Northern Bald Ibis rarest bird in Middle East

Northern Bald Ibis

Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita is classified as Critically Endangered, the highest threat category according to IUCN criteria (BirdLife 2000), with the only remaining wild colonies known in Morocco (100 pairs) and Syria (two pairs). The Morocco population is stable and under good conservation management although development pressures are a growing concern. The Eastern race, formerly found throughout the Middle-East and latterly only in south-east Turkey, was re-discovered in Syria only in 2002 having been believed to be extinct in the wild.

The discovery in April 2002 that at least one colony still persists in the Palmyra region, was therefore highly significant and arguably the most significant orthithological discovery in the last 30 years anywhere in the Middle East. The tiny colony consisted of three breeding pairs and have been quite successfully producing fledged young in several of the years since rediscovery.

The breeding area in Syria was declared a protected area in 2004 by Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform. It was also declared as an IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area) by BirdLife in 2007.

As this bird is classified as Critically Endangered by BirdLife on behalf of the IUCN, ensuring the survival of the last wild colony still breeding in Syria would make a contribution to conservation of biodiversity heritage not only on a national but also on a global scale. These few Bald Ibis survivors have become a symbol of the extreme degradation of the Syrian Al Badia (desertic steppe), a biodiversity rich landscape which is presently in an advanced stage of desertification, and there is a need for immediate action to address these wider ecosystem-scale land degradation problems if the Bald Ibis is to survive in the wild in the long-term.

BirdLife International through its Middle East Division in cooperation with Royal Society for the Protection of Birds RSPB (BirdLife Partner in the UK) has led the Bald Ibis conservation work in Syria in close cooperation with the Syrian General Commission for Al Badia Management and Development, and the Syrian Society for the Conservation of Wildlife – SSCW.

The BirdLife/RSPB Ibis conservation program in cooperation with local project partners has managed to trap and satellite tag three adult birds in June 2006. This tagging initiative has revealed the earlier mystery of the migration route and wintering ground which turned out to be Ethiopia.

The tiny colony migrate after the breeding season to the wintering grounds in Ethiopia, with stop-offs in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, starting the migration in mid July and returning to Palmyra around mid February, leaving a big gap in monitoring and protecting them while wintering.

Satellite-tagging has revealed that this population migrates south through Jordan and Saudi Arabia; six birds spent three weeks in Yemen (July-August), then four of which wintered in central Ethiopia; migrating back to Syria, through Eritrea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in February.

This Bald Ibis conservation project will help in enhancing the survival chance in the future, taking advantage of a significant breakthrough as a result of the successful satellite tagging of three adult birds in Syria in 2006. This gives us an opportunity to undertake conservation action for the species in the wintering grounds, countries at migration route, as well as in the breeding ground- Syria.

The Syrian population of northern bald ibises is teetering on the edge of oblivion. In fact, the whole species is Critically Endangered - one step away from extinction. In 2002, the Syrian population stood at seven birds. But despite extensive protection in Syria, numbers are down to four by 2012.

Hunting and other pressures away from the breeding grounds seems to have been the cause of decline. So satellite tracking the birds is a vital tool for learning how to help the northern Bald Ibis.

This international cooperation couldn't happen without conservationists, governments, researchers, funders and individuals all working together. Since 2009 generous contributions from Monaco Foundation, through the PEP programme were mobilized toward supporting the conservation and supplementation programme. Also the Saudi Wildlife Authority contributed to critical monitoring programme during the birds migration through the country.

The Ibis conservation program is championed by HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco, with a grant from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.

“I am delighted to support BirdLife’s conservation efforts for this iconic and Critically Endangered species, and am honoured to be their Species Champion” —HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco
The support from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation will help continue the work of protecting the Ibis colonies, monitoring and tracking individuals as they migrate.