What Saudi Arabia, neighbors are doing to protect bird migratory routes in the Middle East

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The Egyptian vulture, right. (Shutterstock)
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A murmuration of starlings in Jordan. (AFP)
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Updated 12 May 2019

What Saudi Arabia, neighbors are doing to protect bird migratory routes in the Middle East

  • KSA is one of 11 countries that are signatories of the Migratory Soaring Birds project, an initiative which aims to protect the Mideast’s flyway from the illegal killing of migratory birds

DUBAI: For millennia, birds have made their journeys through global flyways, and the Middle East is a significant stopover on their flight path.
Twice a year, billions of birds migrate vast distances across the globe, typically following a predominantly north-south axis linking breeding grounds with non-breeding sites. The Middle Eastern region, located at the juncture of three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, is a major bottleneck and bird corridor for many winged species, including the willow warbler, the barn swallow, the Amur falcon and Steppe eagles. 
“Birds breed in summer in the north and then winter in the south — that is fundamentally what migration is around,” said Nick Williams, head of the coordinating unit at the Convention on Migratory Species’ African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement.
Speaking to Arab News as World Migratory Bird Day is marked on May 11, the UAE-based expert said: “There are also other migratory trends; species that just move laterally for reasons such as food resources. Here in the region, we are very well placed because we are right in the middle of Africa and Eurasia, and there are several types of species that arrive in the summer and breed here.”
These include the Sooty falcon, which migrates from Madagascar, a known wintering area for the species, to the Arabian Peninsula, the journey migratory birds take between their breeding and wintering places. 
The peregrine falcon, which breeds in the Arctic tundra, also travels through the Middle East corridor, as does the saker falcon, which breeds in the Republic of Kazakhstan but spends its winter season in the region. Several breeds of eagles and the Amur falcon breed in China and winter in North Africa, passing through the Middle East en route.
Common bird sightings, Williams said, include warblers, waders, finches and swallows. But more than 800 species of birds are known to breed in the region. “Then there are other groups of birds which visit us briefly — even for a matter of days or even hours — stopping off for a rest,” he said.
Such birds use food resources such as berries and insects that disappear in more Arctic countries during winter. Different types of birds take routes of widely varying lengths. Some round-trip migrations can be as long as 70,000 kilometers, equivalent to almost two round-the-world trips.
Williams said that many of the world’s migratory birds are in decline, and the region’s geographical distinctness means it has a key part to play in conservation efforts.
“For migratory species, no matter how much resources and how much individual efforts a single country puts into that exercise, all that good work can be undone as soon as migratory birds leave the border of that country if the next country lacks the same control measures,” he said. “If any of these countries don’t take action it cuts the chain.”
“Illegal shooting in one or two countries in the region such as Lebanon is rife and completely mindless and is causing massive problems,” he said. “Lebanon is struggling to control the hunting phenomenon. They have lots of challenges at the present — such as from migrants from Syria — and their resources are stretched, and therefore conservation tends to be bottom of the list.”
Hunting practices can include the illegal trapping of falcons, with poachers then selling them on.
When it comes to conservation, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Williams said, are doing “good work on this front.” 
The Kingdom is one of 11 countries that are signatories of the Migratory Soaring Birds (MSB) project, an initiative which aims to protect the Middle East’s flyway from the illegal killing of migratory birds. 
“What we are trying to do is to promote coordinated flyways, swim-ways and migration routes,” said Williams, adding that birds of prey face a variety of human-induced threats such as habitat loss and degradation, illegal shooting and poisoning, collisions with aerial structures and, often, electrocution by power lines.
Recently the UAE’s Mohamed Bin Zayed Raptor Conservation Fund signed an agreement with Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism to tackle the alarming rise in electrocution-related deaths caused by power distribution infrastructure in the east Asian country.
Birds, Williams said, are important because they keep systems in balance: They pollinate plants, disperse seeds, scavenge carcasses and recycle nutrients.
There are other conservation initiatives in the Middle East, such as BirdLife International’s Flyways program, the Sustainable Hunting Project and Wings Over Wetlands Project, that Williams said are vital.
“Although migratory species are just one sector of biodiversity, it is an important one, and everyone — even from the grassroots level — can do their bit to help. Human-induced threats are the biggest threat to migratory birds,” he said.

Air raids kill 12 civilians in militant-held Syrian town: monitor

Updated 22 May 2019

Air raids kill 12 civilians in militant-held Syrian town: monitor

  • The militant-dominated Idlib region is nominally protected by a buffer zone deal
  • The Observatory said they have no proof of the chemical attacks

BEIRUT: Air strikes by Damascus or its ally Moscow killed 12 civilians in a market in Syria’s Idlib province, a monitor said Wednesday, and denied allegations that the government used chemical weapons.

Another 18 people were wounded when the warplanes hit the militant-held town of Maarat Al-Numan around midnight on Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The market was crowded with people out and about after breaking the daytime fast observed by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.

The Observatory said it had no evidence to suggest the Syrian army had carried out a new chemical attack despite Washington’s announcement it had suspicions.

“We have no proof at all of the attack,” Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.

“We have not documented any chemical attack in the mountains of Latakia,” he said.
The air strikes in Idlib came as heavy clashes raged in the north of neighboring Hama province after the militants launched a counterattack on Tuesday against pro-government forces in the town of Kafr Nabuda.
Fresh fighting on Wednesday took the death toll to 52 — 29 troops and militia and 23 militants, the Observatory said.
It said that the militants had retaken most of the town from government forces who recaptured it on May 8.
The militant-dominated Idlib region is nominally protected by a buffer zone deal, but the regime and its Russian ally have escalated their bombardment of it in recent weeks, seizing several towns on its southern flank.
A militant alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, controls a large part of Idlib province as well as adjacent slivers of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.

The northern mountains are the only part of Latakia province, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, that are not firmly in the hands of the government.

The Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham accused government forces on Sunday of launching a chlorine gas attack on its fighters in the north of Latakia province.

The Syrian army dismissed the reports as a fabrication, a military source told the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.

But the US State Department said on Tuesday it was assessing indications that the government of president Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on Sunday.

“There were no civilians in the area,” Abdel Rahman said.

White Helmets rescue volunteers, who have reported past chemical attacks in rebel-held areas of Syria, told AFP Wednesday that they had no information on the purported gas attack.

International inspectors say Assad’s forces have carried out a series of chemical attacks during the Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011.
Russia and rebel ally Turkey inked the buffer zone deal in September to avert a government offensive on the region which threatened humanitarian disaster for its three million residents.
President Bashar Assad’s government has renewed its bombardment of the region since HTS took control in January.
Russia too has stepped up its air strikes in recent weeks as Turkey proved unable to secure implementation of the truce deal by the militants.
The Observatory says more than 180 civilians have been killed in the flare-up since April 30, and the United Nations has said tens of thousands have fled their homes.