Wings of hope

Feb 17, 2013, 09:51 IST | A Correspondent

Q&A with Dr Stephen Willis, Durham University

What is the key conclusion of your research?
Many bird species of SE Asia are likely to face serious threat in the near future due to climate change. We examined the potential future distributions within conservation sites (Important Bird Areas) for 370 Asian bird species. Our study found that at least 45 per cent and possibly up to 88 per cent of the 370 species studied will experience climate threat leading to changing species composition at individual sites.

What does it mean for Asian birds?
Species, especially those of greatest conservation concern will require enhanced protection of important sites, better management of the wider countryside, and in some of the most extreme cases may need to be physically moved to climatically-suitable areas to help them survive.

What does the effect of bird extinction have on the environment?
We don’t really know what roles some of these species have. Some could play vital pollinators or seed disperser roles in ecosystems and help maintain forests, which in turn can prevent flash floods. People have likened the loss of species in an ecosystem to losing rivets from an aeroplane wing. Removing an individual rivet has a small impact but at some point a critical load is exceeded and the wing will fall off; the same could happen with an ecosystem losing species.

How is climate change affecting Asian birds?
If climate affects a species directly, eg it gets too hot to survive, then the species may disappear from sites quite rapidly. However, if the species is affected indirectly by climate its response might be slower, buying more time to implement suitable conservation strategies. The problem is, at the moment, we don’t know which species will respond immediately and which might have more time to adapt.

What do you mean by ‘physically move birds to climatically-suitable areas to help them survive’?
If a species cannot alter its range to keep up with the types of climate it prefers (for example, if the climate gets warmer, species might need to follow their favoured climates to higher altitudes), then it could decline rapidly as climate changes within its current range. In extreme situations, there may be a risk of such species going extinct. In such extreme situations it may be possible to physically collect individuals and move them to more suitable locations. However, this should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary, and only after fully establishing that the translocated population can survive in the new environment without harming other species. However, the best solution will be to ensure that species can move across the landscape naturally, in response to the changes in climate. By ensuring we have well-connected protected areas

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