Lesser White-fronted Goose: A Species Under Threat
The smallest goose species in the genus Anser, the Lesser White-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus) is ranked as globally threatened, being recognized as Vulnerable by the IUCN and ranked by BirdLife International as ‘SPEC 1’ within Europe, denoting a European species of global conservation concern. It is listed in Annex 1 of the European Council Directive on the conservation of Wild Birds (79/409/EEC 1979, 2009/147/EC 2009), in Column A of the Action Plan under the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) and in Annex II ‘Strictly protected species’ of the Bern Convention.
Lesser White-fronted Geese are long-distance Palearctic migrants, currently breeding discontinuously in the sub-arctic zone from northern Fennoscandia to eastern Siberia. Their wintering and staging areas as well as migration routes are only partially known. The global population of the Lesser White-fronted Goose has declined rapidly since the middle of the 20th century. The decrease in numbers has led to a fragmentation of the breeding range.Today three geographical subpopulations are recognized that are surviving components of the species’ formerly extensive breeding range: the Fennoscandian population breeding in the Nordic countries and the Kola Peninsula of north-western most Russia, the Western main population nesting in northern Russia to the west of the Taimyr Peninsula and the Eastern main population nesting from the Taimyr Peninsula eastwards and wintering in China. The three subpopulations have all shown dramatic declines in recent decades and continue to decrease.
In addition, Sweden supplemented/re-introduced a Lesser White-fronted Goose population in the early 1980s by releasing captive-bred geese together with Barnacle Goose foster parents. The Swedish population follows a modified flyway to wintering grounds in the Netherlands.
For an overview on current research and satellite-tracking efforts please visit the Portal to the Lesser White-fronted Goose hosted by the Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose Project.
THREATS AND CHALLENGES
Number 1 Cause of Mortality: Hunting
Although the Lesser White-fronted Goose is legally protected in almost all range states along the flyway, hunting remains the main threat to the species. Many range states lack the necessary human capacity and financial resources to effectively implement bans on hunting and provide for appropriate protection of key sites. In many cases key sites are still unknown and hence remain unprotected. Poaching and accidental hunting are the main contributers to the decline of the species, but disturbance from hunting in general is also a problem. Hunting pressure is considered to be particularly severe at staging and wintering sites along the so-called eastern migration route (Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and the Middle East) as well as in South East Europe, particularly in Greece.
The Look-Alike Dilemma
The implementation of effective measures to reduce the threat from hunting is particularly challenging due to the fact that the Lesser White-fronted Goose is very difficult to distinguish from its close relative the Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons), which is a common quarry species across its entire range. The two species often migrate together in mixed flocks, making it challenging for trained ornithologists – let alone hunters – to distinguish between them, particularly in flight.
Measures to address the significant threat from hunting include the identification of the key staging and wintering sites used by Lesser White-fronted Geese and the assessment of the hunting pressure at these sites. If deemed feasible, a ban on all goose hunting at such key sites when Lesser White-fronted Geese are present should be installed and enforced. Measures also include awareness-raising amongst hunters and local communities on the threatened status of the species. Where possible, efforts should be made to engage local hunters and hunting organizations in assisting with the monitoring and conservation of rare geese. Some range states are for example experimenting with voluntary red-light systems for hunters, via which hunters are alerted when Lesser White-fronted Geese are present in their area, with the hope that this will lead to a reduction in the accidental shooting of the species. For more information on the identification of Lesser White-fronted Geese please visit the LIFE project website hosted by WWF Finland.
The loss of natural habitats – particularly at crucial sites along the migration routes – is thought to be an additional serious threat to the species. Some studies indicate that Lesser White-fronted Geese are so-called habitat specialists, prefering more natural habitats to cultivated high-yield agricultural lands and being more picky feeders than, for example, other goose species.
Possible solutions include identifying those sites that are critical for the survival of the species and guaranteeing adequate protection of those sites including the implementation of habitat management measures. Ensuring that key sites along the migration routes remain intact and that they are adequately protected and managed will also help in hindering the geese from straying to other un-protected areas.
Predation is considered one of the main threats in the breeding areas, where the expansion of Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) populations to the north increasingly poses a threat to Lesser White-fronted Geese as well as other species found in the Palearctic such as the Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus). Predation by growing Red fox populations has particularly been identified as a threat to the Fennoscandian sub-population and measures such as the annual culling of Red foxes are being carried out in the repesective range states in an effort to ensure better breeding success of the Lesser White-fronted Geese. There is also thought to be some threat to eggs as well as goslings from seabirds and raptors, however more studies are needed in order to confirm the extent of this threat to the different sub-populations.
Gaps in Key Knowledge
Major gaps in key knowledge concerning the migration routes and critical sites used by the Lesser White-fronted Goose still remain. Conservation efforts in many countries remain hampered due to limited knowledge of the species occurrence. Therefore satellite-tagging efforts and increased monitoring along the flyway remain crucial. Work on the introduction of a common monitoring scheme for the Western Palearctic sub-populations is ongoing, including plans to align monitoring practices amongst range states. In addition, efforts are being made to strengthen the national capacity of key range states to carry out monitoring of Lesser White-fronted Geese.
For more information on the Lesser White-fronted Goose please see the Single Species Action Plan for the Lesser White-fronted Goose, the Portal to the Lesser White-fronted Goose hosted by the Fennoscandian Lesser White-fronted Goose Project and the LIFE+ project website hosted by WWF Finland.