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Conservation: EAZA Songbirds TAG and Species360 use data to pinpoint species at risk

Simon Bruslund, Head of Conservation, Vogelpark Marlow, and Academic Partner to Species360 Conservation Science Alliance, helps to train and support local scientists and conservationists on site in Indonesia with Silent Forest Group.

The Silent Forest Group remains a working-group of the EAZA Songbird Taxon Advisory Group (Songbird TAG) and the fundraising and technical project support is now a permanent activity and commitment of the Songbird TAG.

When the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) launched its Silent Forest campaign, it was among the most successful initiatives of its kind. The campaign was run in conjunction with partners Birdlife International, TRAFFIC, and the IUCN Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group. More than 200 zoos and aquariums participated, raising funding, educating communities, expanding international outreach, and securing widespread support for change.

Threats to songbirds prevail and it will take ongoing, concerted, collaborative efforts to mitigate them.

“We have witnessed the emergence of an unsustainable market for songbirds, and felt growing fear over the reach and focus of these operations,” says Simon Bruslund, Head of Conservation at Vogelpark Marlow and a member of the EAZA Silent Forest Group that continues to work following the campaign.

The Silent Forest Group continues to advocate for species at risk, and must choose carefully how, and where, to apply pressure. Scientists suspect that many populations found in Southeast Asia likely face greater threats than we know, and may be gone before conservationists can intervene.

“If a species peaks commercially, Silent Forest researchers need to know. If a species becomes increasingly threatened, the sooner we know and can intervene, the better the chance that species will prevail,” says David Jeggo, Chair of the Silent Forest Group and retired curator.

In Southeast Asia, songbirds plucked from forests are sold as pets. The more unique and beautiful the song, the greater the demand and more devastating the harvest. With 6,600 species of songbirds worldwide, experts are partnering with Species360 Conservation Science Alliance to pinpoint those most at risk.

While conservation efforts prioritize those species assessed by IUCN Red List as near extinction, the Silent Forest Group seeks to identify critical populations not yet on the radar. With 6,600 plus species of passerines (songbirds), and a myriad of threats ranging from trade to deforestation, experts worry some will be lost from view.

“Part of the challenge is the sheer number of species and complexity of the problem. We have scientists working in regions around the world, yet it is much too easy to lose sight of not just one but even hundreds of species in decline,” says Bruslund.

It’s exactly the kind of challenge that wildlife researchers at Species360 Conservation Science Alliance tackle every day, and lead Dalia Conde quickly saw an opportunity to help.

“There is a vast wealth of data on songbirds, some of the most authoritative from scientists working on behalf of focused efforts like Silent Forest and the IUCN Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group. By combining field data from these experts, and joining efforts with global sources, we knew there was a strong possibility that we could help,” said Conde, Director of Science for Species360 and Associate Professor at Southern Denmark University’s (SDU) Interdisciplinary Centre for Population Dynamics.

An estimated three million white-rumped shamas are kept as part of the pet trade in Indonesia while the species fades in the wild. On Simeulue Island, Silent Forest encouraged change. Today, locally-supported breeding programmes are in place for near-extinct subspecies. (Photo by Simon Bruslund.)

Coordinating with the CITES Secretariat and Silent Forest, Conde set the wheels in motion. Discussions confirmed that a comprehensive approach would deliver the greatest impact, with a the project scope encompassing the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and its World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), CITES Trade Database, the IUCN Red List and IUCN Global, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, and others involved in monitoring and advocating to manage and protect songbird populations.

The Species360 Conservation Science Alliance formed a multidisciplinary project team comprised of data analysts, population dynamics, and songbird experts to conduct the research and develop a solution. Bruslund Conde recruited ERASMUS scholar Jacqueline Jürgens, University of Hamburg, to help with data entry and analysis.

To accommodate the scope and complexity of information on songbirds, the team envisioned a tool modeled after the Demographic Species Knowledge Index. Developed with an international team of researchers led by Conde and published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the index demonstrates how various data sources can be combined to increase knowledge of species. (Read the published research and see all those involved, at PNAS.)

Dr. Dalia Conde, Director of Science for Species360 and associate professor at SDU’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Population Dynamics, speaks at the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums annual meeting. Understanding the unique demographics of species, and using them to inform survival strategies, is the central challenge addressed by Species360 Conservation Science Alliance researchers, led by Conde. The alliance is sponsored by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), Wildlife Reserves of Singapore, Copenhagen Zoo, University of Southern Denmark, and others.

Creating the Songbird Species Knowledge Index

Today, Species360 Conservation Science Alliance and SDU researchers are developing the Songbird Species Knowledge Index – a database that, for each species, measures the knowledge on different factors such as international trade routes, genomic information, and climate threats across all the described passerines.

Working with Conde, Bruslund, and others, Jürgens is arming the index with data from WCMC, CITES Trade Database, IUCN Red List, TRAFFIC and other published sources to inform the index.

“We collected data from over 20 different open data repositories, including data on conservation status and trade of course, but also data on basic biology such as survival rate, diet and clutch size, data on genetics, ex-situ species holdings, and management as well as international treaties protecting species amongst others,” said Jürgens.

Essential body weight and demographic data on species comes from Species360’s Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), used by more than 1,200 member zoos and aquariums that record husbandry data on animals in their care. The Species360 data vastly increases species demographic knowledge and helps scientists to develop strategies for population management and reintroduction programs when populations fade, or disappear, from the wild.

The Demographic Species Knowledge Index, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows information available for species of tetrapods, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, and birds. Led by Dr. Dalia Conde, Director of the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance and associate professor at SDU’s Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics, and supported by James Vaupel founder and director of Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, the research found that demographic knowledge on species increases eightfold with the addition of data within the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS).  As Species360 and SDU researchers apply the Species Knowledge Index to new areas, they expect to provide conservationists like the Silent Forest Group with data-driven tools they need to save species.

“Species360 data has long been indispensable for quickly assessing population trends and determining priorities for breeding programmes, especially in groups with many species such as Songbirds. Today, in-region conservation breeding centres use ZIMS to record husbandry data and ease the communication flow with international partners, especially with the recent travel restrictions,” said Simon. 

Pinpointing a highly threatened species not yet listed by CITES

Applying analytics to the combination of data, the Songbird Species Knowledge Index enables researchers to identify families and genuses that are meet certain criteria. For example, researchers can hone in on species that are both highly targeted by trade and highly threatened by climate change. The index makes it possible to identify those species that are likely to become targeted in the future. By displaying gaps in knowledge, the index shows where researchers may break new ground.

A Nias myna caged for sale on the streets of Gunungsitoli. Analytics embedded in the Songbird Species Knowledge Index help conservationists monitor 6,600 species and a myriad of threats to identify populations before they disappear from the wild. (Photo by Simon Bruslund.)

ERASMUS masters student Jacqueline Jürgens, of Hamburg University, is a Species360 Conservation Science Alliance student researcher at Southern Denmark University’s Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics.

During one such analysis, Jürgens unearthed an early win. While comparing Songbirds in Trade data recorded by Bruslund with the Alliance of Zero Extinction (AZE) list of trigger species — or globally threatened species that are restricted to only one site globally and therefore especially in danger of becoming extinct.

One of these, the Nias myna, is also recorded in the Songbirds in Trade database as internationally traded with high levels of confirmed unsustainable trade. Assessing the level of risk represented within each set of data, the index brought the Nias myna, not yet listed by CITES, to the fore as a critically important species in need of protection.

“Once we realized this it was clear to us that this is a species that requires more protection and attention. I think this is a prime example of how the Songbird Species Knowledge Index brings together separate databases, that otherwise might not have been looked at together, and leads to important discoveries,” said Jürgens.

Visualizing the impact when multiple threats converge on a single species

Behind these combinations of data is an equally unique mix of scientists. Songbird, trade, population dynamics, and data analytics researchers collaborate to create and fine-tune the Songbird Species Knowledge Index.

“Extensive data stored in the Songbird Species Knowledge Index will in turn clarify the murky bulk of passerines faced by law enforcement, pinpointing species and indicating families in dire need of recovery in their natural habitats,” said Jürgens.

Advocates believe tools like the songbird index may be important for conservation measures and policy decisions that aim to preemptively protect species. Especially when one set of data measures one set of threats, such as declining habitat, while a separate – possibly remote – study measures wholly different concerns such as trade. While populations in the wild “see” the impact of multiple pressures, researchers may not.

“It has been shocking to see some of the species that are flagged by the system, and humbling to realize that data is so necessary to identify threatened groups. Indeed, the visualizations made by the data team will be a vital step in identifying and addressing emerging conservation concerns,” said Bruslund.

Species360 members curate and share data on wildlife in their care. While animals living in human care may face fewer environmental pressures than their counterparts in the wild, these records can provide valuable insight not available anywhere else. In all, ZIMS increases what is known for many categories of species by as much as 800 percent. By sharing vital information here, Species360 members give conservationists a window to the possible ex-situ programs that can support a species, and show how closely related taxonomic genuses can help inform population management programs for more threatened representatives of the same genus or family.

“Wildlife data recorded by zoos and aquariums is proving invaluable for bridging gaps in the demographic information that can inform population management strategies. By bringing these worlds together, and applying new analytics, we hope to help conservation leaders to answer questions never addressed before,” said Conde.

Going forward, the Species360 Conservation Science Alliance team hopes the Songbird Species Knowledge Index will help equip scientists and policymakers to focus resources for those species targeted and threatened by trade, deforestation, and climate change.

“When gathered in one place, the trove of global data on species covers threats, habitats, and factors that influence how long a population may survive. The Songbird Species Knowledge Index demonstrates how that data can be used to inform decisions about when, and how, to intervene to save endangered populations or whole species,” said Conde.

Ultimately, Conde hopes that conservationists will use Species360 Conservation Science Alliance programs like this one as a template for measuring threats and risks impacting other groups of animals.

Anna Amodeo contributed to this article. She is pursuing undergraduate studies in anthropology at Lewis & Clark College (Oregon, U.S.).

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