Lead Poisoning in Waterfowl: 30 Years of Progress but there Is still Work to Do!

This article was first published on the AEWA website on 15 June 2021 and is reposted on the occasion of AEWA's 8th Session of the Meeting of the Parties.

Bonn, 23 September 2022 - Thirty years ago, on 13 June 1991, a major international meeting convened to address how to eliminate the poisoning of waterbirds with toxic lead gunshot.  Shot is deposited on the ground whenever it is used and subsequently kills when it is consumed by waterbirds. 

The conference was organised by the International Waterbirds and Wetlands Research Bureau (now Wetlands International) and its aim was to review the extent of the problems of lead poisoning throughout the world and identify possible solutions.  It “concluded that the only effective solution to this problem, other than the cessation of hunting, was the replacement of lead shot with non-toxic alternatives.”  The outcome was “the unanimous commitment of all groups represented [governments, the non-government hunting and conservation organisations], to overcome what was perceived as a serious problem for waterfowl.”i

That outcome– to phase out the use of lead gunshot to prevent waterfowl poisoning – has stimulated much conservation both internationally and nationally in the three decades since.

In fact, the issue was already so much on the radar that the founders of the African Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) included the phasing out of lead shot in wetlands as one of the legally binding obligations for AEWA Parties in the AEWA Agreement text from the outset.

In 1995, AEWA adopted as one of its goals that its signatories “shall endeavour to phase out the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands by the year 2000.”

Since then the topic has also influenced a number of other international conservation treaties as well.

In 2014, the Convention on Migratory Species resolved to “Phase-out the use of lead ammunition across all habitats (wetland and terrestrial) with non-toxic alternatives within the next three years …” a decision endorsed more widely by the government and non-government members of IUCN in 2016 at the World Conservation Congress.  In 2017, the Environment Assembly of the United Nations Environment Programme – the world’s most senior decision-making body on environmental issues also recognised the risk of lead ammunition and the need for solutions.




Some countries have made a successful transition to non-toxic hunting.   For example, in the Netherlands the use of lead gunshot was prohibited in 1993, and similarly in Denmark in 1996.  Such complete phase outs have been effective.  Of those countries’ signatory to AEWA, in 2018, 31% reported they had fully phased out lead shot from use in wetlands, with another 12% having partially achieved this.ii

In early 2021, the European Parliament adopted recommendations from the EU Chemicals Agency to prohibit the use and carrying of lead gunshot in wetlands – a ban that will enter into force in February 2023.  

The AEWA Secretariat has been actively contributing to and following the process which led to the decision by European Union Member States under REACH, the EU’s framework regulation for chemicals in the past years. The historic decision by the EU is in line with the provisions of AEWA and marks one of the greatest conservation achievements in the 25-year history of the Agreement.

A second consultation is underway with respect of a proposal to phase out lead in other ammunition types as well as from use in fishing weights.

The routes by which toxic lead shot poisons wildlife and exposes humans in their food. The complete transition to non-toxic shot was recommended 30 years ago. © WWT


But lead ammunition is a continued risk

Our understanding of the extent of the problem and risks have grown over these last 30 years since 1991:

  • Whilst the historical focus was on the threat arising from lead gunshot deposition in wetlands, it is now known that birds inadvertently consume, and are poisoned by, shot deposited away from wetlands;
  • Birds of prey and scavengers have been found secondarily poisoned following their consumption of poisoned waterbirds with population-level impacts for some threatened species;
  • There is now better understanding of the fate of the thousands of tonnes of lead released annually to the soil, with awareness of its uptake into plants and domestic animals, and leaching into surface waters; and
  • There is now clearer understanding of the human health impacts from the regular consumption of animals shot with lead ammunition – a particular concern for the health of children and pregnant women due to the neurotoxic effects of lead.



The solution pioneered in Europe by Denmark and the Netherlands is simple and has been shown to be successful: a ban of all uses of toxic lead gunshot all along the flyways. 

“As a government representative to this meeting, I was really glad to see all groups agreed to overcome this serious problem for waterbird conservation and human health. It was an important step in a long story and the AEWA treaty adopted in 1995 made it clear that lead shot should be banned from wetlands as a first priority for conservation. Many Parties to AEWA have already banned the use of lead-shot ammunition on wetlands. Let us collectively achieve this objective and implement it all along the African-Eurasian flyway” says Jacques Trouvilliez, Executive Secretary of AEWA.

For further information, please see the AEWA thematic page on lead, the Lead Ammunition Hub or contact Sergey Dereliev, Head of the Science Implementation and Compliance Unit at the AEWA Secretariat.  


Notes for Editors:

  1. How lead gunshot poisons birds:  As waterbirds such as ducks do not have teeth to grind down their plant food, they eat grit which stays in their stomachs acting as a sort of ‘liquid sand-paper’.  When spent lead gunshot is ingested it is ground down and poisons the bird.  Other scavenging or predatory birds such as eagles, can eat waterbirds that have lead gunshot in their tissues – the result of their being hit but not killed by lead shot.  This also kills these birds – many of which already have small populations.
  2. The objective of the IWRB Conference:  The workshop brought together more than 100 participants from 21 countries, representing experts in the field of lead poisoning, government agencies, conservation and hunting organisations, and arms and ammunition manufacturers. For more information please see: Proceedings of an IWRB Workshop: Lead Poisoning in Waterfowl (Brussels, Belgium, 13-15 June 1991).
  3. IWRB: The International Waterbird and Wetlands Research Bureau was founded in 1954 as an independent non-governmental organisation promoting the conservation and sustainable use of waterbirds and wetlands.  It played an instrumental role in the creation of the Ramsar Convention on wetlands and in 1996 it became part of the newly established Wetlands International

i Pain, D.J. (ed.)  1992.  Lead poisoning in waterfowl.  Proceedings of an IWRB Workshop, Brussels, Belgium, 13-15 June 1991.  IWRB Special Publication No. 16.  105 pp.

ii National Reports to AEWA’s seventh Meeting of Parties in 2018.

From 26-30 September 2022 in Budapest, Hungary, AEWA MOP8 brings together the full range of AEWA Contracting Parties and partners including representatives of other international treaties, international and national non-governmental organizations as well as experts from the scientific community.

MOP8 will decide on issues of crucial importance for the conservation of migratory waterbirds and their habitats across Africa and Eurasia and decisions made in Budapest could help strengthen the flyway approach to the conservation of migratory waterbirds across a geographic range spanning 119 countries.  

The official slogan of MOP8 – Strengthening Flyway Conservation in a Changing World – captures the need for AEWA Parties to use this MOP and make collective decisions to ensure stronger resources for the implementation and the delivery of the Agreement, through particularly challenging times with the pressing global issues related to climate change, biodiversity loss and shifting priorities in particular due to the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic. Strengthening flyway conservation can only materialize with sustainable funding, compliance, and increased implementation.

Last updated on 24 September 2022

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