Conservation of Globally Threatened Species is rarely simple, and is always made more complex when the target species is migratory. Range state borders lead to variable legislation and engagement with conservation along a flyway and expose migrants to a wide variety of local, national, and international threats. Long-distance travel makes it harder to know where birds are and what they are doing.
The Sociable Lapwing story has been particularly difficult to unravel, with birds breeding in Kazakhstan and then following one of least two different routes to completely separate wintering areas across some of the most challenging locations, both geographically (traversing the Hindu Kush), and politically (travelling through and staging in conflict zones of the Middle East). However, the story has also been one of international cooperation, long-term commitment, and unexpected surprises.
The Sociable Lapwing – a Critically Endangered species
The Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) is a Critically Endangered migratory species that has undergone a rapid decline of more than 90% since the 1930s. Reasons for this decline were poorly understood at the start of this project, but it now appears that the main reason is low adult and juvenile survival, probably due to hunting pressure on the migration route, and possibly in some of the wintering range states. It is unclear as to whether or not the decline is ongoing, although recent work has shown that the population is substantially larger than previously feared and may even have stabilised. Sociable Lapwings currently breed in very few restricted areas of the Kazakh steppes and in the central part of southern Russia.
Surveys in 2006 in Kazakhstan estimated 376 breeding pairs in an area of 145,000 km2. Extrapolating this population density across the breeding range yielded a possible total population size of 5,600 breeding pairs (11,200 mature individuals), roughly equivalent to 16,000-17,000 individuals in total. This was supported by counts of 3,200 individuals in Turkey in October 2007, and recent estimates of 6,000-8,000 individuals on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Birds use one of two migration routes – eastern or western. The western is considered the primary route where birds move from the breeding grounds across the top of the Caspian Sea, down through Turkey and the Middle East, wintering mainly in North Africa and the Middle East. Until recently, the eastern route (across the Hindu Kush into Pakistan and India) was thought to be used by far fewer birds.
It is notoriously difficult to assess population size and trends accurately because of the bird’s ecology. Sturdy survey results would normally be obtained from either the breeding or wintering grounds, and for many species one or the other of these would be suitable for such counts. However, the Sociable Lapwing sets up its breeding territory opportunistically, historically following the large herds of grazers across the steppe. Because birds do not return to the same area, getting a reliable estimate of breeding numbers is not possible. In contrast, Sociable Lapwings are faithful to their wintering grounds, returning to the same place each year. However, this does not help with the assessments as the overall population splits into many small groups, sometimes of only a few birds, scattering their wintering grounds over a very wide area in either the Middle East/North Africa or Pakistan/India, making the whereabouts of the majority of birds during winter unknown. To complicate matters, birds breeding in the east do not necessarily take the eastern flyway, and those breeding in the west don’t automatically take the western flyway.
In order to better understand the puzzle of the Sociable Lapwing, Swarovski Optik began funding work on the species, building on the April 2006 to March 2009 Darwin Project Conserving a flagship steppe species: the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing. This project began to piece together the movement patterns of Sociable Lapwings using satellite transmitters attached to birds. This Darwin Project established the historic and current breeding range in the east and west and identified that the breeding habitats were likely to be safe, at least in the short-term, with poor grazing unlikely to be the key driver in declines. The project also discovered that the species was more widespread and numerous than previously thought. The Sociable Lapwing had gone from one of the least understood wader species to one of the most, but still only the surface had been scratched – information on migration routes and wintering areas was scarce. Swarovski Optik became the BirdLife Species Champion, funding the development of this website to show the incredible migrations that were being undertaken and now tracked. And so The Amazing Journey was born.