Archived 2017 topics: Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor): downlist to VU?

Black-faced Spoonbill is currently listed as Endangered under Criterion C2a(ii), on the basis that there is an on-going decline and the global population size is below 2,500 mature individuals. An apparent increase has been reported for the population over the past few years, but the lack of adequate baseline data and uncertainty surrounding potential un-monitored locations has meant that an on-going decline has been suspected on precautionary grounds.

Efforts have been made over the past few years to increase the confidence in the population trend, and with the further passing of time there is more evidence that the increase in numbers seen over the past decade is a genuine trend (Sung et al. 2017). This has been as a result of legal protection for the species and sites used by the species, including designation of breeding sites as seabird sanctuaries and further locations as non-hunting areas (Yat-tung Yu in litt. 2016, Yung et al. 2017). All main wintering areas are now protected, and the Black-faced Spoonbill Working Group has coordinated targeted conservation efforts for the species since 2013 (Yat-tung Yu in litt. 2016). Regular monitoring of most of the population has consistently demonstrated an increase over the past decade, and the duration and stability of the trend indicates that it is a genuine change in numbers and not an artefact of distribution change (Yat-tung Yu in litt. 2016, Sung et al. 2017).

The total number of individuals counted during the 2017 census was a new record high count in recent times of 3,941 individuals (Hong Kong Birdwatching Society 2017), building on the January 2016 census which recorded 3,356 individuals, following 3,272 individuals in 2015 and consistently increasing at least from a count of 2,065 individuals in 2008 (Yu et al. 2015). These annual census figures are now derived from a consistent methodology and scope, indicating that the increase or stability in numbers of what is considered to be the vast majority of the global population is a genuine finding, and that there are not significant numbers elsewhere. As this indicates that the species is not at present suffering a continuing decline, it no longer qualifies as Endangered under Criterion C2a(ii). Within the overall census estimate there is inter-annual variation, with declines between 2015 and 2016 noted in Deep Bay, Hong Kong and Vietnam (Black-faced Spoonbill Working Group 2016). The consistency of the overall estimate indicates that this represents variation in wintering site selection: the same individuals or groups may select different wintering locations between years and movement between different surveyed sites within a season has been documented through satellite tracking (Wood et al. 2013).

While it is encouraging that the dedicated conservation efforts have resulted in an improvement in the fortunes of the species, the impact of the large-scale habitat conversion and degradation through disturbance and pollution around the Yellow and East China Seas continues to represent a clear threat in the future. These threats are predicted to limit further increases and the threats are considered sufficient to precautionarily that suspect a moderate to rapid future decline (>30%) may take place within the next three generations (21.6 years). Consequently the proposal is to list the species as Vulnerable under Criterion A3cde.

Comments are invited.


Hong Kong Birdwatching Society. 2017. The International Black-faced Spoonbill Census 2017. Hong Kong Birdwatching Society Press Release 24 March 2017.

Sung, Y-H., Tse, I. W-L. and Yu, Y-T. 2017. Population trends of the Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor: analysis of data from international synchronised censuses. Bird Conservation International. DOI:

Wood, C., Tomida, H., Kim, J., Lee, K., Cho, H., Nishida, S., Ibrahim, J., Hur, W., Kim, H., Kim, S., Koike, H., Fujita, G., Higuchi, H. and Yahara, T. 2013. New perspectives on habitat selection by the Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor based upon satellite telemetry. Bird Conservation International, 23, 495-501.

Yu, Y.T., Fong, H.H.N. and Tse, I.W.L. 2015. International Black-faced Spoonbill Census 2015. Black-faced Spoonbill Research Group. The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society. Hong Kong.

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6 Responses to Archived 2017 topics: Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor): downlist to VU?

  1. 6-30-17
    I write regarding the possible downlisting of Platalea minor, the Black-faced Spoonbill (BFS), from endangered to vulnerable status. I represent a group of scientists, environmental planners, and community planners at the University of California, Berkeley who research and develop local community development and habitat protection plans for Platalea minor and associated towns and cities. We began this effort in Taiwan where our team has worked for 20 years. More recently we have done plans with communities in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and mainland China.

    We do not support the proposed downlisting at this time. We understand that this is largely a numbers trigger under Criterion C2a(ii) and agree with the findings of the census counts. But we hope this deliberation will take into account several facts.

    First, one assumption in the BirdLife International summary is in error. The statement that “all main wintering sites are now protected” is a misrepresentation of the situation. In Taiwan, where the majority of BFS winter, only one main site is fully protected, two have some protection, and all others are under threat with no protection at present. This is despite all sites being designated as wetlands of importance (some national). Most are in the Southwest National Scenic Area or Taijian National Park which require habitat protection by legislation. The region around Budai (568 BFS in 2017) is unprotected and threatened by a central government proposal to install solar panels and local mass tourism development. The region around Jiading Wetland (311 BFS in 2017) is unprotected and threatened by a road proposed by Kaohsiung City Government that would bisect the wetland, and a solar panel farm proposed by TaiPower. The region including Chigu salt pans (801 BFS in 2017) is unprotected and threatened with multiple proposals for development including the solar power plan, an airstrip, a marina, and local opposition to expansion of the national park which would protect habitat presently used by the BFS.

    The use of these unprotected sites by the BFS has been and is essential to the future of the species. It would be a serious scientific flaw to downlist on the basis of an erroneous assumption.

    Second, the recent population growth notwithstanding, the coastal habitat of wading and shorebirds is and will be increasingly threatened throughout the flyway. The development of the wetlands and expansion into the oceans with reclamation projects is accelerating in Taiwan, China, Korea, and Japan. The BFS habitat is likely to be diminished by the combined forces of wetland development, pollution, and sea level rise.

    For these reasons we urge you to reconsider and at least correct the errors we note before proceeding. Thank you.

    Randolph T. Hester, Jr.; Professor Emeritus
    University of California, Berkeley; Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning

  2. SAVE International (SAVE) appreciates the technical application of Criterion C2a(ii) based on population figures, but questions the background information offered as justification for downlisting the Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor) from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable”. Since SAVE’s founding in 1997, we have contributed to the international effort to protect this species and we are pleased to see its population grow from about 500 to 3,941 in the 2017 census. Although we hope this growth continues and adequate habitat will be available for a sustainable population, these projections are questionable rather than certain.

    The posting above says “all main wintering areas are now protected”, but we need to point out some nuances, both about the present wintering sites and the long-term threats to preserving habitat throughout the flyway.

    SAVE’s research and advocacy have been integral to establishing and managing the Southwest Coast National Scenic Area and Taijiang National Park, which protect the main wintering habitat at the Tsengwen River Estuary in Taiwan. Nevertheless, individual managers of the Scenic Area have continued to propose new tourist developments that would undermine the formal protections. SAVE cautions that these proposals continue to threaten proper protections, and that downlisting the spoonbill’s “Endangered” status would likely justify the destruction of this essential habitat.

    And although the second-most-populous wintering habitat — Hong Kong’s Mai Po Nature Reserve — also enjoys formal protection, fewer spoonbills have been visiting in recent years; the Shenzhen side of Deep Bay is still undergoing rampant urban development.

    Some of the nesting/breeding habitat in Korea enjoys some informal protection because of its remoteness, but huge government-backed projects have destroyed habitat at Four Rivers, Saemangeum, and Songdo.

    As the spoonbill population grows, they have settled new sites (or perhaps resettled past sites) that do not have formal protection and where plans for development do not account for spoonbills. Migratory and wintering habitats in mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and Macau, for example, are unprotected.

    The Jiading Wetlands and Yong-An Wetlands in Kaohsiung County, Taiwan, are neighboring former salt-pans that have hosted more than 200 spoonbills in recent winters, but local officials still want to build a road through the Jiading Wetlands that was first proposed 20 years ago (before any spoonbills lived there) and are supporting a proposal for a new power plant at Yong-An. The Budai Wetland in Taiwan is an extensive system of former salt-pans and the winter home to hundreds of spoonbills (289 in one recent count), where engineers and hydrologists have been conducting research on water management and habitat value, and students at nearby Shin-tsen Elementary School observe the wetlands all year long; new proposals for expanding renewable energy in Taiwan, however, would cover many of these wetlands with solar panels and reduce their value as habitat. Xinghua Bay, Fujian Province, China, is a migratory and wintering site that hosted 141 spoonbills in 2013 and qualifies for Ramsar protection, but a 15-year development plan (which does not mention spoonbills or the threat of sea-level rise) is already underway to fill more than 12 of the bay and replace bird habitat and aquaculture with industry.

    We at SAVE worry that downlisting from “Endangered” will give a false sense of security and reverse the recovery of the past 30 years, at a time when critical habitats are under increasing threats.

    Derek Schubert, President, SAVE International

  3. Yat-tung Yu says:

    Based on the suggestion of downlisting BFS from EN to VU, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership Black-faced Spoonbill Working Group (BFS WG) has discussed this suggestion and now provides a reply as follows. The BFS WG consists of representatives from Japan, North Korea, South Korea and China. The BFS WG also invited local experts from Taiwan and Vietnam to provide information and comments for the draft of this reply.

    The Black-faced Spoonbill has been recorded with an increasing population from the standardised global census in recent years (Hong Kong Bird Watching Society 2017, Sung et al. 2017). Increases (in the time of the past three generations, i.e. 21.6 years) of the Black-faced Spoonbill population mainly came from figures of three wintering grounds: Taiwan, Deep Bay and Japan. Good and legal protection of the birds from hunting and trapping in these areas makes the sites safe to the birds and so more birds congregated in these sites in many years. However, Southern Taiwan and Deep Bay are still facing serious threats from habitat destruction and urban development. Several areas in the southern Taiwan wintering ground could be threatened by different development plans, summarised in the comment provided by Prof. Randolph T. Hester, Jr., while the Deep Bay wintering site is being sandwiched by Hong Kong and Shenzhen where urban development pressure is very high and the waterbird population (including the BFS) in the Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site is now showing a decreasing trend since winter 2007-08. In Japan and Hong Kong, the BFS have still been injured by abandoned fishing snare and hooks. In Red River Delta (including Xuan Thuy Ramsar site) of Vietnam, the BFS population is decreasing from over 100 individuals in 1990s to around 40 individuals during 2000-2016. Main threats in this site are loss of intertidal mudflats from mangrove plantation and conversion to aquaculture ponds, and illegal wildlife poaching that several BFS had been found in the nearby restaurant occasionally.

    As said, reclamation of tidal mudflats throughout the entire range of the Black-faced Spoonbill is the biggest threat to this species. Almost all the BFS breeds in the Yellow Sea area, except about 10 pairs breed in the Tuman estuary of Russia. Several areas in the Yellow Sea area are also the important staging grounds and stopover sites in the post-breeding period and during the migration period respectively. In the coastal area from southern China to northern Vietnam, many mudflats (located inside and outside of nature reserves) are not only being reclaimed, but also afforested with exotic mangrove species (e.g. Sonneratia spp.) that reduces open mudflat, the main feeding habitat of the BFS. Many sites along the China coast could only have fluctuating wintering BFS populations over the years, indicating that habitat quality of these sites are still yet to become stable to regularly hold some wintering flocks of BFS.

    In addition, the wintering populations at southern Taiwan and Hong Kong comprised to a total of 75% of the world known population. Disease and poisoning occurring in these highly congregating sites could easily wipe out significant proportions of the world population as this species tends to gather in large group. The biggest casualty was an outbreak of avian botulism in winter 2002-03 that killed a total of 73 individuals (7% of the world population in that time). Several cases of avian botulism still happened because many BFS also utilise in the commercial fishpond areas in both southern Taiwan and Hong Kong.

    It is understood the IUCN threatened category of this species could be reviewed based on the updated information from an on-going census. It is now proposed to list the BFS as Vulnerable under Criterion A3cde based on a suspected moderate to rapid future decline (30% – 50%) that may take place within the next three generations. Based on the information above and expert opinions, the increase of the BFS population might not last for long term because many unfavourable factors are still remaining. It is still likely the future population decline could be more than 50% if current conservation practices could not be persisted, no further conservation actions taking place to protect the remaining habitats, or the situation of mudflat conservation actually getting worse. Therefore, we suggest this species should be retained as Endangered under the Criterion C2a(ii) as the population could be projected as continuing decline from current situation in the coming two generations and number of mature individuals is fewer than 2,500 (global known population is 3,941 and the proportion of adult is apparently about 57%), of which over 95% of the mature individuals is within one subpopulation which are breeding in the Yellow Sea area.

    Without securing long-term conservation commitments from all the BFS distribution range countries, the uplisting of the IUCN red list category of the BFS will provide a wrong message that this species and its habitat are well safeguarded and also diminish the conservation efforts spent in the past 20 years.

    Yat-tung Yu
    Coordinator, EAAFP Black-faced Spoonbill Working Group
    Research Manager, Hong Kong Bird Watching Society

    Hong Kong Birdwatching Society. 2017. The International Black-faced Spoonbill Census 2017. Hong Kong Birdwatching Society Press Release 24 March 2017.

    Sung, Y-H., Tse, I. W-L. and Yu, Y-T. 2017. Population trends of the Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor: analysis of data from international synchronised censuses. Bird Conservation International. DOI:

  4. Marcy Lin says:

    It’s thrilling to learn about the increasing trend of Black-faced Spoonbill population. Among all the prominent contribution in conservation of wild birds, Birdlife has also been a strong ally for environmental activists around the world. As a local advocacy group, Jiading Wetland Youth (JWY) also deeply appreciates the efforts Birdlife has made working with global scientist communities and NGOs. However, Jiading Wetlands, an IBA which over 200 BFS inhabited in Taiwan, and other nearby wetlands on BFS’ flyway are all in peril now due to local government’s infrastructure or urban renewal projects. It seems the increasing trend of BFS population is facing more challenges and potential menace than ever. Therefore, we suggest Birdlife to take a more reserved position in the evaluation of downlisting BFS from endangered species to VU.

    BFS’ habitats in Taiwan are under numerous threats all at once in the coming year. As the election year is coming, many candidates are proposing new urban renewal projects and nationwide solar panel installation projects on the wetlands before 2018. In Taiwan, the Wildlife Conservation Act and Wetland Conservation Act are enforced with the practice of environmental impact assessments. What’s more, these assessments are highly reliant on the researches made by international authorities, including the Red List. In fact, NGOs and the concerned public had stopped numerous unnecessary real estate developer’s or government’s construction projects on the wetlands since 1991, by applying these research data in juridical debates and promoting public awareness on conservation.

    At this very moment, the wetlands in southern Taiwan, including Budai, Jiading, Yongan, and Yuanjhong Harbor are all struggling to fight against their doomed destiny of improper developments. JWY would like to call for international attention to these instant hazards to habitats on BFS’s flyway and to the bright future of its population revival. We suggest Birdlife not to take any chance just yet while many habitats in southern Taiwan are declining rapidly or under threats. Moreover, many minor and un-monitored habitats in the neighborhood are also facing challenges of environmental pollution from human activities. The condition of habitats along the East Asian Flyway should be taken as the major considerations in securing the continuous growth of BFS population.

    As much as JWY wants to believe that the increase in BFS population is already stabilized but the situation we are facing in southern Taiwan now doesn’t allow us to be optimistic. Whereas the population of BFS in Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand are increasing, that in South Korea, China, and Macao is a different story. Only when the habitats along the East Asian Flyway are all secured, can we be certain that the increasing trend of BFS population is sustainable. We hope Birdlife can conduct a thorough assessment of these habitats’ condition in with regards of island ecology before downlisting BFS to VU. Most importantly, considering the history of species population, as it is increasing from hundreds rather than decreasing from thousands, BFS’ genetic diversity is hampered by the current circumstance in the habitats on the flyway. Regarding the risky ground of habitats conservation, at least in Taiwan, JWY is convinced that the increasing trend of BFS population is still precarious.

    As mentioned in this article, “the impact of the large-scale habitat conversion and degradation through disturbance and pollution around the Yellow and East China Seas continues to represent a clear threat in the future,” JWY is concerned that this possible downlisting of Black-faced Spoonbill will put many Asian advocacy groups’ work in jeopardy. In fact, local habitat threats in southern Taiwan and other potential challenges are posing continuous threat to BFS and should be taken in to consideration before any change of BFS’ status on the list. At this moment, JWY still encounters pressure from local interest groups as well as political predicaments from the government and bureaucracy that prevents us from preserving the wetlands of 422 acres in our hometown. Again, Red List has been a great umbrella that provides a legal and authoritative protection for endangered and threatened species. We hope Birdlife can have a second thought about the downlisting. Thank you.

    Jiading Wetland Youth, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

  5. Citizen of the Earth Taiwan(CET) care about Environmental issues in Taiwan.We suggest that we should deal with downlisting of the Black-faced Spoonbill(BFS) carefully.
    Taiwan is the largest winter habitat to BFS,there are 2600 BFSs,65% in the world.However,these habitats faced huge exploitable pressure.

    In Jiading Wetland and Yongan Salt Pan Wetland,there are above 250 BFSs,but Kaohsiung City Goverment will make a 35m-width road through Jiading Wetland,and build thermal power plant in Yongan Salt Pan Wetland. In Budai Wetland ,there are above 500 BFSs,but Taiwan Goverment is planning build solar energy system in Budai. In Qigu Wetland, there are above 1800 BFSs,Taiwan Goverment is planning to build solar energy system here ,and local politicians still want to develop residential area and industrial area in Qigu Wetland. It means 2600 BFSs still in threaten.

    If BFS still come to Taiwan,we belive the threaten of BFS is exist forever.We respect scientific assessment but we worry about the threaten in the foreseeabla future.Please think of downlisting carefully.

  6. Andy Symes (BirdLife) says:

    Preliminary proposals

    Our preliminary decision for this species is to list it as Endangered under criterion A3 in the 2017 Red List, acknowledging on a precautionary basis the potential for very rapid future declines to take place. The next comprehensive Red List assessment for all birds is due to take place in 2020 – we will review the status of the spoonbill again then, and if there is no evidence of a rapid decline at this stage we would be required by IUCN to downlist the species to a lower threat category.

    There is now a period for further comments until a final deadline of 11 August for this species, after which the recommended categorisations will be put forward to IUCN.
    Please note that we will then only post final recommended categorisations on forum discussions where these differ from the initial proposal.

    The final 2017 Red List categories will be published on the BirdLife and IUCN websites in early December, following further checking of information relevant to the assessments by both BirdLife and IUCN

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