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Conservation efforts for the Lesser White-fronted Goose


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The Lesser White-fronted Geese of the World

According to the most recent classification, the Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus) is a globally critically threatened bird species. The global population is approxiamted to 20 000. The East Siberian LWfG migrate to China, the Western ones migrate to insufficiently known areas in the Caspian and Black Sea regions.

Before World War II, the LWfG was breeding in large parts of Northern Eurasia all the way from Norway to the Bering Strait. Since then a sharp decline of their number has occurred - in particular in Scandinavia. The Swedish and Finnish natural populations were entirely lost in the 1970's and 1990's, respectively. Some fifty birds still survive in Norway.

The main reasons of decline seem to be deterioration of wintering grounds in the Caspian Sea region and hunting along all migration routes. Recent studies confirm this suspicion: The water level of the Caspian Sea has fluctuated greatly. It started falling in 1925 and reached a minimum - three meters lower - in 1979 when a fast rise began. By 1996 the water was at the original level again. These changes had an immense impact on the water and near-water ecosystems. During the Soviet era enormous changes struck the agriculture of the area. Cultivation of corn was favoured in Kazakhstan, cotton in Uzbekistan and wine in Azerbaijan. This added to the deterioration of the wintering grounds. With the fall of the Soviet system, conditions are changing again. Corn cultivation is now increasing in Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. In the background we can see problems of a very general kind: the steady growth of human population combined with a decrease of arable land is a question of common concern.

Uncontrolled hunting is the most important single threat for the LWfG. Spring hunting is still legal in Russia. It is illegal in Kazakhstan, but after the fall of the Soviet system, hunting is hardly controlled at all anymore, and even the administration of nature conservation areas has collapsed. Poaching is common, and legal hunters are unable to distinguish the LWfG from other geese.
In China similar problems abound. Poaching is very common on the main wintering areas of the LWfG. Things are made worse by the common habit of using poisons for "hunting". In October 2000 at Dongting Lake, more than a thousand LWfG were reported poisoned.
The problems by the Caspian Sea and in China are in sharp contrast to the favourable conditions most West Siberian arctic geese meet on their wintering grounds in West-European countries like the Netherlands: the populations of wintering geese are actually increasing here.
The Lesser White-fronted Goose is in desperate need of international aid. International organizations and national - also Finnish - nature conservation authorities have started measures in this direction.

The Scandinavian population

The remnants of a once plentiful Scandinavian Lesser White-fronted Goose population consist of about fifty nesting birds in Norway. These birds seem to migrate south to the Balcan peninsula (Observations: Lake Kerkin, Evros river delta). In Sweden all LWfG belong to a population created by a re-introduction programme. This population is manipulated to migrate to the Netherlands. In Finland the last breeding was observed in 1995.

Not all of the habitat of the Lesser White-fronted Goose in the arctic mountains is preserved untouched. The number of reindeer is too large in Finnish Lapland, and this has led to loss of the lush ground vegetation which should offer food and shelter for the geese. In northern Scandinavia, the red fox has become much more common than before. This is due to new methods of reindeer keeping - the equivalent of agriculture in these barren grounds.

For more detailed information on both Scandinavian populations and a prognosis of their future, click HERE. (This link is Not updated since 2001)

Re-introduction in Finland and Sweden

Both in Finland and Sweden, a project for re-introduction of the Lesser White-fronted Goose was started when the natural population had been entirely lost. The Finnish campaign has now been interrupted, but as a result of the Swedish programme the free living Lesser White-fronted Geese number more than seventy in Sweden today.

In the years 1989-97 about 150 captive-born Lesser White-fronts were released in Finnish Lapland, but none of them were observed nesting there later. This can be explained by the applied method of releasing goslings together with their parents. Seemingly the captive-born parents have been unable to find suitable migration routes and wintering areas, and there have been no natural-born geese left to guide them. Of course the problems of the natural population also affected the re-introduced.

The Finnish project has not been a total failure, though. We have learned how to farm Lesser White-fronted Geese, a difficult task in many ways, since the geese are very sensitive, and lay only half a dozen eggs a year - no more even if the eggs are removed from the nest.

In Sweden PhD. Lambart von Essen used semi-domesticized Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) as foster parents for the Lesser White-fronted goslings. In this way his team succeeded in teaching them a new safe migration route. Thirty nests of the re-introduced birds have been observed in the Svaipa hills (photos) in Sweden, and now already the second generation of these geese migrate to the Netherlands. The aim of the Swedish re-establishment project now is to secure the growth of this population. To do so, more goslings are needed - up to 150 a year. It is the intention of the Friends of the Lesser White-fronted Goose to use the well-working farm at Hämeenkoski - the world's largest production site of Lesser White-fronted goslings - for this purpose.

The Swedish project have tested a new technique, namely imprinting goslings on an ultra-light aircraft and later guiding them over best possible routes to safe wintering grounds. This procedure might seem unnatural at first sight - actually there was some hesitation from the project's side until it was accepted - but seen from a Lesser White-fronted goslings perspective, things do look natural. The aircraft can lead the goslings to optimal stop-over sites in order to imprint the young geese to them, independently of possible habits of Barnacle Geese. The choice of wintering places can also be made to meet strict Lesser White-fronted Goose standards instead of just flying to the favourite grounds of the Barnacle Geese. In the current method moulting chicks have been imprinted on Barnacle Goose foster parents and only later familiarized themselves with the real manners of Lesser White-fronts. Using the aircraft allows the Lesser White-front parents to brood their eggs and to teach their own young the cruel facts of LWfG-life. That is why using aircraft technology may make the re-introduction process more natural and less risky.

Risk Analysis

There are some risks in re-introducing captive animals to nature. The most important principles to be followed are: No diseses must be spread, and genetic changes of the original population must be reduced to a minimum.

A detailed analysis of these aspects can be found behind the links Background research and Feasibility study / Life-Nature Project 2001 .

The Lesser White-fronted Goose has traditionally been regarded as species with only one race. Recently a Ph D thesis has been published hinting at possible racial differences in mitochondrial DNA-markers of Lesser White-fronted Geese. There have also been indications of hybridization of captive birds with Barnacle Goose (Anser albifrons). These species probably hybridize naturally. The relevance of these findings is unknown, as there is only limited access to genetic material from free living Lesser White-fronted Geese. A thorough investigation of the genetic - chomosome DNA - background of the captive stock in Sweden is being done. If the results prove to be positive, re-introduction will continue. Controlling the Finnish birds was recently done by Dr. Marina V. Kholodova (A.N.Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution , RAS Moscow, Russia). The complete report of this study can be found behind this link. All European captive LWfG seem to share a similar genetic history: According to Lambart von Essen virtually all of them descend from ancestors bought from West Siberia about one hudread years ago.

Regardless of the possible existence of genetically distinguishable populations of Lesser White-fronted Geese, farm birds must be used for the re-stocking, since no original Scandinavian stock are available. There are no original Lesser White-fronts in Sweden or Finland at all, and the Norwegian population is much too small to allow catching of birds without negative effects - a fact stressed by the Norwegian authorities, who object to removing any geese for breeding purposes.

The risks of disease are much less disussed in public than possible genetic hazards. This is understandable since migrating birds can and will carry diseses with them anyway. Of course strict veterinary measures must be taken to guarantee complete health of released goslings.

Just now the main task of the Friends of the Lesser White-fronted Goose is to take care of the geese at Hämeenkoski farm until re-stocking in Sweden and Finland will continue. Our captive Lesser white-fronted Geese form an immensely valuable gene bank of these rare birds.

<> updated Jan.12.2003