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Surprise find boosts hope for rare bird

It is rare for conservationists to expect to find more, rather than fewer, of one of the world’s rarest birds.

But this is the hope of scientists from the RSPB and Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK) when they resume their search next week for the sociable lapwing, a bird that breeds almost exclusively on the barren steppe expanses of central Kazakhstan.

Numbers of the bird - a close cousin of the northern lapwing commonly seen in the UK - had dropped 95 per cent to fewer than 600 pairs four years ago when the bird was classified as critically endangered, the highest level of threat there is.

At least 4,000 sociable lapwings have been found in Kazakhstan, Turkey and Syria in the last six months, however, and researchers on the new expedition to Kazakhstan hope to find even more. They say the sociable lapwing could be bucking the trend of wildlife decline and that its threat level could eventually be down-graded.

Dr Rob Sheldon, a Research Biologist at the RSPB said: “We have no idea how many birds we will find which is one of the most exciting things about this project. We were sure it had become a victim of the Soviet Union’s collapse because the birds were disappearing as habitats deteriorated.

“But there are still so many birds on land used by cattle that we’ve been forced to think again. That doesn’t mean the bird is not threatened but it does suggest that problems on migration or at over-wintering sites are to blame for its decline.”

Kazakhstan is one of just two countries where sociable lapwing breed and hosted 5,000 birds 20 years ago. Conservationists feared nests were being trampled by livestock where land was farmed and, in more remote areas, that vegetation was too dense for nesting because it was no longer grazed by the heavily poached saiga antelope.

Ten researchers, funded by the UK government’s Darwin Initiative will this summer search a 1,800 square mile area about 150 miles south-west of the Kazakhstan capital, Astana, to look for the birds. Survey teams will also search northern and eastern Kazakhstan, and southern Russia.

Maxim Koshkin, Project Co-ordinator at the ACBK said: “That should give us a much truer picture of just how well this bird is faring and then we can decide how we can help. It is extremely unusual to down-list a bird when it has reached such a level of danger and to think it might eventually be possible for the sociable lapwing is very exciting.”

Sociable lapwings migrate either south-west to the Middle East and north Africa, or south-east to northern India and the RSPB is planning to satellite tag birds to follow their migration routes.

Dr Sheldon said: “We have no evidence that they are being hunted but we can’t rule that out. Disturbance or the loss of their migration stop-overs or winter habitats now seems far more likely.”

Cath Harris | alfa
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