Taking steps to protect the Critically Endangered White-bellied Heron

By | 2018-01-12T08:54:09+00:00 July 25th, 2016|Conservation, Programmes, Southeast Asia, White-bellied Heron|0 Comments

In 2013, Synchronicity Earth became aware of the plight of a little known species of heron – the White-bellied Heron. Not dissimilar in appearance to the well-known Grey Heron, which is widespread and abundant throughout the UK and much of the world, but differing in its huge size, as the world’s second largest heron, and in its extreme rarity, the White-bellied Heron is a species requiring significant conservation attention and action.

When Synchronicity Earth first became involved with the White-bellied Heron, best estimates were that there may be up to 250 White-bellied Herons worldwide, although research has only identified approximately 60. There may be more than 60, but due to the lack of attention the species has received up until this point, no-one knows exactly how close we are to losing this bird forever. What we do know for sure is that it is extremely rare and has already become locally extinct in several historic range state countries.

Knowledge gaps for the species are vast, so Synchronicity Earth began by investing time in bringing together existing disparate sources of information and working with local organisations and experts in range countries (Bhutan, India, Myanmar and possibly China) and beyond to improve the understanding of the species and to draw up a species conservation strategy (this can be accessed here). The first steps were taken with a workshop in India which resulted in the formation of a Working Group for White-bellied Heron to sit within the IUCN Heron Specialist Group. Subsequently a second workshop was held in Bhutan to maintain momentum and coordinate and enable further action.

In recent weeks, Synchronicity Earth has worked with the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (a local Bhutanese organisation), Catherine King (the Captive Breeding Chair for the IUCN Heron Specialist Group) and Lubomir Peske (an expert in radio transmission of birds) to enable White-bellied Heron to be successfully fitted with radio transmitters and leg bands.

This was no easy task! RSPN and Lubomir worked tirelessly, living in tents for three weeks during the rainy season with temperatures, despite the rains, reaching 40 degrees centigrade and abundant leeches and high water levels making living conditions yet tougher. They scaled pine trees and ventured into thick undergrowth, spending hour upon hour watching and waiting for action at the nesting site, one day filming the birds from day break until dawn, with only a hand-held video camera.

With only one nest this season verified as having chicks, it was a long shot that they would be able to safely (for person and bird) capture and fit the birds with the transmitters and rings. However, thanks to the team’s persistence and bravery, and a little bit of luck, eventually both chicks were captured and tagged. In fact, one chick may well have met its end had the team not been there as it fell from the nest and was unable to climb back up on its own.

White-bellied heron chicks.

Once the chicks were tagged, fed and watered, they were returned to the nest, using a very long bamboo pole topped with a weaved basket, in which the chicks sat. This allowed the chicks to decide when they were ready to make the move back to their nests, reducing stress, handling by humans and risk of falling.

The satellite transmitters will help us to better understand how and where young birds disperse from the nest, causes of mortality and habitat use. Thus far we have two weeks of data from the birds showing where they have been. We hope to be able to record more data and build this picture further in due course. The coloured leg bands will help the birds to be identified visually, especially useful since local communities are familiar with the importance of the species and can report the species whereabouts to RSPN. In 2017, the hope is that we will be able to support further work to tag more birds. This is especially vital as there are plans in Bhutan to start a captive breeding centre for the birds, to safeguard them against extinction, and in order to do so successfully, we will need as much information about the birds as possible.

This is just one small piece of the puzzle: Threats must be addressed throughout its range; more survey work must be done in India and Myanmar; China must establish if the bird still resides there or if it is already too late, and a carefully coordinated captive breeding (and eventually reintroduction) programme will be required.

To find out more, contact: WBHgemma@synchronicityearth.org