2 March 2017 – Northern Bald Ibis in the Middle East and East Africa

Sidi Imad Cherkaoui pointe un excellent document sur l’Ibis chauve au Moyen Orient et en Afrique Orientale : Serra, G. 2016. The Last Flight of the Ancient Guide of Hajj. Apia, Samoa, 74 pp.

Ce document est disponible sur http://www.thelastflight.org/



This is a case study about the 9-year conservation efforts that were put in place between the Middle East and East Africa with the aim of preventing the extinction of the last known colony of oriental Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita.

The conservation saga spans from the time of the discovery of an unreported relict colony of this species in early 2002 in the Palmyra desert (Syria) until the political unrest erupted in early 2011.

Certainly the rarest in the Middle East, the bird in question is also one of the rarest in the world, listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List since 1994. It used to have significant symbolic and cultural values attached in the region. The bald ibises still breeding in Syria, discovered during an extensive biodiversity survey carried out as part of a FAO aid project, were the last living descendants of those depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphs from 4500 years ago.

The decline of this bird species from its original breeding range in the Middle East is part of a large wave of biodiversity loss that has occurred in the region during the past 30-40 years – and that has caused the extinction of several other species of iconic animals and plants.

Following the discovery in Syria, a community-based ibis breeding intensive protection program was established in Palmyra during years 2002-2004, in parallel with an extensive capacity building program in the benefit of the local community and staff from the Syrian Desert Commission. Fourteen chicks successfully fledged during this period.

Beside protection and training operations, data on threats and on feeding and breeding ecology were collected in the field. An Ibis Protected Area was recommended and established. An awareness and education program was also launched and implemented – reaching the highest political spheres in Damascus.

Two breeding failures occurred in 2005 and 2008 following a change of project management and of ibis protection strategy, that took place between 2004 and 2005. Three birds were tagged with satellite transmitters and the migratory route and wintering site of the colony were discovered in 2006. Three surveys were undertaken at the wintering site on the Ethiopian high- lands between 2006 and 2009, establishing that no immediate threats were present at the site.

Thanks to an IUCN project the Ibis Protected Area in Palmyra desert was further developed in 2008-2009 just in time to curb the threats of infrastructure uncontrolled proliferation and heavy oil prospection schemes.

Meanwhile it became apparent that only adults were reaching the wintering site in Ethiopia and that it was the low survival rate of immature birds outside the breeding range – and thus an insufficient recruitment at the breeding colony in Palmyra – that had been causing the slow and steady decline of the colony from 3 breeding pairs in 2002 to just 1 in 2010.

Satellite tracking and surveys conducted in western Saudi Arabia during 2009-2010, with key cooperation of the Saudi Wildlife Authority, suggested that a combination of hunting and electrocution were causing a high mortality rate of dispersing immature ibises. This mortality is regarded as the main cause of the low recruitment occurred at the Palmyra colony during the years following the high breeding performance of period 2002-2004 (only 3 recruitment events out of 14 chicks fledged).

A supplementation trial could be eventually conducted in 2010 by introducing captive-born chicks into the wild colony in Palmyra. An ibis captive breeding center was established in Palmyra. Three chicks introduced at the wild colony in Palmyra followed a migrating wild adult for more than 1000 km from Palmyra well into south-west Saudi Arabia.

This trial reinvigorated the hopes that the colony could be still saved. Conservation efforts were interrupted in March 2011 due to the worsening of the political situation in Syria. Palmyra trained rangers have continued to protect the breeding birds until 2014-2015.

Recommendations for the years to come are provided along. The current status of the rarest bird in the Middle East is highly critical. If action is not taken urgently and effectively, the Middle East will lose this species forever in a few years.

Few focused and urgent interventions along the western Saudi Arabia flyway could alone still prevent the extinction in the wild of this iconic bird. Because the migratory route used by the N. Bald Ibis along western Saudi Arabia is a well known international migratory flyway used by at least 6 other globally threatened and 4 declining species of soaring and water-birds, the mentioned interventions would serve a much broader conservation scope.

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