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Dr Ian Nesbit
"This is a very exciting discovery"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 26 July, 2000, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Chinese seabird 'returns from extinction'
Graphic BBC
Even unconfirmed sightings have been few
A seabird that was thought to have become extinct in the 1930s has been re-discovered in the South China Sea.

Six pairs of Chinese crested terns have been spotted rearing chicks on a tiny islet.

They were seen by a tourist who sent photographs to the Wild Bird Federation Taiwan, part of the global Birdlife International group.

Experts have confirmed the find and are now keeping the exact location of the islet secret to prevent the birds being disturbed or their eggs stolen. It is known that fishermen looking for birds' eggs already visit the islet.

Egg poaching

Ornithologists say the last confirmed sighting of the Chinese crested tern (Sterna bernsteini) was of 21 specimens collected off Shandong in 1937.

Scientists are unsure why the birds' numbers declined so sharply during the last century, but they suspect that egg poaching by passing fishermen, habitat destruction and pollution were mainly to blame.

"This is a very exciting discovery, the Chinese crested tern is one of the least known and possibly the rarest seabird in the world," Dr Ian Nisbet, a world authority on terns, told the BBC.

"It's only known from a few specimens in the past which have been collected mostly along the coast of China. Obviously there are very heavy human pressures there and seabirds get raided by fishermen for eggs and sometimes for plumage.

Local investment

"Almost nothing was known about the Chinese crested tern apart from a few specimens in New Zealand and two recent site records. So this discovery of the birds breeding on an island where there is some prospect of protecting them is very pleasing indeed for conservationists."

Dr Nesbit said it would be a challenge to protect the newly discovered birds.

One idea that has worked in other areas of conservation is to give local people a vested interest in seeing the birds stay alive. Fishermen could take birdwatchers to see the rare seabirds rather than collecting their eggs.

"What we need are studies to find out what sort of breeding success the seabird is having and what it needs for protection," Dr Nesbit said.

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