Singaporean conservationist wins prestigious award for migratory bird conservation

The spoon-billed sandpiper was last spotted in Singapore in 1999. - PHOTO: THUAN VO

SINGAPORE: An avid bird watcher for about 30 years, Dr Yong Ding Li would take field trips from the muddy, marshy wetlands of China to various parts of South-East Asia, to observe flocks of migratory birds making a pit-stop for food and rest before continuing their journey down south.

These feathered travellers embark on their arduous journey yearly between July and December, to escape the harsh winters of the Northern Hemisphere – where they breed – and seek refuge in the warmer climate of South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s pretty amazing to see a spoon-billed sandpiper – which weighs less than 40g – in a wetland in China, knowing that it has flown 5,000km from Russia and will go onward for another 4,000km to Thailand,” said the 39-year-old conservation biologist with non-governmental organisation Birdlife International.

The bird was last spotted in Singapore in 1999 by Dr Yong with two other bird-watchers on Christmas Eve at a wetland in Changi South.

“Back then, the global population of the bird hovered around 2,000 to 3,000, and now, it is estimated to have fallen to around 490 mature individuals, if not fewer,” the Singaporean told The Straits Times.

For his extensive work on migratory shorebirds, Dr Yong received the prestigious Early Career Conservationist Award – the Oscars of the biodiversity world – on July 24, at a conference in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

The award, by the United States-based Society for Conservation Biology, is given to recipients who have significantly contributed to conservation efforts, within 10 years of completing their academic qualifications.

Dr Yong is the first such recipient in Asia, having completed his PhD in biology at the Australian National University in 2017.

Like many other migratory species, numbers for the spoon-billed sandpiper have been decimated over the years by hunting, bycatch – being trapped in fishing nets – and habitat loss.

Coastal wetlands are often reclaimed or developed in countries like Japan, China, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand, which are home to vast expanses of mudflats and mangrove swamps.

In Singapore, less than 10 per cent of mangrove swamps remain, with even fewer mudflats remaining.

Seeing the extent of habitat loss propelled Dr Yong to begin conservation work for the species in 2016, which involved establishing more wetland protected areas and raising public awareness of their decline with coastal communities.

While numbers for the spoon-billed sandpiper are still in decline, Birdlife is in the fight for the long-haul – and will continue its ongoing conservation efforts, said Dr Yong.

A similar effort to save the Nordmann’s greenshank – a rare species known for its distinctive bi-coloured beak – from the brink of extinction, began in 2020.

Both species are among Asia’s most threatened migratory waterbird species, he noted.

There are only about 1,000 to 2,000 Nordmann greenshank birds, and it was last spotted in Sungei Buloh over a decade ago in 2008.

Singapore, like other countries in the region, is one of the stops along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, the world’s largest bird migration route of more than 12,000km and goes towards the south.

Prior to joining Birdlife as a regional coordinator for the Asia-Pacific region in 2017, Dr Yong had a year-long stint at the Arctic Council’s biodiversity working group and was a junior college teacher for four years. The Arctic Council is based in Iceland, but Dr Yong did remote work while in Australia.

He began bird watching from the age of 10, and spent a considerable part of his teenage years volunteering with the Nature Society (Singapore) and the Malaysian Nature Society for birdwatching walks, bird censuses and other activities.

Asked about why he was particularly drawn to migratory birds, Dr Yong said: “These birds, while not unique to any country or region, have complex life-cycles and are able to connect widely-separated countries together, making them instrumental in promoting international cooperation on biodiversity.”

The masked finfoot is only found in Asia, while its other two finfoot siblings are found in Africa and the Americas. - PHOTO: YANN MUZIKAThe masked finfoot is only found in Asia, while its other two finfoot siblings are found in Africa and the Americas. - PHOTO: YANN MUZIKA

Next on his agenda? The masked finfoot, an elusive waterbird species known for its pale green feet.

The bird is particularly special to him, as its family is small and unique, with only three members.

The masked finfoot is only found in Asia, while its other two finfoot siblings are found in Africa and the Americas.

Asked about the ecological significance of the masked finfoot, Dr Yong said that its presence often tells us that the wetland habitats it resides in remains in good shape, given that the species is very sensitive to human disturbance, he added.

Currently, they can be found in two areas – the Sundarbans mangrove in Bangladesh, and in northern Cambodia, said Dr Yong.

But their survival has been threatened by the rise in sea level, as the creeks and canals they reside in are often overrun by saltwater from the coastal tides. Many also get trapped in misplaced fishing nets, he added.

A recent study published in December 2020 placed current population estimates to be between 108 and 304, much lower than the last estimate of between 600 and 1,700 in 2009.

Conservationists also do not fully understand their behaviour – as some of the birds migrate, while others do not, Dr Yong noted.

Birdlife is therefore launching a working group to foster deeper collaboration between Bangladesh and across South-east Asia, so that conservationists can exchange information and develop a global conservation plan for the bird, he added.

One of the first steps would be to educate fishermen and local communities about their dwindling numbers, and eventually, to track the bird and determine where they fly off to.

The masked finfoot was spotted in Cambodia a couple of days ago, and Dr Yong is hopeful that the shy creatures have just been evading detection of keen-eyed birdwatchers, with the population hidden away in remote parts of the region. - The Straits Times/ANN

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