Come home to Palmyra
Syria’s tiny population of Northern Bald Ibises is doing well at its protected breeding site, but the young birds are not returning to the colony. With the location of the adults’ wintering site established, the focus is moving to the mystery of where the birds go on their first migration...
Until 2002 Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita was known to survive in the wild only in a few scattered colonies in Morocco, with a total of 92 breeding pairs. But in that year a relict colony of seven individuals was unexpectedly discovered in Syria, where the species was believed to have become extinct more than 70 years before. They belonged to a sub-population separated from the western one centuries ago.
“If the Northern Bald Ibis had been already listed as Critically Endangered before the discovery, the handful of ibises breeding in the middle of the Syrian desert could be well defined as ‘Hyper-critically Endangered’,” says Dr Gianluca Serra, leader of the MAAR1/UN field team which made the discovery.
“They have suddenly become the rarest and most threatened vertebrate of the Middle East.” —Dr Gianluca Serra, Leader of the MAAR1/UN field team
Unlike the Moroccan ibises, which remain in their colonies all the year round, the Syrian ibises are migratory: behaviour that makes them genetically unique globally, but also very vulnerable from a conservation point of view. The primary threat to the survival of this colony is that the adults are still decreasing steadily (from seven in 2002, only four returned in early 2006), while fledged young seem to not reappear the following years at the Syrian breeding grounds.
Gianluca says the successful protection programme, established at the breeding grounds by the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture soon after the discovery, appeared not to be sufficient.
“The creature should be protected also in the rest of its unknown range. We desperately needed to know where they go for the seven months outside the breeding season.”
Knowledge of their migration route is believed to be culturally transmitted from the adults to the young. If anything happened to the four remaining adults, this knowledge would be lost. Three satellite tagging missions had been already attempted by BirdLife International and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, BirdLife in the UK) between 2003 and 2005, but without success, due to a number of political difficulties.
Following a determined advocacy campaign in Syria during the winter 2005-06, with the support of Her Excellency Asmaa al-Assad, First Lady of the Syrian Arab Republic, a fourth tagging mission was started early in spring 2006 through a BirdLife International / MAAR project, financially supported by RSPB and the National Geographic Society's Research and Exploration Committee. With the protection of the BirdLife / Syrian Ministry of Agriculture field team, the ibis colony scored a record breeding performance.
The team also prepared the ground for trapping, and tagging expert Lubomir Peske was able to successfully trap and tag three adult ibises during a ten-day period, in early June.
“Moreover, we were delighted to witness evidence of recruitment to the population: three subadults arrived at the colony during the middle of the breeding season – clear evidence that protection programmes of past years in Syria were paying off,” says Gianluca. As in previous years, the ibises left the breeding cliff in the Syrian desert in mid-July 2006. “From just four birds which had returned in February for breeding, we said goodbye to a flock of 13.”
"We realised that we had scratched just the surface of the mystery of the migration of these birds..."
The migratory route of three of the ibises could now be tracked through satellite triangulations, and followed on-line by bird enthusiasts from all over the world on the RSPB web site.
The tagged ibises took almost a month before settling at what seemed their final winter destination – the Ethiopian highlands, having “staged” for about three weeks in western Yemen. Following a brief visit by a team from the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS) to confirm their presence, a BirdLife International reconnaissance survey was organized with funds from RSPB, Chester Zoo and ABC/Wildwings Conservation Award, with the aim of understanding the ecological requirements of the wintering birds and identifying any potential threats to their safety.
“Thanks to the satellite data it was not difficult for Lubomir Peske, Mengistu Wondafrash from EWNHS and myself to locate the tagged birds in the central Ethiopian highlands,” says Gianluca “The wintering grounds of these birds appeared amazingly different from the breeding grounds, both in landscape and ecological terms. The birds were wintering at an altitude of 2600-2700 metres, feeding in agricultural fields and pastureland, and roosting on a tree in the middle of a village – very different to the rocky open desert habitats of the breeding grounds in Syria.”
Probably the most important output of this survey has been the discovery that the freshly fledged chicks separate early from parents during the first migration. In fact the survey confirmed that only the four adults wintered on the Ethiopian highlands. There was no trace of the other nine birds, six freshly fledged chicks and three subadults. “We realised that we had scratched just the surface of the mystery of the migration of these birds: where have the younger birds gone? We have good reasons to believe that they have not died out, and they have probably gone to winter in a different location and country -Yemen, perhaps? So a new question has arisen. We have a new tagging mission this year in Syria aimed at chicks and sub-adults, which is much more difficult and challenging than tagging adults!”
“Protection of the Palmyra ibises has become a national issue...”
Gianluca and his colleagues also found that on the Ethiopian wintering grounds, the four adults live in close contact with people, in contrast to their wariness in Syria, and feed on human-created habitat such as cut hay fields and pastureland. “These people are a fascinating agro-pastoral community, living on a subsistence economy, probably much as for past centuries. We realised that the main immediate threat to the birds was the very presence of outsiders, especially non-Ethiopians, watching, studying and photographing the birds, which could trigger the curiosity and attention of the local people toward these birds equipped with coloured rings and satellite tags. Until there is an efficient protection programme in place, visits by birdwatchers could greatly decrease their survival chances, and we appeal to birdwatchers not to try to visit these birds at present."
The ibises left the Ethiopian wintering site around 10 February, after almost six months. They followed a different return migration route, along the western Red Sea coast. “They were flying in two separate groups, following the same route, providing evidence that this is a traditional migratory route. In fact the ibises passed very close to the location where the last record of NBI in Africa comes from, also in February: Charles Dewhurst saw five adult NBIs on 21 February 1997.”
Gianluca says that after this year’s breakthrough, this conservation project stands at an exciting turn. “Perhaps it’s the last chapter in the catastrophic decline of this iconic bird, but just possibly it’s the start of an ibis restoration program in the Middle East. Many threats are still pending, especially uncontrolled hunting and the lack of funding to implement protection activities and to involve the local community. The real challenge for the future will be to combine this pioneering conservation work with sustainable development to the benefit of the local community.”
There are grounds for hope: there are signs that concerns about the environment and biodiversity are climbing the political agenda in Syria. In the autumn of 2006, the First Lady inaugurated a photoexhibition at the Danish Cultural Institute, titled Syrian al Badia: a cultural and natural heritage under threat. Her inaugural speech focused on the ecological crises of Syrian desert, and on the ibis protection program in Palmyra.
“Protection of the Palmyra ibises has become a national issue,” says Gianluca.
For more feature articles like this, get your hands on a copy of World Birdwatch.
This award-winning magazine from BirdLife International is full of articles by leading experts, bringing you exciting and informed insights into birds, their ecology and conservation from field projects across the globe. Stunning photographs by leading wildlife photographers capture the vivid beauty of some of the world's rarest birds and the spectacular places that they live.
For more information on World Birdwatch magazine and for details on how to subscribe visit: BirdLife: World Birdwatch magazine
Credits: Nick Langley