Asian Woollyneck Ciconia episcopus


Justification of Red List Category
This species has a large population size and occupies a wide range across South and South-East Asia, occurring within a wide variety of habitats, both natural and artificial. However, much of the population found in South-East Asia has undergone considerable population declines owed to factors such as hunting, habitat degradation, and pollution from agriculture, with the species thought to have extirpated from many parts of its former range here. The South Asian population has alternatively remained largely stable. Thus, considering that threats may well extent to the entire species's range, as well as more regional declines across South-East Asia, the species is suspected to be undergoing a slower rate of decline approaching 30%. Thus, it has been downlisted to Near Threatened.

Population justification
The population was previously estimated to number up to 35,000 individuals (Wetlands International 2014). However, the South Asian population alone was recently estimated to number 120,000-310,000 individuals (based on density estimates over multi-scale, multi-year surveys; G. Sundar in litt. 2019, 2020). This roughly converts to 80,000-210,000 mature individuals. Given that the South Asian population comprises the most significant range of the species in comparison to the South-East Asian range (F. Goes in litt. 2020), precautionarily using recent estimates as a proxy for the global population, the overall population size is considered to number 50,000-249,999 mature individuals.

Trend justification
There has been substantial declines in South-East Asia in recent years (J. W. Duckworth in litt. 2013, R. J. Timmins in litt. 2013, F. Goes in litt. 2014), with populations in South Asia appearing to be stable, albeit with inter-annual fluctuations (Praveen J. in litt. 2014, S. Subramanya in litt. 2014, G. Sundar in litt. 2020), whilst other populations have unknown trends (Wetlands International 2014). Across India alone, the species is considered to have been stable in the long-term (measured as the change in index of abundance from 2014-2015, relative to pre-2000's), with a moderate decline recorded in the short-term, equating to an annual change of 6.18% decline (as observed between 2014/2015 and 2018/2019; State of India's Birds 2020, Praveen J. in litt. 2020). It is also important to consider that the South-East Asian population equates to only c. 10% or below of the overall population, with quantifiable information lacking across this range (G. Sundar in litt. 2020, F. Goes in litt. 2020). Thus, given that the majority of the population across South Asia is stable (subject to some fluctuations), but not discounting for regional reductions across South-East Asia and increased species's rarity across this range, the population is suspected to be undergoing a slower decline at a rate of 20-29% over three generations (27.6 years; Bird et al. 2020).

Distribution and population

Ciconia episcopus is found patchily across South Asia and South East Asia. Its range extends from Pakistan (where it is now very rare) through India, lowland Sri Lanka, Nepal (where it is widespread within its altitudinal range [Inskipp et al. 2016]), Bhutan, Bangladesh  and south-east through MyanmarThailand, LaosCambodiaViet Nam, Peninsular Malaysia, the Philippines, and Sumatra and Java, Indonesia (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Grimmett et al. 1998, Robson 2008). Non-breeders have also been observed in Iran and China (Porter and Aspinal 2010, eBird 2020). Steep declines have been noted since the mid 20th century in South-East Asia (J. W. Duckworth in litt. 2013, 2016, R. J. Timmins in litt. 2013, F. Goes in litt. 2014), with the species considered rare or near-extinction across Thailand (remaining at only 1-2 sites [including few birds at Khao Ang Ru Nai Wildlife Sanctuary] and absent from populated or cultivated lowlands; W. Limparungpatthanakij in litt. 2020, P. Round in litt. 2020), Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia ([where although widespread in lowland deciduous and semi-evergreen forest, it continues to suffer from habitat loss; S. Mahood in litt. 2020]; del Hoyo et al. 2020, P. Round in litt. 2020). In Bangladesh, it is regularly encountered near the Padma River of the Rajshahi Division (S. U. Chowdhury in litt. 2020). Similarly in Pakistan, although numbers remain low, sightings have increased in recent years due to a rise in birdwatching, with a large flock 15 individuals sighted in December 2019 during winter months (Z. A. Shaikh in litt. 2020). Alternatively in Peninsular Malaysia, there has only been a single record in recent years (J. Eaton in litt. 2020). Records are additionally scattered across a handful of islands in Indonesia (J. Eaton in litt. 2020, eBird 2020). Populations in Laos in the 1990s were a fraction of those in the first half of the 20th century (Thewlis et al. 1998). Declines are assumed to have continued in the 2000s–2010s, but information regarding this is fragmentary (J.W. Duckworth in litt. 2016). In the Philippines, the species appears to have become extirpated or near-extirpated from Luzon and other adjacent islands (A. Jensen in litt. 2013, Gonzalez et al. 2018, P. Ghimire in litt. 2020). The population in South Asia appears to be stable overall (Nameer et al. 2015, Praveen J. in litt. 2014, S. Subramanya in litt. 2014), with some evidence of local declines e.g. Nepal, though its distribution there was unchanged post-1990 compared to pre-1990 (Inskipp et al. 2016, H. Baral and C. Inskipp in litt. 2014). A recent survey also found 46 individuals across the Rupandehi and Kapilvasty districts of Nepal (Ghimire and Pandey 2018), and subsequently 28 individuals near the Janakauli village (R. Chaudhary in litt. 2020).


Behaviour In India the species tends to breed during the rains (Hancock et al. 1992) (between July and September in the south and December to March in the north). The species breeds in solitary pairs (del Hoyo et al. 1992). When not breeding the species is normally seen solitarily or in pairs, but will gather in flocks up to at least 80 at permanent natural or man-made wetlands in dry landscapes (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Pande et al. 2007). 
Habitat The species occurs in natural wetland habitats such as in savanna and grassland, including rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, water-holes, lagoons, dams, flood plains, marshes, and freshwater and peat swamp forests, whilst also using artificial habitats such as rice paddy-fields, flooded pastures, and cultivated fields (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Sundar 2006). The species is also known to use man-made, urban structures such as mobile-towers for nesting, potentially due to their height and increased visibility (Vaghela et al. 2015, G. Sundar in litt. 2020). It is regular in light woodland or forest clearings in Indochina, however may avoid mature forests (del Hoyo et al. 2020). It also frequents coastal mudflats or coral reefs, and can be found up to 1,400 m in Sulawesi and 1,250 m in Nepal (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Grimmett et al. 1998). It is therefore considered that the species is not wholly reliant on undisturbed habitats (G. Sundar in litt. 2020).
Diet The species is predominantly carnivorous, its diet consisting of fish, frogs, toads, snakes, lizards, large insects and larvae, crabs, molluscs and marine invertebrates (del Hoyo et al. 1992). 
Breeding site The nest is a large stick platform built 10-30 m (and sometimes up to 50 m) above the ground or over water, on a fork of a horizontal branch in a tall tree (Hancock et al. 1992, del Hoyo et al. 1992). It is a solitary nester, with nesting pairs thought to be widely scattered during any one breeding season (S. Subramanya in litt. 2020). It may make local movements upwards along river courses in search of nest sites (H. S. Baral and C. Inskipp in litt. 2016). It is also known to breed on farmlands with high success rates, as well as near urbanised areas, although this may be in lower numbers (G. Sundar in litt. 2020).


A primary threat to this species in South-East Asia was previously considered to be hunting (Hancock et al. 1992, J. W. Duckworth in litt. 2016). However, it is unknown if the rate of hunting is currently adequate enough to affect the overall breeding population (G. Sundar in litt. 2020). The species is however threatened by certain levels of urbanisation, habitat loss (such as conversion of wetlands to private ponds), fragmentation, cutting of trees, nest destruction, and environmental pollution (Luthin 1987, del Hoyo et al. 1992, Sundar 2006, Jangtarwan et al. 2019, G. Sundar in litt. 2020), particularly that of lowland forests with tall trees used for nesting (R. J. Timmins in litt. 2013), although much suitable habitat remains that is not inhabited (Thewlis et al. 1998). Nests of this species are collected in South-East Asia, where it is a widely dispersed and non-colonial breeder, meaning that it does not have protected concentrations of breeding pairs, but also that its nests are less readily targeted (R. J. Timmins in litt. 2013, F. Goes in litt. 2014). In Nepal, the species is threatened by habitat loss and degradation, hunting, disturbance and possibly the use of agro-chemicals (H. Baral and C. Inskipp in litt. 2014). However, the species is not considered to be negatively affected by human presence to a significant extent, and will incur a certain level of seasonal plasticity to persist on landscapes which are subjected to alter when crops are grown or weather conditions change (G. Sundar in litt. 2020).

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
Surveys of wetland birds have captured data on this species, and it occurs in numerous protected areas. It is also listed under Schedule-IV of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 in India (State of India's Birds 2020). A research and conservation project was also initiated in Nepal from November 2016 aiming to implement a variety of tools, including education campaigns across 50 schools and 20 social groups (benefiting 3,500 individuals), house visits to raise awareness, bird identification training, bird guiding trips, imposing hunting equipment removal, encouraging campaigns through photography, creating connectivity between conservation science and local culture, and imposing national incentives (including the creation of two Community Based Bird Conservation Units in the districts of Jagadishpur and Kudan with the District Forest Offices of Kapilvastu; Ghimire and Pandey 2018). 

Conservation Actions Proposed
Carry out coordinated surveys to assess the total population size and trend. Conduct research to investigate the true impact of hunting (G. Sundar in litt. 2020). Conduct awareness-raising activities to reduce persecution, and try to bring in hunting regulations (J. W. Duckworth in litt. 2016). Protect additional areas of suitable habitat, especially nesting areas in South-East Asia. Investigate rapid declines of the South-east Asian population, relative to stability observed in the South Asian population (G. Sundar in litt. 2020). Implement skill based training that generate income for locals that improve livelihoods (Ghimire and Pandey 2018). Invest in individual and short-term projects more consistently and continue to raise awareness across local communities (Ghimire and Pandey 2018, R. Chaudhary in litt. 2020).


86-95cm. Large mostly glossy-black stork with distinctive gleaming white, almost fluffy, neck, and white lower belly and tail. Face is bald, with bluish-grey skin, and the black cap in neat and glossy in contrast to the neck feathers. Bill is long and sharp, mostly black with a reddish tip. Legs are orange-red. Similar spp. C. microscelis of tropical Africa has a black feathered face and less clear distinction between the crown and neck feathers; also the legs are dark.


Text account compilers
Fernando, E.

Baral, H.S., Butchart, S., Chaudhary, R., Chowdhury, S.U., Duckworth, J.W., Eaton, J., Ekstrom, J., Ghimire, P., Goes, F., Gray, T., Hornskov, J., Inskipp, C., Jayadevan, P., Jensen, A., Limparungpatthanakij, W., Mahood, S., Malpas, L., Martin, R., Nameer, P.O., Praveen, J., Rainey, H., Round, P., Shaikh, Z., Subramanya, S., Sundar, G., Symes, A., Taylor, J., Timmins, R.J. & Westrip, J.R.S.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Ciconia episcopus. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 28/03/2023. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2023) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 28/03/2023.