The iconic Masked Finfoot of Indo-Burma’s forested wetlands is on the brink of extinction

Few species of waterbirds in the Indo-Burma region are as threatened as the highly distinct Masked Finfoot (ranked 43 on the EDGE species list), currently listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The finfoot is also one of EAAFP’s key species. A new study published in the journal, Forktail: Journal of Asian Ornithology involving researchers from the University of Cambridge, BirdLife International, Wildlife Conservation Society and Mahidol University revealed a tiny, still declining global population of the Masked Finfoot. Available data compiled by the researchers found that the present population of the species may not exceed 304 adult individuals, a number far smaller than previously thought. The species is now likely to qualify as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the Red List.

The highly iconic Masked Finfoot, seen here in its breeding habitat in the mangrove swamps of Bangladesh. © Sayam U. Chowdhury

The Masked Finfoot once occurred widely in forested wetlands across the lowlands of Indo-Burma, south to the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. At least the Southeast Asian populations of this elusive species are believed to undertake regional movements away from the breeding sites during the dry season. Like many large waterbirds in the Asian tropics, the finfoot is considered as a short-distance migrant. As forested rivers in the Lower Mekong floodplains of Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam become increasingly disturbed by riparian development and other unsustainable uses, the last populations of the finfoot are quickly disappearing.

Mr. Sayam Chowdhury, the paper’s lead author and a leading expert on the species noted that the Masked Finfoot may now only breed in Cambodia and Bangladesh. “Our assessment of the species across its global distribution is grim. We found no recent records in Thailand and Malaysia. Our data suggests that the finfoot is in greater danger of extinction than any other similarly sized waterbird”.

The small population of the Masked Finfoot, and the low density of the species means that it is especially vulnerable to man-made threats. Dr. Simon Mahood, senior technical advisor at the Wildlife Conservation Society in Cambodia and a co-author on the study observed that, “habitat loss and disturbance by people are clearly the most important threats to riverine bird species. Low-lying, forested wetlands across South-East Asia are now heavily encroached upon by human activities.”

Dr. Yong Ding Li, migratory bird coordinator for BirdLife International (Asia) and a co-author of the study noted that, “The Masked Finfoot should be uplisted to Critically Endangered to reflect the steep declines it has suffered and its small population. Given its distribution and migratory patterns in Southeast Asia – regional cooperation can certainly benefit the species.”

Mr. Jonathan Eames OBE, a co-author of the study and BirdLife’s senior adviser in Cambodia reminisced about his observations of the Masked Finfoot during his visits to Southeast Asia in the 1980s. “The are many, like me, who saw the finfoots at Taman Negara in Malaysia by wading neck deep and with local expert, Mr. Dai who revealed the species to many in the mangroves of Krabi, Thailand. The species is truly an icon for the state of rivers of Southeast Asia”.

The authors make several recommendations, including limiting access to key Masked Finfoot sites during the breeding season, restricting use of mono-filament gillnets, and increased efforts to protect key lowland wetland areas. The sites in Bangladesh and Cambodia deserves the maximum possible protection. The authors also called for more surveys to relocate the species in northern Myanmar when conditions allow and develop an action plan to coordinate conservation actions.


For more information (including high resolution images), please contact:

Mr. Sayam U. Chowdhury:
Sundarbans Finfoot Research Project, and University of Cambridge

Dr. Yong Ding Li:
BirdLife International Asia Division

Know more about Masked Finfoot:

IUCN Red List:
BirdLife International:
EDGE species link:

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