Governments unite to conserve the world’s heaviest flying animal

Asian range countries of the world’s heaviest flying bird, the great bustard, will coordinate the conservation of highly threatened populations of the species after a unanimous show of support at the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species.

Weighing up to 46 pounds, the great bustard (Otis tarda) is the heaviest animal capable of flight. This iconic species is at risk of disappearing from the historic heart of its range: the Central Eurasian steppe. While global populations of great bustard are considered Vulnerable to extinction by IUCN, populations in Asia are at much higher risk, with likely less than 2,000 individuals remaining across a vast region. A proposal to improve cooperation to conserve the remaining populations was approved at the recent Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), an agreement with 125 signatory countries.

The Proposal for a Concerted Action for the Asian Great Bustard was developed and promoted by the Eurasian Bustard Alliance and Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia after our research revealed the highly migratory behavior of the great bustard in Asia. International cooperation will be key to conservation of these populations of great bustard, which experience threats including poaching, poisoning, and collisions with power lines along their migratory journey.

A Concerted Action consists of a three-year period of increased communication and cooperation between range states, with the goal of improving the status of the species. The Concerted Action on the Great Bustard in Asia was proposed to parties of the Convention on Migratory Species for consideration by the Government of Mongolia, which had previously worked with us to increase the level of protection of these birds under the agreement.

Mongolian representative B. Lkhagvasuren. The Government of Mongolia advanced the Proposal for Concerted Action for Great Bustards in Asia, stating, “We must intensify our efforts for the Great Bustard in Asia now.” Photo by IISDENB.

At particular risk is the eastern subspecies of great bustard (Otis tarda dybowskii), whose remaining populations in eastern China, Mongolia, and eastern Russia are small and highly fragmented. B. Lkhagvasuren, CMS Scientific Councillor for Mongolia, introduced the proposal for Concerted Action for a vote at the gathering of signatories to the Convention in Manila in late October, stating: “Mongolia is the stronghold for breeding populations of the endangered eastern subspecies of the Great Bustard… It is our hope that a Concerted Action will facilitate communication about best practices for this species and coordination of conservation efforts.”

The Islamic Republic of Iran also voiced support for Concerted Action, describing declines in the number of birds arriving to overwinter in the country. In earlier times, the great bustard commonly arrived from Central Asia to overwinter in northeast Iran. However, only a single bird has arrived to overwinter in the country in the past ten years.

Volunteers from China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation release a rescued great bustard in Tangshan, Hebei Province. CBCGDF plans to organize a workshop in early 2018 to launch the Concerted Action for Great Bustards in Asia. Photo credit: CBCGDF

Though China is not a party to the Convention on Migratory Species, it is an important range state for the great bustard in Asia, containing populations of both subspecies. A leading conservation organization, the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), plans to fill that gap. Dr. Zhou Jinfeng, Secretary-General of CBCGDF, has pledged that “we plan to cooperate on the conservation of this rare bird in China and work with organizations of the countries within its habitat range.”

CBCGDF organized a panel on the great bustard at the meeting of parties to CMS, at which speakers described declines in great bustard populations and urged delegates to support the Concerted Action. CBCGDF plans to coordinate surveys of wintering great Bbustard early in the new year. The organization also plans a workshop at one of the wintering grounds to launch discussions on the Concerted Action.

An early task facing the coalition of conservation actors is a revision of the 1998 Action Plan for Great Bustards in Asia by regional experts. The Plan will identify concrete conservation actions to be taken by range states.

Dr. Mimi Kessler directs the Eurasian Bustard Alliance and serves on the IUCN Bustard Specialist Group. She has worked on the conservation of the great bustard in Central Asia since 2005. She typically spends two to five months carrying out field work in the region each year, mostly in remote corners of the steppe with a team of local people. Mimi’s current work as a National Geographic Explorer is focused on highly endangered populations of great bustard in Kazakhstan and Russia.

Instagram: mimi_kessler

Photo of a great bustard by Andrej Chudý from Slovakia (Drop fúzatý (Otis tarda)) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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