Bird diplomacy in action for Syria’s last remaining ibises

01 July 2011 | News story

Formerly thought to be extinct in the wild in the Middle East, the Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibis was rediscovered on a remote cliff of the Syrian Palmyra desert in April 2002. With only four remaining individuals, it is currently the rarest and most threatened bird in the region. IUCN, with the help of its partners and diplomatic efforts of the Syrian First Lady, is involved in saving this enigmatic species.

Wrinkled and bald when seen from a close distance and majestic and elegant when observed flying over the desert horizon, the Northern Bald Ibis has fascinated people for years and continues to do so.

For centuries the bird has had a symbolical value. In Ancient Egypt, it was revered as a holy bird and a symbol of brilliance and splendour. According to a Turkish legend, it was one of the first birds that Noah released from the Ark as a symbol of fertility. Today, the sharp decline of its population in Syria is a symbol of the rampant ecological degradation and desertification of the Syrian steppe, which has been driving many people into poverty and hardship.

The Northern Bald Ibis is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. It occurs in Morocco, Syria and Turkey. Following a dramatic decline of its Syrian population only four individuals remain in the country. IUCN's Northern Bald Ibis Project focuses on conserving the bird through field operations and setting new standards for managing protected areas where the bird occurs in Syria.

But saving a long-range migratory bird from extinction starting from just few surviving individuals is not an easy task, and the story of the efforts to conserve it is just as fascinating as the bird itself.

“So far, the only migratory bird that was successfully brought back from the brink of extinction was the Whooping Crane in the US”, says Khaldoun Al Omari, IUCN West Asia Protected Areas Programme Officer. “It is certainly much easier to rescue a threatened bird that is resident. Saving the Northern Bald Ibis population is therefore a very complex challenge.”

Satellite tagging made it possible to discover the bird’s migratory route. It then became apparent that the Northern Bald Ibis crosses eight countries, twice a year, during its migratory flight from the Syrian desert to the Ethiopian highlands. Thanks to satellite tracking, it was also possible to identify the two main reasons behind the high mortality of immature ibises: hunting and electrocution by power cables.

Following these findings, hunting at breeding grounds in Syria was restricted. As the bird attracts many visitors and eco-tourists every year, efforts are also being undertaken to make sure that people don’t disturb it while it breeds.

In July 2009, two immature ibises in Palmyra were tagged with satellite transmitters. One of them was named Julia in honour of IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre, who had visited the colony earlier that year. Unfortunately, at the end of the first day of migration, as soon as the birds reached the village of Tabarjal in northern Saudi Arabia, ibis Julia was shot by a hunter.

This brought the urgent need to raise awareness about the bird to the centre of its conservation efforts.

During an expedition in March 2010, the project team met with the man who killed ibis Julia and gave him some important information about the threatened bird.

“This awareness-raising exercise quickly brought some very positive results,” says Khaldoun Al Omari. “When the same hunter came across another ibis a few months later, he immediately recognized it and instead of shooting it - he photographed it!”

Thanks to the Syrian First Lady, who involved the Turkish First Lady and the Turkish Ministry of Forestry in the conservation efforts, a transnational cooperation between Syria and Turkey was initiated. As a result, Turkey agreed to donate two juvenile and four adult birds to Syria.

The two Turkish juvenile species were released near the last wild Syrian adult that remained at breeding grounds, called Salam. When Salam departed for migration two days later, the chicks followed her for almost 1,500km along the migratory route into southern Saudi Arabia.

"This was a long-awaited moment and the first time such an operation was successfully carried out in the Middle East. We now hope to be able to improve and perform it again, as it is clearly crucial to reinforce the last known wild ibis colony in the Middle East," says Khaldoun Al Omari.

Despite little initial hope to save the last few oriental bald ibises, project partners are now motivated to continue this challenging, but so far extremely rewarding, conservation action.

The project is a joint effort of the General Commission for Badia Management and Development in Syria, IUCN West Asia, BirdLife Middle East and IUCN Member the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It is funded by the Italian Development and Cooperation Bureau (DGCS).

For more information please contact:
Khaldoun Alomari, IUCN West Asia Protected Areas Programme Officer, e: Khaldoun.Alomari@iucn.org

The story is based on an article written by Dr Gianluca Serra, member of IUCN's Species Survival Commission (SSC) and the Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP).