I want to fly away – Destination Flyways

‘Take only memories and leave only footprints’ charms the travel brochure in bright letters. Also the scenery sounds to die for, doesn’t it? ‘A romantic landscape of coastal tundra, near to crystal clear coastal lagoons and bays.’ Let alone the food: ‘Enjoy our three course menu with a fresh variety of larval invertebrates, midges, mosquitoes, flies, beetles, and spiders. Perfected with a juicy smoothie of selected grass seeds and berries.’ It’s definitely time for a holiday.

Mr. Piper couldn’t agree more. Have you met Mr. Piper? Mr. Sand Piper. He is a bit lonely and bored by his wintery home in Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, and by the same old cousin of shrimps and other boring see food. So he doesn’t hesitate long and books the advertised adventure trip to northeastern Russia along the Bering Sea coast of the Chukotsk peninsula and southwards down the Kamchatka peninsula.

Mr. Piper, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) is only one of the hundreds of bird species travelling the East Asia - Australasian flyway. Photo Courtesy of Smith Sutibut

Mr. Piper, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) is only one of the hundreds of bird species travelling the East Asia – Australasian flyway. Photo Courtesy of Smith Sutibut


After 8,000 exhausting kilometers, with his neighbor annoyingly close to him and the board entertainment system broken, Mr. Piper finally arrives at the Arctic Circle in the final days of May. The brochure didn’t promise too much: excellent food, stunning scenery and on top lots of handsome girls. The lonely days are over. He immediately begins displaying his best suit he brought. Travel in stile he always says. And before long he meets his dream girl, they get married and live happily ever after. Too good to be true? It was! His wife leaves him only three weeks later and heads back home. Poor Mr. Piper stays behind with their children they just got.

Surely by now you guessed that Mr. Piper is a bird, if the larvae diet didn’t already give him away. He is a migratory Spoon-billed Sandpiper to be more precise. And after his chicks reach fledging age he too departs, with them following the 8,000 km south on their own a few weeks later.

Lay Over Stepping Stones

So to say, Mr. Piper is one of the one billion international tourists every year, spending US$ 1.03 trillion in 2011 alone. But this industry is dwarfed by the billions of migratory birds that set out to travel the world. Mr. Piper doesn’t like to travel alone. He flies together with 200 fellow waterbird species using twice a year the East Asia – Australasian Flyway, connecting Russia to Southeast Asia and Australia. As they travel along, conveniently they don’t have to worry about passports and visas, since they don’t mind any political borders that they cross.


Main international flyways of bird migration, Wikimedia Creative Common


However, one thing they couldn’t get rid of are lay overs. But instead of trying to sleep on an uncomfortable bench in the departure hall of Manila, Jakarta or Tokyo Airport, they use networks of sites that act like ‘stepping stones’ along flyways for resting, feeding, breeding and wintering. Thus spanning continents and oceans, used by a myriad of bird species, flyways represent one of the most spectacular and valuable phenomenon of the world’s natural heritage.

Pollen Luggage

This heritage is used by plenty of migratory animals that are key components of the ecosystems that support all life on Earth. For instance their luggage: Instead of sunscreen and a camera they bring lots of pollen and seeds with them, contributing to ecosystem structure and function. Moreover, they regulate the number of species in ecosystems and provide food for other animals. Animals like us humans – through subsistence, recreational and commercial hunting and fishing. In this way they also have a great significance in many cultures – in legends, stories, religions, medicine and customs, or in the way we measure time and experience seasons. Not surprisingly there is a great deal of people preferring to watch them over eating them: Mr. Piper and co. attract a lot of so called eco-tourists such as whale watchers or bird spotters. The latter already being three million people, give a hint that eco-tourism one of the fastest growing travel sectors in the world.

Quite aware of this, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) partnered up with the World Migratory Bird Day, May 10.-11.2014. This year’s theme ‘Destination Flyways: Migratory Birds and Tourism’ promotes building local sustainable tourism by linking together key migratory bird sites, local communities and the global wildlife watching industry – with benefits for both people and migratory birds.

Seawalls and CO2

To grasp the importance of this effort, we could ask Mr. Piper who is one of only 100 breeding pairs remaining in the wild. Some shorebirds show annual declines of nine % and third of the bird species in the flyway are already critically threatened. Why? Mind you, this region is also home to 45 % of the world’s human population, putting many bird sites under threat from land reclamation and degradation. Just take one example of a stepping stone being lost: Saemangeum, the largest seawall in the world, eliminated one of the Yellow Sea’s most important shorebird refueling habitats, which hosted half a million migrating shorebirds.

But Mr. Piper’s peers also face more indirect threats, such as habitat fragmentation and degradation caused by climate change. While Mr. Piper emits only a few kilos of carbon dioxide on his 16.000 km travel, humans are not as frugal. For the same trip the average airline passage would emit more than 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide. And since they are produced at cruising altitudes high in the atmosphere, they trigger a series of chemical reactions and atmospheric effects that have a multiplying warming effect. Including this effect one passenger emits an equivalent of close to 4 tons. This is four times the emissions of the average Filipino, a year. Thus civil aircraft –ironically fundamental for international tourism, accounts for two to six percent of global warming, with emissions having risen by 83 % since 1990.

Unfortunately this is not the only environmental impact of tourism, consuming vast amounts of energy, water, land and habitats. Mount Everest’s damaged habitats and slopes littered with garbage from countless tourists, deforestation and water scarcity at the Western Indian coast or the loss of Mr. Pipers habitat in Saemangeum are but some reminders.

No Passport, no Boarders

Luckily, governments, conservation organizations, scientists, and others around the world work together to conserve Mr. Piper’s and other migratory birds’ habitats. For instance habitats in the East Asia – Australasian flyway, the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity deals with. Its protected area management, supported by GIZ, the German Development Cooperation, focuses on important stepping stones in the region.

Lots of such stones are also to be found in 119 States in the African-Eurasian flyway, used by 255 fellow bird species of Mr. Piper. The Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (UNEP/AEWA) aims to conserve those, from the northern reaches of Canada and Greenland, across Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia to the southern tip of Africa.

However, since birds don’t have a passport and don’t know political boarders, international efforts are also crucial. The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Program is concerned with the conservation of wildlife and habitats on a global scale. As is BirdLife International, a partnership of 116 independent national NGOs.

Within this framework, sustainable tourism has its role to play: Planning and management can dramatically reduce the impact on environments and bird habitats, and help locals to conserve and benefit from their biodiversity. But an even more important role plays the sustainable tourist, respecting local cultures, supporting local economies and being environmentally conscious. The brochure was right after all: Take only memories and leave only footprints.



First Published ASEAN BIODIVERSITY UPDATES , SPECIAL ISSUE, MAY 2014, by Philipp Gassner