Spoon-billed Sandpiper - interview with Nial Moores
by Charlie Moores

I’ve been involved with Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation for much of this decade, thanks entirely to my brother Nial Moores (director of Birds Korea) who has lived and breathed shorebird conservation for over fifteen years - first in Japan, and then South Korea (where he’s now lived for ten years). A series on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper without his input would be unthinkable in my opinion: he has been warning that large scale reclamation of wetlands (estuarine tidal-flats principally) would threaten the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and many other shorebird species for many years, and tried desperately hard to get the world to halt the massive Saemangeum Reclamation Project - a South Korean development project that involved constructing a 33km sea-wall which eventually (in April 2006) cut off over 40,000ha of what had been almost certainly the most important shorebird staging site in East Asia: by 25 April, 2006, only four days after seawall closure, incidentally, “shellfish beds in the enclosed area started to die. By the end of May, most were dead, and water quality was already deteriorating rapidly”. Together we set up what became Birds Korea (which only exists in its present form because of his determination and vision) and together we devised the Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Programme (SSMP), a study which scientifically proved that removing such an enormous area of critically important habitat would devastate shorebird populations (it’s obvious, but it needed proving).

In the following interview - which was written from long Skype conservations - there are many references to Saemangeum, the SSMP, and to Birds Korea. I make no apologies whatsoever for that, because without understanding the impact of the enormous changes that are destroying so much shorebird habitat in East Asia it is impossible to understand why the Spoon-billed Sandpiper now faces extinction. And there is no doubt at all that unless the ongoing habitat changes are stopped by organisations like Birds Korea, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper will just be at the top of what will become a depressingly long list of shorebirds disappearing from our planet for ever…

  • CM: Nial, in an introduction to this interview yesterday I said that you are “one of the last birders/conservationists who will ever see a large flock of Spoon-billed Sandpipers on migration”. Can I just put that statement into context for people reading this interview: how many were in the group you saw, where and when did you see them, how did you feel seeing so many Spoon-billed Sandpipers in one place, and how do you feel now that such large staging groups seem to be confined to history?

  • NM: It was at Saemangeum on South Korea’s west coast, formerly the single most important known shorebird site in the whole of the Yellow Sea, back in September in the late 1990s. At that time high-tide at Saemangeum was a phenomenal spectacle: in one huge roost there were 50,000 Great Knot, tens of thousands of Dunlin, which come to Korea from breeding grounds in Alaska as well as Siberia, hundreds of Broad-billed Sandpipers and Red-necked Stints, and this long thin line of Spoon-billed Sandpipers – 75 in a single scan. There might have been quite a few more mixed in with the other stints and sandpipers of course, and one researcher claims that he saw 150 at the same roost the very next day. After living in Japan for eight years where a “flock” of two Spoon-billed Sandpipers had already become a noteworthy event, this was simply one of the best birding highs to be had.

    To know this, and then to have monitored this whole area as it was dyked and damned and made into an ecological desert as part of the world’s largest reclamation project… devastating. It’s not just the loss of habitat for the Spoon-billed Sands of course. All the other shorebirds that depended on the site have lost their optimal staging site, and over twenty thousand people have lost their livelihoods. All for some mega-project with no clear end-use…

  • CM: Devastating and heart-breaking… We’ll talk again about Saemangeum later in the interview, Nial - I don’t think anyone can discuss the Spoon-billed Sandpiper without talking about Saemangeum - but first can I ask you about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper itself. It’s often described as ‘unique’. Physically of course it is ‘unique’ but there’s more to the species than that. You’ve probably seen more Spoon-billed Sandpipers than most people alive today: what’s so special about them?

  • NM: Shorebirds as a group of species are absolutely amazing. Scanning some grey-brown tidal-flat it’s often hard to pick out any birds at all. But look closer… you start to see the birds, and then the details of the legs and bills. Watching the way they move, the way that they feed, the way that one species appears to prefer one area of an estuary to another, the way one species tends to prey on one type of food, and it all starts to make sense – of course, all these species are perfectly and even obviously adapted to their habitat, obviously in a way that even we humans can see and understand. And amongst all of these long straight bills, or deeply decurved bills, to then see a shorebird, not that much bigger than a sparrow, but with the bill of a miniature spoonbill – fantastic!

    The species for me is something like the avian equivalent of a Duck-billed Platypus. Strikingly different, and still obviously perfectly adapted… But to what? Researchers like Danny Rogers (of the Australasian Waders Study Group) only recently came up with a genuinely decent theory for how they use their bill and we’re still not certain what they feed on… And then add to all of this that the Spoonie breeds in the wilds of Siberia, and migrates to wintering grounds in southern and south-east Asia that were still largely unknown only a few years ago…

    It is absolutely no surprise that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is now one of the “Most Wanted to See” species in the world.

  • CM: One of the “Most Wanted to See” species but getting increasingly harder to see anywhere.

  • NM: Absolutely. It’s declining at a huge rate and sites that used to be hold staging birds no longer do – including sites here in South Korea of course.

  • CM: There were some seen in South Korea this year though?

  • NM: Yes, there are still some Spoon-billed Sandpipers making it up and down the Flyway. In September for example here in Korea there were four juveniles at the Nakdong Estuary in Busan and another 7 in the Geum Estuary - 4 adults and three more 3 juveniles. So 11 so far this autumn, but that’s down from highs a decade ago of probably several hundred.

  • CM: It’s a relief that there were at least some juveniles seen…

  • NM: Yes, a relief. But the numbers are now so very small, and even the two remaining sites where the birds are found annually are threatened each in their own way.

  • CM: So the situation facing the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is - at best - dire.

  • NM: Yes. At best.

  • CM: This is the sort of question that I don’t think should even be asked, but I’ll ask anyway: does it matter if the Spoon-billed Sandpiper goes extinct?

  • NM: Yes, of course it does. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper should absolutely be conserved. Firstly it’s a unique and charismatic species that has every right to exist in just the same way that we do.

    Secondly it’s a very important indicator species of dynamic estuarine systems. It’s an often repeated line in conservation, but it is the canary in the coalmine if you like. If we allow the Spoon-billed Sandpiper to disappear then we are accepting that the destruction of estuaries and tidal-flats through seawalls and dams is somehow ‘okay’; that we can simply carry on destroying such places. We can’t. Estuaries and tidal-flats are among the most naturally productive ecosystems on the planet, and they provide multiple benefits and “services”, from hatcheries for many fish species, to carbon sink, to buffers against flooding and storm surges. Humans, birds, fish, benthos - so many life-forms need estuaries and wetlands. Destroying wetlands - and we have destroyed and continue to destroy and degrade vast areas of wetlands around the world - is madness in the long-term.

    The rapid decline in the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, in the Red Knots in North America, indeed the ongoing and accelerating decline of almost half of all the shorebird species around the world, is telling us something. Are we really all too busy or too arrogant to listen and to do something before it’s too late? If we lose such species, if we lose such ecosystems, then what hope for the next generation of people, our children? Or for the generation after that?

    The terrible decline of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, the increase in the number of critically endangered bird species around the world [192 as of 2009], needs to be a wake up call… at the very least to all of us who already watch birds and call ourselves birders, for all of us who feel a connection to the natural world. There are already enough of us to help bring change…

  • CM: If - and it is still ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ - the Spoon-billed Sandpiper does go extinct how key will the reclamation of Saemangeum have been do you think?

  • NM: The loss of the Saemangeum wetlands will have been key on many different levels.

    Saemangeum was the single most important staging site for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper - and for many other shorebird species - in the Yellow Sea, and the Yellow Sea is THE core area for staging shorebirds on the whole of the East Asian-Australasian flyway. The destruction of the Saemangeum tidal-flats was a huge loss. Our Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring program, our national shorebird surveys, and the Monitoring Yellow Sea Migrants in Australia program all confirm that the Saemangeum reclamation, and reclamation elsewhere, is causing rapid declines in shorebird numbers on our Flyway.

  • CM: Just as you predicted some fifteen years ago…

  • NM: As anyone who looked at the area and saw what was depending on it predicted - or should have predicted anyway.

  • CM: Saemangeum is ‘gone but not forgotten’ though?

  • NM: Absolutely not. It’s important to point out that Samangeum was an estuarine system that also supported the livelihoods of 20 - 25,000 people and numerous other bird species. Whatever gets built on the reclaimed land, whatever jobs are created, those original livelihoods are gone. The conservation of that site - that incredibly important site - could have offered a wonderful example of genuinely sustainable development where you maintain local culture, support local livelihoods, where you maintain or even improve the system that allowed people and birds to survive in such a specialised habitat. Samangeum should have been the example that allowed millions of people to understand that reclamation, the conversion of natural wetland into land, has many more costs than benefits, that conservation makes far more sense in every way. Now with much of the area like a dusty desert, the Saemangeum wetlands should either be restored immediately, or instead their demise should be used to show to the world the terrible impacts of “reclamation”. Saemangeum needs to be understood not as a new Venice in Asia as being touted by developers recently, but rather as a monument to misguided policy and an economic model that elsewhere is leading to the obliteration of the world’s primary forests, to the mass plunder of the oceans, to the warming of our planet… If it continues, this kind of unsustainable development, supporting and supported by our lifestyles, it will in time make the recent Wall Street meltdown look ridiculous and trivial in comparison.

    So if we stop talking about Saemangeum, fail to explain the impacts, fail to make decision-makers understand the position the Spoon-billed Sandpiper now finds itself in then there will be little left with which we can all challenge reclamation projects in China, or in other parts of the Yellow Sea such as coastal DPRK (North Korea), around the world even. Through research we now have the scientific proof of the terrible impacts on shorebirds of a huge reclamation like Saemangeum. Simply we must keep talking about Saemangeum and its devastating effects… we must not let people forget, we must use this terrible example to wake people up to the destruction of so much of our planet…

  • CM: You mentioned North Korea there. There’s the threat now of reclamation projects in the North too?

  • NM: There has been some large-scale reclamation there already, for example to make the West Sea Barrage. It would also be wise to assume that re-unification of the Korean peninsula will take place at some point, and if present development models remain in place then it seems inevitable that there would be massive pressure for further reclamation there too after re-unification.

  • CM: Conservation in Korea seems to constantly throwing up new challenges. You must feel a little like Sisyphus pushing his rock uphill only to keep seeing it roll back down again! How do you and Birds Korea counter those challenges?

  • NM: As you and all the people you meet doing 10,000 Birds know, working for conservation anywhere, not just here, can be very difficult.

    In this region, the Yellow Sea Eco-region [which includes coastal China, South and North Korea], we have approximately 10% of the world’s human population yet Birds Korea is still the only environmental NGO that we know of which mentions bird conservation and the Yellow Sea in our mission statement. The pressures on the environment here are immense and though it’s believed that 80% of Korean people would now choose conservation over development there’s a big gap between people’s hopes and recent policy. Short-term economic gain is still favoured over long-term conservation. What we’re trying to do as Birds Korea is communicate domestically (and internationally) the importance and the value of Ramsar, of the Millennium goals, of the conservation of wetlands and bio-diversity. We need to maintain a consistent, well-informed and honest voice, to keep repeating a consistent message, and there are some positives in that more and more people are now understanding what the problems are and they’re supporting more and more what we’re saying, On the other hand though too little is actually being done to conserve avian biodiversity despite all the words… .

  • CM: And the Yellow Sea’s avian biodiversity is at great risk?

  • NM: Yes, absolutely. The Yellow Sea Eco-region is the core breeding range of species like the Black-faced Spoonbill and Chinese Egret, and it also supports huge numbers of birds on migration and in winter. In South Korea, over half of the globally threatened species that occur here regularly are waterbirds, and here, as across the Yellow Sea as a whole, it’s a story of their decline almost everywhere you look. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is obviously right on the edge now, but we’re seeing huge declines in other shorebird species too.

    Analysis of count data by Danny [Rogers] and others in the Australasian Wader Study Group on shorebirds at NW Australia’s Eighty Mile Beach - where many of the Yellow Sea’s shorebirds spend the non-breeding season and where there have been no major local habitat changes – is confirming dramatic recent declines in shorebird numbers. Comparing counts made over three winters between 1999 and 2001 with counts made in December 2008, there has been a decline in the Bar-tailed Godwit of 53%, the Curlew Sandpiper of 59%, Far-eastern Curlew of 40%, Grey Plover of 28%, Terek Sandpiper of 53%, Red Knot of 22%, and in Great Knot of 24% - 20% of which is believed entirely due to the reclamation of Saemangeum, a figure derived from flagging sightings and knowing the survival rates of adults: there was no or little decline prior to the Samangeum closure. The Black-tailed Godwit is not found at big numbers at Eighty Mile Beach but we’ve noted a spectacular decline in South Korea. The Greater Sand Plover, incidentally, doesn’t stage in Korea in any great numbers but there’s been a decline at Eighty Mile Beach of 64% - perhaps down to habitat loss in Vietnam and China?

    The osculans Far Eastern Oystercatcher, which is rather likely taxonomically a “good species” probably numbers well less than 10,000 individuals in total, and numbers in the Geum Estuary, a key site supporting half of the total, are in decline.

    Other globally threatened species that depend on other kinds of wetlands in addition to tidal-flats include Hooded and White-naped Cranes. Both are at long term risk, from habitat loss and degradation and even disease because of the way they’re increasingly concentrated into ever-smaller areas. They will also lose habitat through the potentially disastrous Four Rivers project, as will the Korean wintering population of Scaly-sided Merganser.

    Even seabirds are far from safe. The Yellow Sea holds an unknown yet important percentage of the world’s Swinhoe’s Storm-petrels. Bob Flood, one of the world’s best known sea-birders, was over in South Korea in August looking for Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel. After the experience he said that the Yellow Sea is simply the most polluted sea that he’s ever seen.

    Our problems are huge and still largely unknown outside the region…

  • CM: Have there been any environmental improvements in Korea at all?

  • NM: Yes, peoples’ awareness is improving rapidly, and there is a slow but steady growth in specialised organisations that are much more concerned with environmental conservation, including of course Birds Korea. Media coverage is increasingly well-informed, and we do not suffer much from some of the problems that are widespread in many parts of the world, such as illegal hunting or trapping.

    However, in terms of actual conservation gains over the past few years? We believe that Birds Korea played a major part in helping to head off the proposed reclamation of the Geum estuary – now South Korea’s top shorebird site. However, most of our other most important wetlands are still threatened with either reclamation or further degradation; unsustainable fisheries and a concrete it-for-concrete’s sake approach to development that is making future conservation success ever more challenging.

  • CM: Fighting the Saemangeum reclamation really was a mentally bruising battle, you were treated very badly when you first arrived in South Korea, and every time you turn around some new development project is on the verge of being green-lighted. Given all that some people might be tempted to ask why you continue to do this particular work - and I know you often work seventy, eighty hour weeks?

  • NM: Seventy or eighty? Those are the quiet weeks! Why do I do this work? Why does anyone? Because there is nothing more important. It seems odd talking to you about this in an interview situation as we’ve discussed it many times - but the way I see things is this. Start with saying that all of us have, let’s say, 100 units of energy to use a day in the things that we do. I think an awful lot of that energy is used up in ignoring realities, in blocking out the things we don’t like. I think an awful lot of that energy is also used in avoiding taking responsibility, saying that it’s someone else’s problem, that someone else needs to do something. In the end, I actually think it takes more energy to ignore and block out a problem than it does to confront it, and once you do confront it, accept that these problems exist, you become far more attuned to your ’self’. It allows you to see the beauty of the world, to become much more aware of the world, and of that sense of your place in it. Being more honest with yourself, and with others, in this way also means that you increasingly meet other people of a similar mind – people who think, who reflect, who can inspire and motivate. There are some wonderful people doing some really wonderful work for conservation, and it feels great to be able to meet with them, to communicate with them, to learn from them and whenever possible to share with them ideas, insights or information that can help them to be more efficient in their work too – to get more conservation success for their 100 units of energy than before.

    For me now, even if I wanted to stop doing this work - which I don’t! - I’d still know that the things and the people I care for would still be threatened, but I’d be doing nothing useful to help. My life would cease to have any real meaning. I’d still be using, wasting, those 100 units of energy but for no good reason.

    Because the world’s natural systems are ever more obviously threatened, and because people are intrinsically good, I believe that even now things can be done, will be done, to turn things around. So I can’t imagine doing anything else now. I know I can do things better though, and I want to remain open to learning how.

    Perhaps to some people it’ll seem an almost naïve way of seeing things, but I want my life to have meaning and this work is the best way of achieving that. I don’t see any point in wasting energy in the endless process of acquiring goods or ignoring problems - for me the more you wake up, the more you become attuned, the more your life has meaning.

  • CM: And you are achieving results as well. Birds Korea is growing - albeit slower than either of us would like - and you’re increasingly recognised inside and outside of Korea as someone who has gone to extraordinary lengths to understand the culture and the people you work with. You must have some sense now of the impact of the work you do?

  • NM: It is often much easier to see the growth and ability of others, isn’t it? But of course, yes, I am really proud to be part of Birds Korea, a truly decent and effective organisation. Small, but energy-efficient; positive and already influential. Our organisation received a highly prestigious Civil Society award last year – as a leading light of and for Korean society. We have a unique structure and for the domestic context, a still-highly unusual approach – we are a truly trans-national organisation that really gets that the world is one, and that while culture needs to be respected, nationality should not be a barrier to humanity. This means we have domestic and overseas members; advisors who are of Korean nationality and advisors who care for Korea of different nationalities; highly respected websites in both Korean and English, through which we share the data freely that we gathered through our own research, or through the research of others. We strive to share any insights we might have on strategy or issues, and we believe that empowering other organisations as well as our own is the right way to work. Happily, despite the workload, there is an increasing amount of understanding - and even laughter sometimes…

  • CM: Even so you must still feel like a ‘lone voice in the wilderness’ when people all around you are talking about the importance of ‘development’, of making South Korea ‘economically powerful’ and you’re talking about birds and conserving habitats?

  • NM: I hear that argument all the time of course. South Korea is already enormously economically powerful - it has a population of under 50 million but is the 15th largest economy in the world, with between the world’s 24th and 30th largest GDP. The nation is wealthy, but we’re still reclaiming, still planning massive infra-structure changes that will devastate the environment. It’s not an exclusively Korean problem obviously, it’s a global one. One of the problems in the way that the world has developed, and financial systems have evolved, is that as someone who works to conserve species and habitats you’re constantly put in the position of having to defend yourself. You’re the person ’spoiling the party’, suggesting to the noisy drunk that perhaps they have already had enough. Its only when the majority start to wake up or sober up that the development-junkies will be seen for what they in most cases are: addicts. We’ve just gone through a huge recession but have we learnt much from it? It seems not. We are already back into ploughing huge amounts of money into more massive developments, justifying it in the name of helping the economy to “recover”… If you stop to calculate how much the economy grows in a century at an annual rate of 5%… then how can any of this be called sustainable!

    Voice in the wilderness? A nice image! But look at our organisation and at others, like BirdLife, with their hundred partners and affiliates. Look at what you yourself with Mike and Corey are doing with 10,000 Birds, reaching out, speaking out, sharing. Clearly, none of us are a ‘lone’ voice. It’s one reason why doing this kind of work is so motivating- it allows you to meet and communicate with like-minded people. We need that. We really do.

  • CM: You’re absolutely right – and, you know, it’s nice to actually sit and chat with you for a change! Some years ago, Nial, you said to me that you wanted to work to ensure that birds like the Spoon-billed Sandpiper outlived you, that at the end of your life there would still be Spoon-billed Sandpipers on the planet. Do you think, given everything we now know, that the Spoon-billed Sandpiper will still be in existence in, say, thirty years time?

  • NM: If Yes, then the world will be one in which most species have survived. If No, then it is unlikely that many of us reading this will still be alive or affluent enough to read or remember this interview.