18/07/2011
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Ibis in crisis

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The Northern Bald Ibises in Morocco - seen here at  Soussmassa NP - appear to be on the up, but the same is not true of the tiny Middle Eastern population in Syria and Turkey. Photo: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com).
The Northern Bald Ibises in Morocco - seen here at Soussmassa NP - appear to be on the up, but the same is not true of the tiny Middle Eastern population in Syria and Turkey. Photo: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com).

Northern Bald Ibis is one of the Western Palearctic’s rarest birds. Although a conservation success story in Morocco, it has all but disappeared from the Middle East. With twice as many birds in zoos as there are free-flying, David Callahan asks what more can be done to aid the species’ recovery.

 
Northern Bald Ibis was once found across the Mediterranean region, from the Middle East through Bavaria and Spain and down to Morocco, wintering in Saudi Arabia and the Ethiopian region. Yet, at its nadir in the early 1990s, the species was restricted to two coastal cliff colonies in Morocco and a feral colony in Birecik, Turkey, as well as a tiny relict population in the central Syrian desert, discovered in 2002.

As one of the Western Palearctic’s most threatened endemics, the species was classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN in 1994. The most recent population estimates in 2009 put the bird’s disparate populations in the wild at between 210 and 500 birds in Morocco, three in Syria and between 86 and 100 in Turkey.

In contrast, the world captive population is officially 1,240 – despite the last exports occurring in the 1970s – with 1,000 in Europe, 120 in North America and 120 in Japan, though there are another 500 or so birds unregistered in private collections. These are mostly in zoos where there are no plans to use the birds to bolster wild populations – for example, Colchester Zoo in Essex told Birdwatch that no such plans to release birds from their successful captive breeding group existed. The vast majority of these birds are genetically derived from the Moroccan population.

The species is fragmented over a huge region and exists in wild, feral and captive colonies. In this troubling scenario, which of the existing programmes are working and in which way are they, or can they be, collaborative?

Morocco
The only sizeable wild populations are the sedentary or locally dispersive birds distributed over three colonies in Souss Massa NP and one – the largest – in the Tamri area of coastal western Morocco. A conservation project was begun in 1994, working with local people to research and monitor the gradually increasing numbers within the colonies. There is also a proposed reintroduction in Morocco at Mezguitem, where a captive colony has been established, with birds derived locally from Rabat Zoo, as well as from Munich Zoo, Germany.

The major threats to the species’ breeding ability in Morocco centre on habitat destruction. Illegal building, overgrazing, greenhouse crops and intensive barley growing and poultry farming all take their toll, but birds have also crashed into electric cables or been throttled by discarded fishing line.

Further damage has been prevented by the lack of tourist development so far, as well as the intially RSPB-assisted help of local people to warden the nest sites, now aided by SEO, la Sociedad Española de Ornitología in Spain. Updates can be seen at http://northernbaldibis.blogspot.com.

Syria 
The relict Middle Eastern population, which is migratory, is teetering on the edge of extinction after one of the five remaining birds was illegally shot by a hunter in Saudi Arabia in 2009. Despite the colony producing young most years since its discovery (there is at least one chick this spring, too), very few return from their wintering grounds in Ethiopia and this incident may give us some insight into why.

A joint Syrian-Italian conservation project began at Palmyra in 2002, aiming to develop the country’s first true nature reserve around the ibis colony, but this ran out of funds in June 2004, meaning that plans to tag the birds fell through. Now only three of the original wild birds remain, but six have also been donated by the Turkish and are gradually being introduced to the colony.

The biggest long-term threat to the Syrian birds is overgrazing and drought creating a lack of food, with hunting exacerbating these factors. There has been a ban on hunting since the early 1990s, but it has proved difficult to enforce along the migration route. Touchingly, the Saudi hunter responsible for killing one of the Syrian birds was tracked down by a search team from BirdLife Middle East and Syrian rangers; when made aware of the bird’s rarity, he was able to photograph another individual the following spring, which he left alive. Never has an individual tale more underlined the value of education and awareness in conservation.

The Syrian birds can be followed as they migrate at http://tinyurl.com/baldibises.

Turkey

The long-standing feral colony at Birecik has been the subject of a collaborative conservation project between the RSPB and the Turkish Ministry of Environment and Forestry, partly using birds from local zoos. These birds never recovered after more than 600 died from pesticide poisoning in the 1950s, leaving only 23 birds by 1973.


The birds are now a free-flying colony, kept in protective captivity in winter. This is unfortunate as one of the aims of the current captive-breeding project has been to restart migration, and birds released in 2008 certainly headed off towards East Africa with ‘wild’ birds, making it as far as Jordan, where three were electrocuted on pylons.

The ‘micro-trike’ assisted passage of reintroduced ibises in Austria received much publicity when it first began, but success has been slow in coming. Criticism has been levelled at the unlikelihood of the colony ever becoming self-sustaining. Photo: Waldrappteam.

Austria

Northern Bald Ibis last bred in Austria in 1584, disappearing from Switzerland and Germany around the same time. However, since 1997, a project enabled by the Konrad Lorenz Research Station has been attempting to start a self-sustaining flock. Their methods involve teaching immature birds a possible migration route to or through Italy. Eight to 10 juvenile birds – imprinted on human surrogate parents – are guided by flying ‘motor-trikes’ every year to a wintering area in Grosetto province, Italy. In May 2005 the first birds returned north to Austria, though not quite as far as their natal site. The project appears to be succeeding slowly but surely. The Austrian scheme can be followed at www.waldrapteam.at.

Spain

Proyecto Eremita released about 30 Northern Bald Ibises in Cádiz province in 2002, and up to 40 captive-bred birds have been released annually since. In 2008 a pair laid two eggs, the first in Spain for 500 years. Since then, a pair has bred every spring, until this year when, as we go to press, eight pairs have bred, producing 12 chicks.

The Spanish birds appear to be doing well, though the ‘unofficial’ status of the project has received criticism from some quarters. Innovative headgear helps prevent juvenile birds from imprinting on humans. Photo: Miguel A Quevedo.

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The releases are part of a trial study of different release techniques, in the hope of determining the best method of establishing a free-flying, self-sustaining colony. Birds have been supplied by Jerez Zoo, as well as five other European zoos. 


The colony is not yet self-sustaining, with birds reared by human surrogates wearing a fake ibis head on their hats surviving better than those reared by the ibises themselves. The released birds numbered 241 by the end of 2010, and the overall survival rate is fairly low, but improving.

The Spanish birds are located solely in the Barbate marshes area of Cádiz, where coastal marshes and cliffs are largely protected as military areas. Both times I have visited, a flock could be easily (though distantly) seen from the main road as they fed on invertebrates in the wet grass, but birds can also be found feeding on a golf course near Vejer de la Frontera. The lack of an official reintroduction programme and lack of publication of research, have proved controversial among conservationists, though both should be forthcoming soon. For updates see http://tinyurl.com/spanibis.


International

International co-ordination of the different Northern Bald Ibis projects is still in its infancy, but the IAGNBI (International Advisory Group on Northern Bald Ibis) has been gradually attempting to pull the disparate strands together since 1999. This is no easy task as, in addition to the wild and feral flocks, there are separately managed captive populations on different continents with three separate studbooks, and many zoo populations mostly unexploited as a genetic resource, though many of these birds will be unfit for survival in the wild. A genetic research project has recently been initiated, with the assessment of the differences between the eastern and western populations the first task.


Good news can be hard to come by, but this season the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, a BirdLife partner, reported that two unringed near-adult or adult birds were accompanying the wintering Syrian individuals. Clearly, there is some cause for optimism even in the eastern part of the species’ range, but complacency is not an option anywhere.

 

Acknowledgements
Many thanks to Chris Bowden and Miguel  A Quevedo for their help and advice. The central resource for all the Northern Bald Ibis conservation schemes can be seen at: www.iagnbi.org.