March 08 2004 at 08:24AM
By Tony Carnie
One out of every eight of the world's 10 000 different bird species are now threatened with extinction.
This is according to the latest expert report on bird conservation, State of the World's Birds 2004, which was to be launched at the BirdLife International world conservation congress in Durban on Monday.
Compiled by avian researchers around the globe, it brings together the most up-to-date knowledge about the status of bird populations worldwide.
According to co-author Stuart Butchart, the future of nearly 1 200 different bird types is threatened. Of these, about 180 species are classified as "critically endangered".
Butchart says the future of birds and mankind are linked integrally, and because they are so widespread and so well studied, birds could be regarded as early-warning environmental indicators.
"Birds are sending us some important messages that should not be ignored," says the report.
"They show that our global environment is under serious strain, with a massive and still increasing haemorrhage of biodiversity."
Bird groups facing the most serious threats include the vultures of Asia and albatrosses across the world's oceans.
Vulture populations in several Asian nations have declined dramatically from what is thought to be the widespread use of the veterinary drug diclofenac. Recent studies suggested vultures were dying after feeding on the carcasses of livestock treated with this drug.
Elsewhere, longline fishing in the southern Indian Ocean has been implicated in the deaths of between 10 000 and 20 000 albatrosses every year since 1996.
Overall, however, the destruction of natural bird habitat by modern intensive agriculture is the single biggest threat to the future of birds globally, the reports adds.
The human-induced spread of alien invader species - plants, animals and bacteria - is another major threat to birdlife which requires urgent intervention.
Other factors exacerbating the problem are pollution, forest fires, climate change and trading in birds, according to BirdLife.
The reports says 966 species of globally threatened birds have populations of less than 10 000, while 502 species have populations less than 2 500. About 77 species have populations below 50.
Speaking at the opening of the Durban congress yesterday, World Conservation Union head Achim Steiner challenged birders and the conservation community in general to reassess some of the mistakes they had made over the past century, either from ignorance or naivety.
Steiner said he sometimes heard people saying they were more worried about the future of birds than humanity.
"If you are concerned about birds, you have to worry more about people. Because birds, on their own, can look after themselves very well, thank you very much."
This article was originally published on page 5 of The Star on March 08, 2004