THE VALUE OF ANIMAL MIGRATION
Migratory animals are essential components of the ecosystems that support all life on Earth. By
acting as pollinators and seed distributors, they contribute to ecosystem structure and function. They
provide food for other animals and regulate the number of species in ecosystems. Migratory animals are
potentially very effective indicators of environmental changes that affect us all. In addition, migratory
species have a great significance in many cultures – in legends, stories, religions, medicine and customs.
The migrants span the animal kingdom, from whales and warblers to butterflies and salamanders.
Although animal migration may be a ubiquitous phenomenon, it is also an increasingly
endangered one. In virtually every corner of the globe, migratory animals face a growing array of
threats, including habitat destruction, the creation of obstacles and barriers such as dams and fences,
overexploitation, disease, and global climate crisis. Saving the great migrations will be one of the most
difficult conservation challenges of the 21 st century. But if we fail to do so, we will pay a heavy
price—aesthetically, ecologically, and even economically.
Conserving migratory animals poses two unique challenges. First, it demands coordinated
planning across borders and boundaries that mean a great deal to us but nothing to the animals.
The second key challenge associated with conserving migrations is convincing agencies,
institutions, and individuals to agree to protect these animals while they are still abundant.
Migratory animals seem especially vulnerable by virtue of the long distances they travel.
Moreover, many migratory animals aggregate at key places during certain times of the year, a habit that
makes them vulnerable to overexploitation. All of the world’s sea turtles are imperiled in part because
adult females return year after year to the same beaches to lay their eggs; the slow-moving and
defenseless turtles and their eggs are easily harvested at their nesting beaches. Rising sea levels could
submerge the nesting beaches of sea turtles and shore-birds. Migratory songbirds perform their own
important ecosystem service by consuming vast numbers of caterpillars that would otherwise eat
the foliage of trees and shrubs. As numbers of songbirds drop, one might predict an increase in
insect damage to forests or, alternatively, an increase in pesticide use to counteract any increase in
The seven species of salmon and seagoing trout in the Pacific Northwest head for the ocean
when they are young and small, taking advantage of the productivity of the seas to grow to full size.
They then return to their natal streams where they spawn, die, and decompose. They are, in essence,
self-propelled bags of fertilizer, gathering important nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from the
ocean and delivering them to the streams, where these same nutrients can then taken up by other aquatic
species or carried onshore by scavenging eagles, bears, and other animals. As the migration of these
fishes across the Northwest have declined because of dams, overfishing, and habitat degradation, so too
has the free delivery of nutrients.
Zozu, like any other white stork in Europe, typically flies to southern Africa for the winter.
Yet when researchers at Germany’s Max Plank Institute for Ornithology tracked the bird’s path
using a GPS logger in 2016, they found that he and a few others had skipped the grueling
migration across the Sahara Desert. That year, the birds stopped, instead, in cities like Madrid,
Spain, and Rabat, Morocco. Apparently, they had developed a taste for junk food, in particular the
stuff that piles up in landfills along the migration route.
Humans have long tracked the movements of animals by following their paw prints or
staking out their natural habitats. That kind of observation still has its value today, but now
biologists also benefit from a slew of satellite, radio, and GPS technologies that can track the
digital footprints of, say, a herd of elephants or a flock of storks as they move across the globe.
And at a time when both climate change and urban development are changing—and
disrupting—the migration routes, there’s a new urgency in these kinds of research.
In order to protect the migratory species throughout their range countries, a Convention on
the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), has been in force, under the aegis of United
Nations Environment Programme. Also referred to as the Bonn Convention, it provides a global
platform for the conservation and sustainable use of migratory animals and their habitats. The
Thirteenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of
Migratory Species (CMS COP13) concluded in Gandhinagar, India on the third week of February,
2020 with the adoption of a number of significant resolutions and decisions to address the
conservation needs and threats facing migratory species around the globe.
India is temporary home to several migratory animals and birds. The important among
these include Amur Falcons, Bar headed Geese, Black necked cranes, Marine turtles, Dugongs,
Humpbacked Whales, etc. The Indian sub-continent is also part of the major bird flyway network,
i.e, the Central Asian Flyway (CAF) that covers areas between the Arctic and Indian Oceans, and
covers at least 279 populations of 182 migratory water bird species, including 29 globally
threatened species. India has also launched the National Action Plan for conservation of migratory
species under the Central Asian Flyway.
Animal migration occurs all around the world in the air, in the oceans and across
continents. In that process they provide essential services for human well being in terms of
economics health, food and culture. As the number of migrants declines, so too do many of the
most important ecological properties and services associated with them. That’s why it’s so
important that we protect them throughout their migration routes across national boundaries.
1. Wilcove, David S. “Animal Migration: An Endangered Phenomenon?” Issues in Science and Technology 24, no. 3
2. https://www.cms.int/en/node/3912 accessed on 18-02-2020
3. https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.0060188 accessed on 20-02-2020
4. https://www.wired.com/story/see-how-human-activity-is-changing-animal-migration-patterns/ accessed on 18-02-2020