Serendipity in Sumatra

June 1, 2010

WCS field veterinarians tracking avian influenza catch a glimpse into the life of a little-known bird, Nordmann's greenshank, as it flies between the Russian seacoast and the beaches of Sumatra.

Conservationists in Southeast Asia are making the most of their avian influenza research. Hard at work catching, examining, tagging, and releasing thousands of wild birds that might be carrying the virus, the researchers are also grabbing the opportunity to learn about the animals themselves.

For example, until the scientists began tracking bird flu, little was known about the Nordmann’s greenshank in the wild. The bird is rare and seldom seen; it is also white, despite its name. Breeding along the coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk and on Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia, the bird migrates south for the winter, to the beaches of Jambi Province, in Sumatra, Indonesia. Scientists believe the population numbers only 500 to 1,000, worldwide.

Coastal development throughout much of their habitat led these long-billed shorebirds to become endangered. As a result, finding out where these rare birds make their pit stops as they fly from their northern mating grounds all the way south to Indonesia is key to their protection.

Over the last three years, WCS conservationists observed two relatively large greenshank groups numbering 7 and 21 birds. As they captured five of the birds, they attached brightly colored bands to their legs, then released them. Now birdwatchers and other naturalists stationed along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway can report their greenshank sightings and possibly help save the species along with its favorite stopover sites.

“While our surveillance activities are mostly focused on testing birds for avian influenza as part of WCS’s ongoing health investigations, we can also fill gaps in our understanding of the migration range of many bird species,” said Joost Philippa, WCS field veterinarian and co-author on the study.

Preliminary tests conducted by the researchers do confirm the presence of avian influenza among the region's migratory birds. In fact, about 15 percent of the 578 shorebirds tested carry low-pathogenic forms of the virus. But in a bit of luck for Nordmann’s greenshanks, all their avian flu tests have turned out to be negative.

A three-year, $750,000 grant from Cargill, an international producer and marketer of food, agricultural, financial, and industrial products and services, currently funds WCS’s monitoring efforts in Indonesia and Vietnam.

Cargill and WCS’s partnership began in 2005. In addition to monitoring for avian influenza viruses in wild bird populations, Cargill funding also supports the following efforts as part of the One World, One Health Initiative: monitoring for avian influenza viruses in wild birds sold as pets or food; monitoring for malaria in monkeys in the wildlife trade; training for veterinarians and students; environmental education for children, and other activities in Asia and Latin America.
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