This finding, conservations say, reemphasizes the need to protect the bird’s habitats in Bhutan

Conservation: Bhutan has the highest population of the White-bellied Heron (ardea insignis) globally according to the recent draft resolution of the second international workshop on White-bellied Heron conservation conducted by the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN).

“Of the 60 individuals, 28 are found in Bhutan, 23 in Myanmar and 7-8 in India, making White-bellied Heron (WBH) even more critically endangered than previously thought,” RSPN senior ecologist, Rebecca Pradhan said.

Bhutan now has 47 percent of the WBH global population up from only 14 percent prior.

The draft resolution stated only 60 WBH individuals were confirmed through respective surveys carried out in Myanmar, Bhutan, India and China. Earlier, the population was estimated to be 250 birds.

“One of Asia’s rarest birds, WBH has only 60 confirmed individuals throughout its range against IUCN’s earlier estimate of less than 250 individuals,” the draft resolution stated.

The White-bellied Heron therefore qualifies as critically endangered. “Meaning WBH is at significant risk of extinction unless appropriate measures are taken to address persistently increasing threats to its habitat from developmental activities,” the resolution stated.

Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) ornithologist, Sherub said while the news of Bhutan holding the majority of WBH population increases the country’s stature in conservation, the WBH becomes the most critically endangered of the threatened and endangered species of Bhutan because of its global rarity.

“While any species with global population of below 250 is considered critically endangered I think with just 60 globally, WBH can be said to be near extinction now,” Sherub said. He added there is an immediate need to protect the bird’s habitat.

The ornithologist also said it is high time artificial breeding and release is resumed because of problems in the recruitment success of the juvenile birds. While breeding seems a success, juvenile fledging is still a problem because of the difficulty in increasing its local and global population.

“The WBH population could get crushed if there isn’t adequate juveniles to succeed especially should the adult population happen to die at once in large numbers,” Sherub said, adding native fish must be re-stocked in river systems inhabited by herons and in rivers where dams are constructed besides keeping provisions for fish ladders at dams to supplement damaged feeding grounds.

WBH historically existed even in Nepal but is extinct now. China might likely have only one or two WBH as of today.

Conservationists recognized the urgent need to step up proactive measures to improve the WBH conservation status across its known range countries of Bhutan, India, Myanmar and China.

One of the key actions being tagging young herons with satellite tracking devices before leaving the nest to better understand their dispersal and threats.

“Adult birds will have individual colour leg bands fitted as and when opportunity allows,” the resolution stated.

To supplement the population against extinction in the wild, captive populations will be established in Bhutan when funding is secured. The eggs will be taken from nests, with minimal possible detriment to the wild population.

“RSNP has already submitted the proposal to Punatsangchu hydropower project seeking assistance for captive breeding,” Rebecca Pradhan said.

The individuals from captive breeding will establish an insurance population against the extinction of the species as well as help restock small populations or areas of historic occurrence.

“The captive breeding would provide key information about the behaviour and biology since more still needs to be understood of WBH,” Rebecca Pradhan said.

The resolution also highlighted increasing threats from infrastructure development, dam and road constructions, overhead power lines, hunting, fishing and human encroachment on river sides to WBH. Between 2008-2015, three of 10 herons died from collisions with transmission conductors or electrocution.

Extractive industries such as mining, quarrying and sand dredging also puts the WBH at significant risk.

Efforts would be made to identify unknown WBH populations in inaccessible remote areas and in areas likely of holding unknown populations to compile standardized data.

Each country will attempt to ensure the highest level of protection to WBH populations through legislation and its subsequent enforcement.

However, effective conservation of WBH would need significant amount of financial resources. “Ongoing and increasing collaborative efforts to save WBH will be key to its survival,” the resolution stated.

Conservationists from India, Myanmar, China and Bhutan and representatives from concerned international organisations attended the workshop.

Tempa Wangdi, Bumthang