Preserving Wildlife

Conservation: A Wild Red-breasted Goose Chase


The red-breasted goose is one of the rarest and smallest goose species in the world and classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as endangered. It breeds on the Taimyr, Gydan and Yamal peninsulas of Russia and migrates to northeastern Bulgaria where an estimated 90% of the population winters. Durankulak and Shabla Lakes and the nearby Black Sea provide critical roosting habitat while surrounding pastures and agricultural fields are critical foraging habitat.

Numbers of wintering red-breasted geese have declined dramatically in the last two decades from as many as 88,000 in 2000 to fewer than 15,000 during 2011-12 winter period. The most serious threats are legal and illegal hunting. Conversion of cereal cultivation to other crops and development of agricultural lands to windmill farms is also a long-term threat.

The species is ostensibly protected from hunting in Bulgaria but illegal hunting is widespread and causing direct mortality and massive disruption of their normal feeding and roosting behaviors, which in turn affects their health and condition for migration, reproduction and survival especially during severe weather events.

Birds of a Feather

The more abundant and legally hunted white-fronted goose co-mingle with red-breasted geese on the wintering grounds compounding the difficulty of controlling illegal hunting. Detailed information on migration movements and stopover sites to inform management decisions to improve protection of the species is urgently needed.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Le Balkan Bulgaria Foundation (BBF) established the Bulgaria-U.S. Red-breasted Goose project in 2010 to focus greater attention on the plight of this species and facilitate greater collaboration and conservation action among NGOs and responsible governmental institutions. During February 2012 this project successfully deployed GPS solar satellite transmitters on three geese on its wintering grounds in Bulgaria.

One of the geese was named Teddy after President Theodore Roosevelt in honor of his conservation legacy. Teddy, true to his namesake’s legacy, has been particularly successful in providing satellite data and is generating great attention and excitement among the conservation community and public. Teddy’s killing in May in Kazakhastan during legal hunting during the spring migration highlighted the problem with legal and illegal hunting in a very compelling way.

The telemetry program is expanding to gain as much information as possible to determine migration routes, stop over sites and threats along these flyways. During the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s 40th birthday and Endangered Species Day event, we were ask to join the USFWS / Bulgaria effort.  San Diego Zoo Global has sponsored a telemetry device that was deployed in 2013. As important as these data will be to guide conservation policy in range countries, this satellite study is also a very effective tool in developing public awareness and building stronger national and international pressures for responsible governmental institutions to provide the needed regulations to protect red-breasted geese on their wintering grounds and migration routes.

Michael Mace, Curator of Birds, San Diego Zoo Safari Park