Pity the puffins

| February 15, 2024

Nearly half (44%) of the world’s migratory species are showing population decline, according to the first-ever report on the State of the World’s Migratory Species by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), a UN biodiversity treaty.

The report, partially funded by the Australian Government, found more than one in five CMS-listed species are threatened with extinction, while nearly all (97%) of CMS-listed fish are threatened with extinction. Climate change, pollution and invasive species are also having profound impacts on migratory species, according to the report, which says the two greatest threats are overexploitation and habitat loss due to human activity.

The first-ever State of the World’s Migratory Species report was launched by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), a UN biodiversity treaty, at the opening of a major UN wildlife conservation conference (CMS COP14).

The landmark report reveals that while some the numbers of migratory species listed under the CMS are improving, nearly half (44%) are showing population declines. More than one-in-five (22%) of CMS-listed species are threatened with extinction, and nearly all (97%) of CMS-listed fish are threatened with extinction.

The extinction risk is growing for migratory species around the world, including those not listed under the CMS. Half (51%) of Key Biodiversity Areas identified as important for CMS-listed migratory animals do not have protected status, and 58% of the monitored sites recognized as being important for CMS-listed species are experiencing unsustainable levels of human-caused pressure.

The two greatest threats to both CMS-listed and all migratory species are overexploitation and habitat loss due to human activity. Three out of four CMS-listed species are impacted by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, and seven out of 10 CMS-listed species are impacted by overexploitation including intentional taking as well as incidental capture.

Climate change, pollution and invasive species are also having profound impacts on migratory species, and around the world 399 migratory species threatened or near threatened with extinction are not currently listed under the CMS.

Until now, no such comprehensive assessment on migratory species has been carried out. The report provides a global overview of the conservation status and population trends of migratory animals, combined with the latest information on their main threats and successful actions to save them.

Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said the report

“clearly shows us that unsustainable human activities are jeopardizing the future of migratory species – creatures who not only act as indicators of environmental change but play an integral role in maintaining the function and resilience of our planet’s complex ecosystems. The global community has an opportunity to translate this latest science of the pressures facing migratory species into concrete conservation action. Given the precarious situation of many of these animals, we cannot afford to delay, and must work together to make the recommendations a reality.”

Billions of animals make migratory journeys each year on land, in the oceans and in the skies, crossing national boundaries and continents, with some travelling thousands of miles across the globe to feed and breed.

Migratory species play an essential role in maintaining the world’s ecosystems, and provide vital benefits, by pollinating plants, transporting key nutrients, preying on pests, and helping to store carbon.

Prepared for CMS by conservation scientists at the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), the CMS State of the World’s Migratory Species report uses the world’s most robust species data sets and features expert contributions from institutions including BirdLife International, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

The main focus of the report is the 1,189 animal species that have been recognized by CMS Parties as needing international protection and are listed under CMS, though it also features analysis linked to over 3,000 additional non-CMS migratory species.

Species listed under the Convention are those at risk of extinction across all or much of their range, or in need of coordinated international action to boost their conservation status.


Amy Fraenkel, CMS Executive Secretary, notes

“Migratory species rely on a variety of specific habitats at different times in their lifecycles. They regularly travel, sometimes thousands of miles, to reach these places. They face enormous challenges and threats along the way, as well at their destinations where they breed or feed. When species cross national borders, their survival depends on the efforts of all countries in which they are found. This landmark report will help underpin much-needed policy actions to ensure that migratory species continue to thrive around the world.”

While there have been positive trends for numerous CMS species, the report’s findings underscore the need for greater action, for all migratory species. The listing of species under CMS means that these species require international cooperation to address their conservation. But many of the threats facing these species are global drivers of environmental change – affecting biodiversity loss as well as climate change. Thus, addressing the decline of migratory species requires action across governments, the private sector and other actors.

Over the past 30 years, 70 CMS-listed migratory species – including the steppe eagle, Egyptian vulture and the wild camel – have become more endangered. This contrasts with just 14 listed species that now have an improved conservation status – these include blue and humpback whales, the white-tailed sea eagle and the black-faced spoonbill.

Most worryingly, nearly all CMS-listed species of fish – including migratory sharks, rays and sturgeons – are facing a high risk of extinction, with their populations declining by 90% since the 1970s.

Analysing the threats to species, the report shows the huge extent to which the decline in migratory species is being caused by human activities.

The two greatest threats to both CMS-listed and all migratory species were confirmed as overexploitation – which includes unsustainable hunting, overfishing and the capture of non-target animals such as in fisheries – and habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation – from activities such as agriculture and the expansion of transport and energy infrastructure.

One key priority is to map and take adequate steps to protect the vital locations that serve as breeding, feeding and stopover sites for migratory species. The report shows that nearly 10,000 of the world’s Key Biodiversity Areas are important for CMS-listed migratory species, but that more than half (by area) are not designated as protected or conserved areas. 58% of monitored sites important for CMS-listed species are under threat due to human activities.

The report also investigated how many migratory species are at-risk but not covered by the Convention. It found 399 migratory species – mainly birds and fish, including many albatrosses and perching birds, ground sharks and stingrays – are categorised as threatened or near-threatened but are not yet CMS-listed.

While underscoring the concerning situation of many species, the report also shows that population and species-wide recoveries are possible and highlights instances of successful policy change and positive action, from local to international. Examples include coordinated local action that has seen illegal bird netting reduced by 91% in Cyprus, and hugely successful integrated conservation and restoration work in Kazakhstan, which has brought the Saiga Antelope back from the brink of extinction.

The State of the World’s Migratory Species report issues a clear wake-up call, and provides a set of priority recommendations for action, which include measures to strengthen and expand efforts to tackle illegal and unsustainable taking of migratory species, as well as incidental capture of non-target species.

Governments should also increase actions to identify, protect, connect and effectively manage important sites for migratory species, and urgently address those species in most danger of extinction, including nearly all CMS-listed fish species.

The world must also scale up efforts to tackle climate change, as well as light, noise, chemical and plastic pollution, and consider expanding CMS listings to include more at-risk migratory species in need of national and international attention.


Dr Nic Rawlence, the Director of the Otago Palaeogenetics Laboratory at the University of Otago, said

“Prior to human expansion, multitudes of species criss-crossed the globe on migratory journeys that had been occurring for millions of years. However, since our species has spread around the world, our footprint has significantly impacted migratory species for the worst.
The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals is an international treaty that New Zealand is a party to. Its aim is to protect migratory species and their habitats (ensuring connectivity) underpinned by the latest science. Why is this needed? Migratory species don’t care about political borders between countries.
The first report under this convention has just been published. It does not paint a good picture. Of the migratory species listed under the convention (and a staggering ~400 species are not yet listed), 20% are threatened with extinction (this climbs to 97% in fish), 44% have decreasing populations, 75% are impacted by habitat loss, and 70% are affected by overexploitation.
So what needs to be done? Frankly more of the good work that the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership does for example to help protect migratory birds like the bar-tailed godwit and their habitats. International cooperation is needed to map and protect migratory sites and combat overexploitation. If nothing changes, we will lose some of the biggest spectacles of the natural world.”

Graeme Taylor, a DOC Principal Science Advisor and CMS Science Councillor for New Zealand, added that

“This new report concerns the migrations of billions of animals that move across and beyond national borders each year. Hence the theme of this year’s Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) Conference of Parties – Nature Knows No Borders. The report on the State of the World’s Migratory Species brings together a vast amount of information from across the globe and distils this down to a State, Pressure, Response model reflecting what is currently happening to all the species that move over large distances. These include large mammals, birds, bats, whales and dolphins, marine turtles, sharks and rays and even migrating insects.

The report identifies the current conservation status of these migratory species, highlighting that many threatened species are currently listed under Appendix II of the Convention and may require the improved protection and concerted actions they would receive under an Appendix I listing. Our Appendix I species include Antipodean albatross, great white shark, oceanic whitetip shark and leatherback turtles. Some highly threatened migratory seabirds in New Zealand aren’t CMS-listed and this is something that needs attention in the next few years.

The Pressures section identifies four major contributing issues to declining migratory species around the world. These include loss or reduction in important habitats such as stopover sites or deterioration in breeding and foraging habitats as land is taken over by agriculture and urbanisation. For example, shorebirds such as godwits and knots are impacted by habitat loss as they fly back to the Arctic breeding grounds.

Exploitation of animals (direct harvest or killing) is a major concern in countries with large human populations and where poverty threatens the wellbeing and survival of communities that depend on migratory species. Climate change is already creating major habitat change issues for migratory species and this will only intensify over time. Pollution such as marine plastics and light pollution are also drivers of species decline. In New Zealand, major past and current threats include invasive species, but these have been reduced by Department of Conservation pest eradication projects and community action such as predator-free initiatives.

In New Zealand, climate change has begun to have impacts at breeding sites of many migratory species. Light pollution and crash-landings of birds is an increasing problem for some seabird populations near urban centres or those attracted to brightly lit ships at night. New Zealand has been proactive in protecting migratory species that breed on land but there is still work to do in protecting sufficient critical marine habitats.

Active engagement with fishers and their government agencies both in New Zealand and overseas offers the best opportunity to get mitigation methods adopted that will reduce incidental bycatch in commercial fisheries. New Zealand is also active in working groups under the Convention on Migratory Species looking into climate change and light pollution impacts on our migratory species. These workshops are seeking solutions to these problems.

New Zealand does not face the same major issues as countries that are being driven by large human populations with high levels of poverty as highlighted in the new report. But we have a suite of issues covered in the report that we need to work on to secure the long-term future of our migratory species.

Engagement with international partners is the only opportunity we have to protect these animals once they depart from our national borders.”

Professor Rochelle Constantine, of the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Auckland agreed that

“Migratory species truly test global commitments to protecting ecosystems and populations. Despite decades of research, international agreements, local and global initiatives, 20% of migratory species monitored by the CMS are threatened with extinction.

The ocean is a single, vast, connected space allowing some of the longest migrations – by whales, sharks, turtles, seabirds. Whales are swimming thousands of kilometres only to find key feeding grounds without sufficient prey; seabirds are finding resting stopovers destroyed for human development, and dolphins, sharks and seabirds are being caught at unsustainable levels in ever growing fisheries.

We face immense challenges implementing meaningful change for migratory species. Their decline has significant ecological impacts, and reflects rapid environmental change, as seen with whales in Antarctica. Also, these animals often indicate rapid environmental change.

Aotearoa New Zealand spans subtropical to subantarctic waters and the ocean is critical habitat for several of the most vulnerable marine animals. We are a global hotspot for cetaceans and seabirds, important taonga to us all. We can protect migratory species here; but plans to reopen fossil fuel exploration, ignoring best practice to mitigate bycatch and seabed destruction needs rethinking. We need to be part of the solution, not accelerate the loss or displacement of these animals who have been here long before we arrived.”

Associate Professor Phil Battley, of the Zoology and Ecology Group at Massey University warned that

“This report paints a bleak picture for migratory animals, whose movements place them at risk from multiple threats through the year. For many international shorebirds, their annual migrations pass through one of the most threatened areas of tidal flat in the world, the Yellow Sea, and we have seen population declines in virtually all the northern hemisphere species that reach the shores of Aotearoa. The scale of historic impacts in that area would astound most New Zealanders, but are signs that attitudes are changing.

The governments of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea, which both formerly promoted vast reclamation projects, have halted major coastal land claims, though there are still multitudes of impacts on tidal flat environments. High-level international relationships must continue to stress New Zealand’s support for such measures, and to facilitate the collaborative networks that seek to protect these areas and the birds that use them. Our bar-tailed godwits, red knots and other species that migrate across hemispheres may rely on very few stopover sites, and habitually use the same places year after year. Their continued existence needs these sites to be protected, and New Zealand has an important role to play with its international partners in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.”

Dr Philippa Brakes a WDC Research Fellow, an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Exeter and Chair of the CMS Expert Group on Animal Culture welcomed the report as it

“shines a light on the complexity of conserving migratory species that move across jurisdictional boundaries and may require collaboration between nations to ensure that populations thrive.

In the future, it would be wonderful to see the scope of this important work expand to also include assessment of species that are not currently listed on the CMS appendices. For example, to include species such as the Indus river dolphin (Platanista minor). Listing on the CMS Appendices is often the result of political impetus from range states and a broader sense of the state of non-listed migratory species might also reveal some important gaps.

In addition, cutting edge work that CMS has also been undertaking over the last decade on animal culture and conservation can provide fascinating insights on how migration is culturally mediated for some species, through the transmission of social knowledge.”


Dr Emma Carroll, an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland said

“This ‘State of the World’s Migratory Species’ is a call to arms to help protect some of the world’s most amazing animals – those that regularly travel thousands of kms to breed and feed. We know from our own backyard that protection measures suggested in the document work, when properly monitored and enforced – the moratorium on whaling and protection of key breeding areas has supported a rebound of New Zealand southern right whales – tohorā from fewer than 40 a century ago to several thousand today. If we stop killing animals and give them space to breed and feed, their populations can recover. As a global community we need to give them a chance and do it soon.”

Finally, Dr Paul Franklin, the Programme Leader on Freshwater Species at Hamilton University, underlined that

“The first ever State of the World’s Migratory Species report highlights the important role of migratory species across the globe and, unfortunately, their ongoing decline. In Aotearoa New Zealand, many of our well-known (and many of our less well-known) freshwater fishes, for example tuna (eels) and whitebait, are migratory – moving between our rivers and the sea at different parts of their life cycle. However, like their global counterparts, they are threatened by habitat loss and degradation and a loss of connectivity between habitats.

Access to more than half of New Zealand’s river network is restricted by barriers (e.g. dams, weirs and poorly designed culverts), contributing to ongoing declines in many of our freshwater fishes (around ¾ of our freshwater fishes are classified as At Risk or Threatened). To halt and reverse declines in many of our iconic freshwater taonga we must take action to restore river connectivity and recognise the importance of unimpeded access between habitats for their survival. Of note is the report’s recognition that climate change is an increasing threat for many migratory species and this will be no different here in New Zealand.”

SPA national president Jenny Goldie notes that the report states that the two greatest threats to migratory species are overexploitation and habitat loss due to human activity.

“While human numbers were low, we had little impact on wildlife. The human population grew fourfold in less than a hundred years, however, from two billion in 1927 to eight billion in November 2022. Humans hunt and fish to survive, or occupy other species’ habitats to grow food. The more people, generally the greater the loss and fragmentation of habitat.

“Climate change is cited as another cause of declining wildlife yet this too is a function of human activities, through the burning of fossil fuels and from land-use changes. Invasive pests and species are implicated, and these too are linked to humans.”

Ms Goldie says that other species want to move as the climate warms, usually to higher latitudes and altitudes.

“The problem is that humans create barriers such as fences, roads and housing. What we need are vast areas set aside with no such barriers. That, however, will limit the human enterprise. We cannot keep growing in numbers if the places we occupy are limited by the need to provide other species space and room to move as needed.

“The most frightening statistic in the report is that nearly all fish are threatened with extinction. This has huge implications for coastal dwelling people around the world who depend on fish for food.

“We must preserve other species, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of humans themselves. So many species play critical roles in ecosystems on which humans depend. We have reached the limits to growth. We have to pull back and allow other species to not just survive, but thrive.”