A few years back, Gianluca Serra found a legendary bird thought extinct in Syria, with funds from National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration. Now Serra is trying to forge a stable population of these ungainly creatures, with a little help from a prince and some first ladies.
By Barbara Moffet
Q: The northern bald ibis was considered extinct in Syria for more than 70 years, according to the scientific literature. Tell us about how this legendary bird was rediscovered — and when and where.
We rediscovered the bald ibis on a remote cliff of the Syrian desert in April 2002, following clues from local hunters and Bedouin nomads as part of a general fauna survey of the area. The birds were the oriental subspecies of northern bald ibis, which had not been seen for many years.
Q: How many individuals were found?
We found seven breeding adults in 2002. Since then, thanks to protection efforts, 24 chicks successfully have fledged. But we estimated that only 20 percent survived the migration and dispersal period to return back to their breeding site.
Q: This bird is a bit famous in Egypt — it goes back thousands of years to the time of the ancient Egyptians, correct? Can you say a bit about the historical representations of the northern bald ibis and the legend surrounding it?
The northern bald ibis as a species was revered as a deity by ancient Egyptian dynasties, as evidenced by its unmistakable hieroglyph. The ibis, as a family of birds with a curved bill, was considered a symbol of wisdom by Egyptians. This myth is still found nowadays among the desert nomads in the region.
Q: Your interest is to turn around the severe decline of this species, but one complication for conservation is that this bird doesn’t stay in one place — it migrates twice a year. Talk about the trip it takes and how you were able to determine where it winters.
We care for this bird as a symbol and flagship for the rampant ecological degradation and desertification of the Syrian steppe, which is driving so many people into poverty and hardship. But preventing extinction of a long-range migratory bird, starting from few surviving individuals, is something attempted with success only in the United States so far (e.g. whooping crane). We managed to discover in 2006 that these ibises cross eight countries twice a year in their migratory flight from Syria desert to Ethiopia highlands (thanks to a grant from the National Geographic Society and working in cooperation with RSPB and Birdlife).
Q: The northern bald ibis has had some unusual champions — some public officials?
Mrs. Assad, the Syrian First Lady, played a crucial role in making the satellite tagging operation become reality in 2006. Thanks to this operation we discovered the ibis migration route and the wintering grounds. Mrs. Assad also was instrumental in recruiting the Turkish First Lady and the Turkish Ministry of Forestry last year to help start a key ibis transnational cooperation between the two countries.
Q: What are some of the key threats to the bird, and how are you addressing those?
Hunting at breeding grounds in Syria, which had been extremely detrimental, was curbed, due to efforts of the Syrian Desert Commission. We still need to minimize disturbance by people during breeding. The IUCN West Asia is trying to develop an ibis protected area in Palmyra, Syria, according to international standards. The Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society have helped us determine that there is no short-term threat at the wintering grounds in Ethiopia.
Using satellite tracking and National Geographic support we have recently identified the two most likely severe causes of the huge mortality of immature ibises along western Arabia: hunting and electrocution by electric cables.
This discovery has important and general conservation implications, as the ibis migratory route along western Arabia is a major flyway used by other threatened soaring birds.
Q: You had a major conservation success last summer at the Palmyra breeding grounds. Please explain.
In July 2009 we had tagged with sat transmitters two immature birds in Palmyra, Syria. One of them was named Julia in honor of Mrs. Julia Marton Lefevre, the director general of IUCN, who had visited the colony earlier in the spring. At the end of the first day of migration, on 20 July 2009, as soon as the birds reached the village of Tabarjal in northern Saudi Arabia, Julia was shot down (see photo taken by the hunter himself). I even met the hunter who had killed Julia (see photo).
Last summer we managed to carry out a test at the breeding grounds in Palmyra, Syria, the first of its kind. Two chicks born in captivity in Turkey, belonging to the same genetic stock, were released at the wild colony (see photo, with wild birds on top of the cage containing the birds to be released). And amazingly they followed one of the wild adults for almost 1,500 km along the migratory route up to southern Saudi Arabia. This test was successful, despite considerable doubts we had. (We had been discussing on how to carry out this delicate operation for many years.) This conservation operation had also international politics implications, as it was made possible by direct intervention of the first ladies of the two countries.
Some days ago, Zenobia, an adult female, safely arrived in Palmyra, Syria, as the first of the colony. It was Prince Badar bin Saud, head of the Saudi Wildlife Commission, who informed us that a hunter from the same group of those who had killed Julia in 2009 had met Zenobia a few days before in the middle of the vast Saudi northern desert; this time, instead of shooting, the hunters recognized it was a bald ibis and they just took a picture! In fact, raising awareness of Saudi hunters along ibis migratory route seems one of the most urgent short-term objectives.
Q: Is conservation of the northern bald ibis your full-time job? How did you get interested in this not-so-pretty creature?
No, it is not a full-time job, Yes it is, but because this project was plagued by a chronic lack of funds, I was forced to do a lot of volunteering. This bird is a fascinating one, not only because of the deep symbolic value attached to it by the civilizations of the region during millennia but also because of the contrast between its wrinkled and bald appearance close-up and its elegance and beauty when in flight over the desert. Like the famous albatross of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: clumsy while walking on the deck of the ship, beautiful while flying over the ocean.
Credits: Syrian First Lady, Syrian Desert Commission, Prince Bandar and the Saudi Wildlife Commission, Turkish Ministry of Forestry and Environment, IUCN, BirdLife, RSPB, Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society
Partners and credits: Syrian and Turkish First Ladies, Prince Bandar bin Saud, Syrian General Badia Commission, Saudi Wildlife Commission, Turkish Ministry of Forestry and Environment, IUCN West Asia, BirdLife ME, RSPB, Waldrappteam, Mr Lubomir Peske, Alpenzoo, Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, National Geographic Society, Italian Development Cooperation, Monaco Foundation.
Barbara S. Moffet is a senior director of communications at the National Geographic Society. She specializes in shining a spotlight on the Society’s numerous grant recipients, who do field research around the world.