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Last throw of the dice for the Syrian Northern bald ibis

12/07/2010 23:12:45

6 captive bred bald ibis have been taken to Syria to boost the remnant population. Credit

Donation of ibis gives Middle East's rarest bird renewed hope of survival

July 2010. In the time of the pharaohs, the northern bald ibis was revered as a god, Thoth. But now this bird has become the rarest in the Middle East - with just three wild individuals in Syria, plus one juvenile reared this year. Formerly thought to be extinct in the wild in the Middle East, in 2002 researchers were delighted when they discovered a tiny population near the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, their last known refuge in the region.

Six semi-captive birds released
The Turkish Government (Nature Protection and National Parks) has donated six semi-captive birds from Turkey which have been taken to Syria in the hope they can prevent the disappearance of the wild Middle Eastern population. Two of these have been fitted with satellite transmitters and, with expert help, have been carefully introduced to the wild birds in the hope they will follow them and, ultimately, bolster the precariously small population. Meanwhile the Syrian General Commission for Al Badia Management has built aviaries where the remaining four birds will be kept for breeding and future releases of juveniles.

Details of the project:

Last year at a meeting of the International Advisory Group for the species (IAGNBI) - hosted by the Syrian General Commission for Al Badia Management and Development (GCB) to update the Species Action Plan - the Turkish Government agreed to send two breeding pairs and two juveniles from the precious but healthy Birecik semi-wild population to set up a captive-breeding population at Palmyra.

The ongoing objective is to release juveniles to supplement the remaining wild birds. Due to the complicated social system and behaviour of northern bald ibis, it was always going to be a huge challenge to integrate the birds, although it was agreed that this should be tried if at all possible.

The six birds were selected and then transported to Palmyra from Birecik, and brought to the purpose-built aviary at Al Talila reserve. A pre-release aviary and husbandry expertise of Barbara Riedler was sent from Austrian expert group ‘Waldrappteam' and this was erected and the birds moved here. The birds were fitted with satellite transmitters by expert Lubomir Peske.

The first very important event was that the three wild birds visited the aviary, and clearly interacted with the Turkish birds, but then less than a day later, two of these wild birds departed two weeks earlier than usual migrating south through Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The project team had hoped to build up the strength of the juveniles further before release, but they didn't want to miss the chance for them to interact and learn from the one remaining wild adult.

So the Turkish juveniles ('Urfa' and ‘Firat') - plus the one wild-bred Syrian juvenile ('Ameer'), which was briefly taken into captivity, were released, and the project team enjoyed the fantastic sight of the birds feeding and behaving as a flock with the wild Syrian adult (Salama) which provided a great deal of encouragement. But the major event, again sooner than expected, was when this flock also departed and started migration to the south. Learning more from the movements of the birds is now the major objective for being able to address any threats that arise. 

To follow the progress of the birds on the web, please visit:  

Satellite tracking
Two of the wild adult birds and the released juveniles have been fitted with satellite tracking devices, allowing researchers to monitor their movements. It is known the adult birds travel to Ethiopia to spend the winter, but the wintering grounds of the juveniles is incompletely known. A team of biologists will also be attempting to locate the birds on the ground, and to record habitat details and ensure that no illegal hunting takes place.

This operation is the result of a major international collaboration of efforts between conservation NGOs, Governments, researchers, funders and individuals. 

Northern bald ibis, 'Julia' , photographed by the
hunter after she had been shot in Saudi Arabia
in 2009. Photo credit RSPB


Rediscovered in 2002

The seven adult birds discovered in 2002 had by this year dwindled to just three, despite extensive protection in Syria. There is increasing evidence that hunting and other pressures outside the breeding grounds have driven this decline, and satellite tracking the birds is a major tool for understanding and addressing the problems.

Critically Endangered
The Northern Bald Ibis is Critically Endangered (the very highest category of threat). In addition to the tiny Syrian population, the bird has two further wild colonies, in south-west Morocco, where the population totals just 100 breeding pairs.

Many organisations have provided financial help and assistance to the project, including


  • The Syrian General Commission for Al Badia Management and Development constructed the aviaries. GCB is the local project partner in Syria and ‘Species Guardian'; 
  • Turkish Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Directorate of Nature Protection and National Parks, Wildlife Department, who provided the Birecik birds to Syria and technical support to the Syrian team regarding the breeding station to be established in Syria. BirdLife International Middle East coordinates much of this work including the implementation of the Action Plan and has funded several of the activities.
  • Doğa Derneği (BirdLife partner in Turkey) and BirdLife Middle East - initiated official links between the Syrian and the Turkish Governments through a meeting in May 2008 and continued to facilitate communications between two countries. Furthermore both organizations coordinated the work on the ground in Turkey and Syria respectively.
  • Saudi Wildlife Commission (SWC) has helped in surveying stop over areas last year in Saudi Arabia and they are supporting the monitoring program this year.
  • IUCN Jordan office is a key implementer of the Action Plan and has supported Gianluca Serra's expert input (also often as a volunteer)


  • Waldrappteam (Austria) has provided technical input including Barbara Riedler and Norbert Lechner in the field
  • RSPB - BirdLife partner in UK - has provided satellite tags and expertise, and funded other costs including technical expertise of Dr Lubomir Peske
  • International advisory Group for Northern Bald Ibis (IAGNBI) provided ongoing expertise and input.
  • Monaco Foundation has been a key donor to the emergency action plan and Ibis conservation program as a whole. It is the Northern Bald Ibis 'Species Champion'. 
  • The British Birdwatching Fair and Netherlands Embassy in Damascus have also supported the program 
  • National Geographical Society grant funded most of the current expedition to Saudi Arabia. 
  • Austrian Zoo Association provided funds including the pre-release aviary
  • In addition: technical expertise was sought from Austria, Italy and the Czech Republic; 
  • Finally, the activities are under the patronage of the Syrian First Lady, H.E. Mrs Assad. Mrs Amine Erdogan, the wife to the Turkish Prime Minister, has also personally supported the effort.



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