’s most important and wondrous ecological and evolutionary occurrence. The diversity of creatures that inhabit the phenomenal landscapes and seascapes of our planet follow nature’s rhythm. They have no herders to take care of them nor readymade shelter to rest, but they undertake the often very arduous and perilous task intuitively. They depend on their instinct and nature’s providence to step in tune with the rhythm of nature’s seasonal clock.  

While migration is perceived as an adaptive mechanism for survival, the sheer energy, timing and the remarkable sense of direction is amazing. Birds are perhaps the most fantastic among nature’s creation that champion this feat. But it is also a dangerous part of the bird’s life cycle. Bad weather, storms, forest fires and collision with man-made objects like power lines and wind turbines are some of the threats that confront the migratory birds every season. Undertaking such awe-inspiring mission would undoubtedly take days, weeks and even more to reach their destination. The migratory birds use specific flight paths called flyways to migrate between their breeding grounds and their overwintering quarters. The flyways used by migratory birds connect different habitats and the ecological connectivity of these sites are crucial for the survival of the birds. Often these long distance flight paths cross over inhospitable terrains, deserts and long stretches of waterbodies. Suitable stop-overs for such tiring journey is crucial. Disappearance or degradation of a critical stop-over site for migratory birds can have a devastating effect on the survival of the birds. Sadly, this connectivity is being threatened by habitat loss and degradation owing to multiple human activity. 

In Asia, wetlands used for stop-over, breeding and over-wintering habitats by migratory birds are being rapidly drained and filled for urban development, industrial and agricultural uses, preventing the birds from reaching their eventual destinations. Records show that over 60% of the aquatic bird populations in Asia are now showing signs of declining or have gone extinct in just over two decades. Many of the bird species are listed as threatened and endangered. Thus, conservation actions to secure, restore, and manage wetlands are urgently needed, along with population recovery plans for several bird species that are in severe decline. Along with sustaining migratory birds, wetlands along Asia's flyways are also essential for human wellbeing and survival, inclusive economic growth, and climate mitigation and adaptation. Wetlands protect shorelines, help to make cities and settlements safe and resilient from floods, and are important natural carbon stores. Protecting wetlands will not only stop the rapid decline in migratory bird populations, it will also increase resilience for communities and cities.

The WWF Asian Flyway Initiative endeavors to unlock this intricate connectivity and intends to bring together various organizations and stakeholders to ensure that the bird migratory flyways are conserved as landscapes, with ecologically connected stepping-stone corridors that sustains the long-distance seasonal migrations, and wetlands are managed for nature and people. Flyways as systems of global importance for the conservation of birds and their habitats was recognized by the Parties of the Convention on Migratory Species at the 13th Session of the Conference of the Parties in Gandhinagar in February 2020. The Resolution recognized that addressing flyways as important ecological networks is an important and necessary measure towards effective conservation and sustainable use of migratory birds and requires the cooperation of stakeholders at an international level.

World Migration Bird Day was initiated in 2006 by the Secretariat of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds in collaboration with the Secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.  It was started as an annual awareness-raising campaign aimed at people living in all the major flyways that highlights the ecological importance of migratory birds and calls for their global conservation through international cooperation. On this special day let us all come together to support this wonderful global initiative and revitalize our will to ensure conservation of critical wetlands and flyways within our reach and beyond. International collaboration is the only way to conserve migratory birds as they pass along their international flyways. Our collective effort can help unleash the power of our will and make seemingly impossible things possible for the benefit of everyone who call planet earth home.   

Tandin Wangdi
Program Specialist
WWF Bhutan
Information and data source:
Ura, Karma. 1993. The Nomad's Gamble In "South Asia Research", Vol. XIII, No.2, pp.81-101 London: School of Oriental and African Studies