Stork researchers find major gaps in global Red List

New Delhi (IANS) As habitats globally decline, and the species’ extinction crisis escalates, the Red List of species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Species is a trusted source to identify which species need the most help.

The Red List uses all available information and expert inputs to designate species to seven categories: Extinct, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near-threatened, Least Concern, and Data Deficient.

The designation carried global weight and it is generally considered that the process used for such designations and the background data is of the highest quality.

Many metrics like the Red List are now used around the world to help scientists, conservationists and governments prioritise which habitats and species to focus conservation efforts on using the limited pots of money available.

These metrics, therefore, undergo multiple critical evaluations to ensure their high quality and reliability.

However, despite being used globally, the Red List, especially for birds, is seldom evaluated independently to assess its reliability. An international group of stork scientists and conservationists decided to do just that –assess the availability of scientific knowledge on all 20 species of storks globally and understand whether the Red List status, that has been confidently ascribed to all the storks, is robust.

The collaboration included an American, two South African and an Indian scientist who have collectively been working on storks for over two decades. They undertook a very detailed and careful literature review and assessed nearly 1,000 scientific papers to identify aspects of stork ecology that has seen scientific attention.

They then carefully evaluated the Red List methods used to ascribe status to storks and provided the first global review of stork literature.

Not too surprisingly, the vast majority of research on storks was available from developed countries, especially in North America and Europe. Due to this geographical bias, over half of the literature available focused on only three of the 20 stork species of the world.

The maximum number of published studies since the 2000’s, however, was from Asia — the continent that also has one of the highest diversity of storks. Research from Africa, another continent with high stork diversity, was picking up but was very low yet, say ornithologists.

Putting all evidence together, it emerged that 75 per cent of the stork species had barely any information on natural history of storks, let alone good information on their population sizes and habitat associations.

It was a surprise then how all stork species had a confident Red List status. Clearly, the process used by the IUCN Red List, the researchers concluded, required a lot more improvement.

For storks, they concluded, the Red List was not a reliable source of information regarding their current status. The vast majority of storks, they recommend, require to be correctly listed as Data Deficient as per IUCN norms.

The researchers uncovered two prominent assumptions that appeared to have been used to provide status assessments especially for African and Asian storks.

The first was the assumption that agriculture was bad for all storks in all locations.

Gopi Sundar, a co-author of the global stork assessment, and the co-chair for the IUCN Stork, Ibis and Spoonbill Specialist Group, told IANS this assessment was fortunately untrue.

His studies on storks, and other large waterbirds, in India and elsewhere has helped to showcase how multiple forms of agriculture are assisting many species of storks live alongside farming and farmers. This understanding, however, has been slow to percolate into the larger conservation system.

Across the IUCN and other global conservation forums, the vast majority of conservationists still follow the emerging trends from developed countries where agriculture has been severely detrimental to birds. These findings are, unfortunately, superimposed on the entire globe.

In India, recent research efforts by Gopi Sundar showed how the Woolly-necked Storks, previously thought to be numbering 35,000 and badly affected by agriculture, was actually numbering over 2,00,000 with growing healthy populations amid agriculture.

Similarly, other researchers have showcased how south Asian farmlands have excellent populations of other stork species such as the Lesser Adjutant Storks, painted storks and Asian openbills.

The second assumption related to the common source of data that is being used to “guesstimate” African and Asian stork populations.

A popular volunteer effort is carried out each winter to count waterbirds at wetlands to help track waterbirds globally. Stork numbers counted during these counts are used being commonly used to extrapolate and guess stork population sizes.

Most African and Asian storks do not restrict their activities only to wetlands, instead also using agricultural areas and even cities as foraging and breeding areas. For the most part, farmers and other people in these continents are not aggressively against wildlife, like in many developed countries where shooting of birds is a commonly practised cultural activity.

The assumption that storks would only do well in wetlands especially in protected wetlands is also commonly used across conservation agencies for most species of wildlife in the world.

The researchers have pointed out the global significance of the Red List, and that it requires it to be a high quality and reliable metric.

For storks, they have provided several aspects of incorrect understanding that conservationists would do well to move away from, instead replacing these assumptions with published literature on the wellbeing of storks.

It is, therefore, likely that there are an unknown number of other bird species that are similarly attributed to incorrect Red List statuses.

Correctly identifying stork species that require research attention, they stated, is needed to help direct research related resources to the places where these storks are found.

This study, published in the prestigious journal Biological Conservation, and written by some of the leading stork researchers of the world points to the need for similar independent assessments of the Red List for other groups of birds.

Such assessments can help undertake corrections where needed and can help bring to the fore aspects such as incorrect assumptions.

Collectively, these will help to improve one of the world’s most famous metrics used in conservation.

Gopi Sundar pointed out that this paper was the result of a project led by a PhD student. Jonah Gula, the first author of the paper, who is registered in a University in South Africa working on storks. Other bird groups, he said, can be taken up by students and universities to assess how well the Red List status reflects known information on the species.

This will not only ensure that students learn the importance of thoughtfully critiquing widely used metrics but will also help undertake independent assessments of the Red List.

Such transparency and increased robustness, Gopi Sundar told IANS, is urgently needed given how many species are facing possible conservation threats around the world.

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