The Conservation Saga of the Eastern Population of Northern Bald Ibis
Listed as Vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species
Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita was a listed as early as 1994 as a Critically Endangered species by the IUCN Red List. During the recent IUCN World Conservation Congress in South Korea (September 2012) it was listed among the 100 most endangered animal species of the planet.
This bird used to occur in central Europe and around the Mediterranean sea until 400-500 years ago. Since then a slow and inexorable decline has wiped out the species from Europe. The Northern Bald Ibis at a certain point separated in two subpopulations: a western and resident one occurring in Algeria and Morocco and a long range migratory one breeding in Syria and Turkey.
The oriental bald ibis was a unique and charismatic animal. In addition to being fully migratory, unlike the western population, its awe-inspiring black flocks, in formation over the desert horizon, were contemplated with wonder by the successions of ancient civilizations that have risen and fallen in the Middle East over the millennia.
The handful of ibises still breeding in Palmyra, Syria are the last known living descendants of those revered by the ancient Egyptians who depicted them on hieroglyphs from 4500 years ago. These were the legendary birds mentioned in the Old Testament as "the fertility messenger" released by Noah from the Arc.
The eastern ibis population still consisted of thousands of pairs until the mid 1900s. Similarly to the saga of the Passenger Pigeon, few decades were sufficient to wipe out this bird from the entire Middle East: the species was declared as extinct from the Middle East in the late 1980s, due to DDT use in agriculture and direct persecution (at breeding grounds and during migration).
In fact, the last known wild colony, breeding at Birecik in the southern Anatolia (Turkey), was declared extinct from the wild in 1989. And in Syria the species was believed to have become extinct around 1930s. But it was an “early funeral”. In 2002 a relict breeding colony, counting 7 individuals, were discovered in the middle of the Syrian desert raising the hopes to rescue the oriental ibis population.
Enthusiasm ran high during the first years of conservation efforts despite the lack of funds for the conservation of single species; the colony was confirmed to be a long-range migrant spending half of the year in unknown territories; the Middle East/East Africa socio-political context is not an ideal one for focusing on nature conservation.
The fact is that only in the US has a long-range migratory bird species been successfully rescued starting from few individuals. The Whooping Crane, during the 1950-70s, was saved by establishing a solid partnership between Government agencies and the civil society and thanks to investing sound funding.
Despite these constraints during the first three years (2002-2004) an Ibis Protected Area and a successful protection program during breeding time were established (14 juveniles successfully fledged in 3 years). Community members, including government staff, local hunters, and Beduooin pastoralists, were trained to take care of breeding birds and to become the first rangers and eco-guides in the country. The idea of ecotourism in the Palmyra desert was introduced and successfully promoted for the first time, steering away energies from the locally popular practice of guiding gulf poachers.
Then the project changed management and got swamped in the politics of international conservation NGOs. Despite these additional constraints, a handful of passionate experts and practitioners (Syrians and foreigners), the team that emerged during the first years, continued the efforts in the field. The support of the Syrian First Lady was instrumental in the process in order to overcome the continuous bureaucratic impasses and corruption obstacles.
In these harsh conditions, stunning results were achieved: the migratory route and wintering grounds were discovered, key threats along the migratory route were identified, and a supplementation method was successfully tested.
Unfortunately, all this was achieved too slowly compared to the urgency. Birds meanwhile had decreased to 3 adult individuals in 2011 and that same year the violence of civil war erupted in Syria. The highest threat for the survival of this colony, the uncontrolled hunting along the migratory route along western Arabia, cannot be tackled due to unsupportive political conditions and ineffectiveness of conservation NGOs.
Most likely the charismatic oriental population of NBI is becoming extinct in these years, in the total indifference of public opinion and conservation community. A conservation chance was missed due to an intricate and complex array of reasons.
Dr. Gianluca Serra is an ecologist and naturalist who has worked on a variety of conservation issues throughout the world most particularly in the Middle East, Africa, and Italy. From 2002-2010 he was a leader in the effort to protect the eastern population of Bald Ibis.
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