A decade-long project to save one of the world's most endangered birds has finally found success, with the birth of two chicks.

But with an estimated one million species at risk across the world, and nothing like the money and resources to save them all, how do conservationists choose the few they can save?

"You have to wear one of these I'm afraid," Tanya Grigg says sympathetically, handing me a distinctly unflattering blue hair net. "Any stray hairs could wrap around the birds' legs and injure them; they're so delicate." Tanya has a soft voice and gentle manner that I can imagine putting the most skittish of birds at ease. She shows me into a large aviary.

There are just two, nervous-looking birds inside - both with miniature, shovel-shaped bills and spindly waders' legs. They hop a little closer to each other and peer at us, apparently suspicious of the intrusion. Then Tanya unfolds a small chair, sits down and scatters some food in their direction. They are immediately, completely engrossed in eating.

These are the only UK-bred spoon-billed sandpipers; two precious specimens of possibly the most threatened bird species on the planet.

Their parents were hatched from eggs gathered - and extremely carefully transported - from nesting grounds of Russia's Far East. At that point, with just a few hundred birds left in the world, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) concluded that they were running out of time to save the species.

Almost a decade since that rescue mission, the two here are the first to be born in this UK spoon-billed sandpiper ark. Were these two little birds worth it? And how can anyone determine what is "worth it" when it comes to preventing extinction?

Spoon billed sandpiper

After almost a decade, spoon-billed sandpipers have been bred in captivity for the first time. Photo BBC News

This year - 2019 - was the year that the extinction crisis we are living through was given a number. And it was a very big number. One million species are under threat according to a global report by the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. And that is the fault of us humans.

Each story of a "saved" species represents years, often decades, of the people who grind away in an uphill battle against extinction.

The birds were - and are - in the most urgent category of conservation need. Along with more than 4,000 others, including some real icons of crisis conservation like the snow leopard and the black rhino, it is classified Critically Endangered.

At the beginning, the spoonie population was in freefall. From nearly 3,000 breeding pairs in the 1970s, they declined to about 1,000 in the year 2000, then crashed to fewer than 250 by 2014. Human activity was driving the losses. Birds were being caught - as accidental bycatch - by hunters, and critically they were losing their muddy, coastal habitat. The coastal flats are where the birds feed and fuel up along an 8,000km migration route and they were being reclaimed and developed.

A mission to Chukotka, Russia, was very swiftly organised and a team set out to gather enough eggs to set up its captive breeding "ark". That meant searching bleak, Arctic, mosquito-infested wetlands for increasingly rare nests.

The WWT's Nigel Jarrett has been with the project since the outset. He spent several weeks in Russia, searching for eggs and carefully transferring them, via padded, insulated boxes to incubators at a special facility where they hatched.

Like Paul, many conservationists spend their careers trying to persuade people to advocate for the wildlife on their own doorstep. Sadly though, our own dependence on the natural world can seem intangible until it reaches a crisis point.

The spoonie crisis was a clear example of this: In the Gulf of Mottama in Myanmar - an important site for spoon-billed sandpipers in the winter - overfishing of the wetland forced local people into hunting birds. Spoonies then became a bycatch of that hunting. So unsustainable exploitation of the wetland led people to hunt birds, which then led to spoonies being caught and killed.

Two years ago, though, as a result of spoonies' growing international profile, that same area was given international protection. That should mean local fishing communities' livelihoods are now protected, along with wetland birds.

Even the effort of simply trying to breed spoon-billed sandpipers in captivity had an unexpected impact in Russia. Prior to the rescue effort, most of the few chicks hatched in the wild were being lost to predators.

When Nigel Jarrett and the WWT team realised they could hatch eggs safely in Russia, they devised a scheme to give new chicks there a "head start".

"We take the eggs that would otherwise be eaten by predators and bring them into a captive situation in Russia," he explains. "We raise the babies in protected pens and release them when they're less vulnerable.

"We've increased productivity massively year on year," he says.

Twenty-twenty could be the year that nations sign up to an agreement to protect the natural world - for our own sake as much as for any other species.

Meanwhile, conservationists continue to champion the large, the small, the magnificent and spineless creatures that might otherwise slide, under the radar, to extinction.

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