More than 90% of the world's migrating birds are not protected across all of the territories they fly through, Australian researchers have shown.
In the last 30 years, migrating bird numbers have nosedived, and many species are now threatened or face extinction, despite being protected.
The reason, suggests University of Queensland scientist Richard Fuller and his team, is because, in spite of their protected status, many of the animals' ranges overlap with territories that are not themselves protected areas.
The team looked at 1451 migrating species and plotted how the birds move, and where, and matched up their migration paths with the existing protections in the relevant geographies.
The results, published this week in the journal Science, show that a staggering 91% of the species studied were inadequately protected. This is compared with 55% of non-migrating birds, showing that migrants are at high risk.
Eighteen species had no protection in their breeding areas, while two species had no protection at any point along their entire route.
Migrating species are particularly vulnerable because they usually depend for their survival upon two or three separate territories, which are often geographically disconnected from one another and include places where they may stop to breed or rest en-route.
The team examined over 8,200 such areas judged important for these birds and found that less than a quarter of them were completely protected, and only 40% of them are covered by existing protection.
According to the team, these gaps urgently need to be plugged by a joined-up international effort, otherwise the efforts of single nations are wasted because their migrants remain vulnerable on other parts of their journeys.
The researchers cite Germany as one example. Here, targets are met for more than 98% of the migrant bird species in the country. But, beyond Germany's borders, only 13% of these birds are protected across their entire global range.
"It won't matter what we do in Australia or in Europe if these birds are losing their habitat somewhere else - they will still perish. We need to work together far more effectively round the world if we want our migratory birds to survive into the future," cautions Richard Fuller.