Satellite tagging of bald ibises in Palmyra

13 July 2009 | News story
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On July 1st 2009 two sub-adult bald ibises were trapped and tagged with satellite transmitters in Palmyra in the framework of cooperation between the Syrian Desert Commission, IUCN Regional Office for West Asia (ROWA) and BirdLife Middle East.

This important achievement came as the culmination of an intensive 5-month field work of protection which started at the return of 5 ibises in February 2009. It has been a quite challenging year: during the past months the rangers and the guards worked hard to habituate the birds to use artificial ponds and also to avoid depredation of chicks at nests. In fact this year has been the second drought year in a row and risk of depredation by ravens and vultures was high.

Despite the protection efforts, all four chicks from the 2 nests died during the course of 5 weeks after hatching. Till this moment, the cause for this year’s high mortality remains unclear. The project staff are still analysing all the available information including a post-mortem analysis of 2 dead chicks.

One of the preconditions for attempting the satellite tagging is that birds breed well as their behaviour is much more predictable when they are still raising chicks. After the breeding failure took place some weeks ago, the chances to trap and tag some birds became suddenly very little, as the birds started to range on a very wide area and their behaviour turned very unpredictable.

Nonetheless thanks to the experience of ornithologist Lubormir Peske, assisted by motivated rangers from the Desert Commission, a remote drinking point used by ibises was eventually discovered and a suitable trap was set in the site.

The birds captured are 2 sub-adults, the most suitable age in order to try to solve the remaining mystery of the wintering grounds for this ibis eastern population. In fact in 2006 three adult breeders were tagged and this operation lead to the discovery of their wintering site in Ethiopia. But it was soon realized that young and immature birds were not following the adults to Ethiopia. They are using other unknown sites for wintering.

Thanks to the recently tagged ibises in Palmyra, the chances have increased to discover the other wintering sites of this hyper threatened colony of one of the rarest bird in the world, the Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita. Notably, the N. Bald Ibis is currently the rarest bird in the Middle East.

Eng. Ali Hamoud, General Manager of Desert Commission, said “Since its spectacular discovery in Palmyra in 2002, the N. Bald Ibis has become a flagship for conservation and for the struggle against desertification in Syria. The weird bird is nowadays known nationally and we at Desert Commission feel honoured to be leading the struggle to ensure its survival. Hopefully these 2 tagged ibises will let us discovering the rest of the wintering grounds of this population”.

In fact, with a handful of individuals still surviving, this colony is still clinging at the edge of extinction. The only hope to save it is to ensure the maximum breeding success in Palmyra as much as possible in the years to come and to discover all other important sites within the rest of the range in order to try to reduce the associated threats in situ.

“We are running a struggle against time together with our partners, in order to save this crucial piece of Middle East biodiversity heritage. The presence of Abu Mingel enriches the environment of Palmyra and could become an important socio-economic opportunity for the local communities. In fact, at IUCN we believe that nature conservation and sustainable development can be combined successfully in the benefit of present and future generations,” said Khaldoun Alomari, IUCN Protected Areas Programme Officer.

The ibis tagging work was being undertaken by a collaboration of the Syrian Desert Commission, IUCN ROWA, Birdlife Middle East and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds supported by funds from the Italian Government (DGCS), RSPB, the Dutch Government (through the Netherlands Embassy in Damascus), Prince Albert Foundation and Petro Canada Inc.


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