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BirdLife assesses the tsunami`s impact on biodiversity

Many special areas and threatened birds at risk

In the wake of the terrible tsunami that struck around Asia and parts of East Africa on 26 December, BirdLife wishes to offer its deepest sympathies to all those people whose lives have been affected by the disaster.We have now been in contact with all members of the BirdLife Network in the affected region. I am pleased to say that no staff or volunteers appear to have been lost to the tsunami, although the events have obviously caused enormous trauma, shock and damage to communities, property, habitats and some wildlife. said BirdLife`s Director, Dr Mike Rands The immediate priority is to prevent further disease, suffering and mortality amongst the people in the affected areas, and to begin the process of rebuilding livelihoods and basic services.

Although it is too close to the tragedy to make detailed assessments of how the region`s birds might be affected, a preliminary study from BirdLife`s scientists highlights a number of species and important areas that could suffer after-effects. 27 Globally Threatened Bird species regularly occur in the regions and habitats of Asia potentially affected by the tsunami. There are also three Endemic Bird Areas ? areas which contain a unique concentration of biodiversity including bird species which are found nowhere else on the planet.However, despite the wealth of biodiversity in the region, it is thought that few threatened species are likely to have been seriously affected by the direct effects of the tsunami, and no extinctions are predicted as a result. Surveys are needed to confirm the situation though, particularly in the Nicobar Islands. It is likely that many coastal wetlands will have been affected by the large inflow of salt-water and wreckage during the tsunami, with longer-term effects including changes in their hydrology caused by changes to coastlines and damage to sea-defences. Forest habitats, particularly important forest areas on small islands in the Nicobar Islands and off Sumatra are likely to have been initially unaffected, but some areas could suffer future damage as a result of saltwater intrusion.In the longer term, the reconstruction process might have significant impacts on biodiversity, particularly if communities of people are to be resettled in forested areas inland. It is important that the environmental impacts of new developments are properly assessed. The BirdLife Network will be working over the coming weeks and months to help ensure the best possible future for communities and their local biodiversity. The reconstruction process is likely to provide opportunities to integrate environmental protection and management with economic development in the region, including the opportunity to conserve and restore coastal habitats such as mangrove as coastal defences, said Dr Rands.BirdLife`s initial actions will be to:

* Provide immediate short term assistance for those IBAs/communities in greatest need and where BirdLife feels it can make a difference (initially in Sri Lanka)

* Rapidly assess the impact of the tsunami on globally important Important Bird Areas/key biodiversity areas and their communities, with possible follow up action as required

* Provide information, advice and support to those responsible for redevelopment/resettlement to avoid longer term damage to natural habitats and the people who depend on them for their livelihoods

* Offer support for students in natural resource management who have lost their universities, teachers and means by which to continue their studies (initially from Aceh Province in Sumatra) Biodiversity impacts of the Asian tsunami tragedy

In the aftermath of the terrible humanitarian disaster that has affected thousands of kilometres of coastal South and South-East Asia, as well as parts of East Africa, the immediate priority is to prevent disease and further mortality amongst the human population in the areas affected, and to begin the process of reconstruction of livelihoods including basic services. However, the tsunami event is likely to have some significant impacts on biodiversity, and once the situation has been stabilised these will need to be addressed. The following notes provide a preliminary assessment of the bird species, habitats and key sites that might be affected.

Potential impacts on birds and other biodiversity

The direct impacts of the tsunami on birds and other biodiversity are thought likely to include:* Direct mortality: in the case of birds, this is probably generally low because of their ability to escape from the tsunamis, except perhaps in those areas very close to the epicentre of the earthquake (i.e. Aceh, northern Sumatra, and the southern Nicobar Islands). Mammals (and other biodiversity) in the coastal lowlands that were hit by the tsunami are likely to have been more badly affected because of their lower ability to escape.

* Damage to forests: television footage and initial eye-witness accounts suggest that forest areas remain largely intact, even in the worst affected areas, but it is possible that there will be a die-back of vegetation because of salt-water intrusion. This could potentially affect large areas of lowland forest, and might have a very significant effect on some low-lying islands where most of the forest was exposed to sea-water (e.g. the southern Nicobar Islands). It is possible that coastal mangrove forests were damaged by the tsunami, particularly in those areas close to the epicentre of the earthquake. * Damage to wetlands: many coastal wetlands will have been affected by the large inflow of salt-water and wreckage during the tsunami, with longer-term effects including changes in their hydrology caused by changes to coastlines and damage to sea-defences. Although species will have adapted to such natural disasters during their evolutionary history, past habitat loss due to human activity will have reduced the availability of refuges.

* Damage to conservation infrastructure: we are deeply saddened to learn that in Aceh many government and NGO staff involved in wildlife conservation were killed in the tsunami or lost members of their families. Throughout the tsunami zone, protected areas infrastructure and management systems will have been destroyed or severely damaged (e.g. at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka), and in the case of Aceh (e.g. at Gunung Leuser) these systems are likely to have been almost completely lost, putting back by years the conservation efforts for these areas. The indirect / long-term impacts of the tsunami on birds and other biodiversity might include:

* The on-going efforts to prevent further loss of human life and the spread of disease will be followed by a long period of reconstruction and re-development of people`s livelihoods. If not carefully planned, this could lead to significant adverse impacts on biodiversity, particularly if communities of people are to be resettled inland, including in forested areas (e.g. in the Leuser ecosystem in Aceh). It is important that the environmental impacts of new developments are properly assessed.

* The reconstruction process is likely to provide opportunities to better integrate environmental protection and management with economic development in the region. The protection and restoration of mangroves and wetlands might be used to improve coastal protection, by producing ?soft coastlines? better able (than those areas where these habitats are converted to urban or agricultural land) to absorb some of impact of any future tsunami events. Summary

This preliminary analysis shows that 27 globally threatened birds species regularly occur in the regions and habitats of Asia potentially affected by the tsunami. There are three Endemic Bird Areas and two Secondary Areas in this part of Asia, and a number of Important Bird Areas might have been affected.

Despite the wealth of biodiversity in the region affected by the tsunami, this preliminary assessment indicates that few (if any) threatened species are likely to have been seriously affected by its direct effects, and no extinctions are predicted as a result of the tsunami. However, surveys are needed to confirm the situation, particularly in the Nicobar Islands.It is likely that many coastal wetlands will have been affected by the large inflow of salt-water and wreckage during the tsunami, with longer-term effects including changes in their hydrology caused by changes to coastlines and damage to sea-defences. The impact on these areas will need to be assessed with the use of satellite imagery and field visits. Forest habitats, particularly important forest areas on small islands in the Nicobar Islands and off Sumatra are likely to have been initially unaffected, but some areas could suffer die off as a result of saltwater intrusion. In the longer term, the reconstruction process might have significant impacts on biodiversity, particularly if communities of people are to be resettled in forested areas inland. It is important that the environmental impacts of new developments are properly assessed.

The reconstruction process is likely to provide opportunities to better integrate environmental protection and management with economic development in the region, including the opportunity to conserve and restore coastal habitats such as mangrove as coastal defences.Threatened bird species and globally important habitats in the tsunami zone

The following is a preliminary assessment of threatened bird species, Endemic Bird Areas and key habitats for threatened birds that might be affected by the tsunami:

Endemic Bird AreasAndaman Islands Endemic Bird Area (EBA 125): Eight bird species are endemic to the Andaman Islands, and an additional four restricted-range species are shared with the Nicobar Islands. One of the endemic species is globally threatened, Narcondam Hornbill Aceros narcondami, which is confined to the tiny island of Narcondam (<7 km2). All of the restricted-range species are forest birds, and, given that most of the islands are hilly and these islands are several hundred kilometres from the epicentre of the earthquake, it is probably unlikely that these birds will be seriously affected. However, the status of Narcondam Hornbill needs to be quickly assessed, given the very small size of the island and its potential vulnerability. In addition, Andaman Teal Anas (gibberifrons) albogularis, endemic to the Andamans, is scarce and has recently declined, and is likely to have been affected by the tsunami because of its coastal distribution. This duck is usually treated as a subspecies of Sunda Teal Anas gibberifrons, but it has been proposed that it should be treated as a full species (this proposal is currently under review by the BirdLife Taxonomic Working Group).Nicobar Islands Endemic Bird Area (EBA 126): Five bird species are endemic to the Nicobar Islands, and an additional four restricted-range species are shared with the Andaman Islands. Three of the endemic species are globally threatened, Nicobar Sparrowhawk Accipiter butleri, Nicobar Megapode Megapodius nicobariensis and Nicobar Bulbul Hypsipetes nicobariensis; of these, Nicobar Megapode is of particular concern because the greatest concentrations are found in coastal forest. The other two endemic species, South Nicobar Serpent-eagle Spilornis klossi and Nicobar Parakeet Psittacula caniceps (both Near Threatened), are confined to the southern islands, and may have been affected because their ranges are very close to the epicentre of the earthquake. Surveys will be needed to assess the impact of the tsunami on these species. Enggano Endemic Bird Area (EBA 159): Two bird species are endemic to the small Indonesian island of Enggano, Enggano Scops-owl Otus enganensis and Enggano White-eye Zosterops salvadorii. Both are forest birds, and given that the island is hilly and it is several hundred kilometres from the epicentre of the earthquake, it is probably unlikely that they will be significantly affected.

Simeulue Secondary Area (s105): One bird species is endemic to Simeulue Island, Simeulue Scops-owl Otus umbra, and another restricted-range species occurs, the globally threatened Silvery Wood-pigeon Columba argentina. Parts of this island are low-lying, and it lies close to the epicentre of the earthquake, so the forest habitat of these birds could have been significantly affected by the tsunami.

Mentawai Islands Secondary Area (s106): One bird species is endemic to the Mentawai Islands, Mentawai Scops-owl Otus mentawi, and another restricted-range species occurs, the globally threatened Silvery Wood-pigeon Columba argentina. Parts of these islands are low-lying, and they are within a few hundred kilometres of the epicentre of the earthquake, so the forest habitat of these birds might have been affected by the tsunami. Key habitats for globally threatened birds

Sundaic (or Sundaland) lowland forests: the lowland forests on the islands of Sumatra, Borneo, Java and the Thai-Malayan Peninsula are one of the richest but most threatened habitats in the world. The lowland forests on Sumatra support 14 globally threatened bird species (including three forest waterbirds mentioned below). Although only limited areas of these forests are likely to have been directly damaged by the tsunami, it is possible that additional areas could be affected during the reconstruction process on Sumatra and associated islands.

Mangrove forests: mangroves are the natural habitat along many of the coasts in the tsunami zone, although large areas have been cleared or degraded. High proportions of the global ranges of two near threatened mangrove specialist species, Brown-winged Kingfisher Pelargopsis amauropterus and Mangrove Pitta Pitta megarhyncha, are largely confined to the Indian Ocean coastlines affected by the tsunami. They may have suffered some direct mortality during the tsunami or through damage to their mangrove habitat. Globally threatened birds

* The following globally threatened waterbird species occur in some of the wetlands affected by the tsunami ? Spot-billed Pelican Pelecanus philippensis, Milky Stork Mycteria cinerea, Lesser Adjutant Leptoptilos javanicus, Spotted Greenshank Tringa guttifer, Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus and Indian Skimmer Rynchops albicollis.

* Three threatened waterbirds, Storm`s Stork Ciconia stormi, White-winged Duck Cairina scutulata and Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata, occur in swamp forests (and sometimes mangroves) including at some localities near the coast.

* Two threatened seabirds occur in this part of the Indian Ocean, Abbott`s Booby Papasula abbotti and Christmas Island Frigatebird Fregata andrewsi, although these species are unlikely to have been affected.

* A few of the threatened waterbird species will have been nesting at the time of the tsunami, including Spot-billed Pelican on Sri Lanka, and it is possible that there will have been some mortality of chicks at their nesting colonies. Otherwise, although many wetlands will be somewhat changed in character by the tsunami, it appears unlikely that there will be significant negative effects on any of the species listed above.

* Indeed, some wetlands (including shrimp ponds and salt pans) might revert to more natural ecosystems, which could (at least in the short term) be of benefit to some waterbirds.

4th July 2014