Syria: in situ project
The Northern Bald Ibis in 2011 in Syria
The remaining Syrian population consists of 3 adult birds – the male ‘Odeinat’ and two females ‘Salama’ and ‘Zenobia’. Odeinat and Salama are satellite tagged which allows us to follow their movements. In February 2011, female Zenobia was the first to return to her breeding grounds close to Palmyra while Salama and Odeinat were still in their wintering grounds. Thanks to Yilma Ebebe and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (BirdLife in Ethiopia) Salama was checked in her usual wintering area and there she was: with Zenobia and 2 other unringed birds! As Odeinat, was in still in a completely separate site, this meant that we know of at least 5 birds in the population!
In March 2011 Odeinat and Salama also arrived at the breeding grounds. Unfortunately we had no sightings of the 2 further ibises seen with Salama in Ethiopia. There was also no sign so far of the released juveniles (Ishtar and Amina in 2010), and we are pessimistic that they didn’t survive, but the fact that they did reach wintering areas and integrated with the wild birds means that we are highly encouraged that this approach is well worth repeating and provides the best prospect for supplementing and maintaining the wild population.
As in 2010, Odeinat and Zenobia started nest building, but Salama was unpaired. Therefore we attempted the supplementation of the unpaired adult male from the aviary at Talila in the hope he might adapt to the conditions and breed with her – something that has never been attempted before for an adult of this species. The release aviary was put in place and he and Salama did show a lot of interest in one another, even offering twigs (nest material) to each other through the wire. So it was agreed to let the male go. Unfortunately, he spent just an hour with the wild birds after release before they flew off together, but he then disappeared during a sandstorm, and no longer stayed with Salama or the others. Several days later he was relocated but alone and the rangers did a fantastic job, successfully managing to recapture him and return him to join the pair being held in captivity at Talila.
The wild pair however had a successful breeding season and two chicks fledged in June. The pair left the breeding grounds earlier than in previous years (end of June!). Odeinat left together with one fledgling, followed by Salama two days later. Both tagged adult birds reached their wintering area in Ethiopia, Salama in August, Odeinat in October.
Follow the full details and routes of the tagged birds on: http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/tracking/northernbaldibis/.
Syrian ibis protection program (2002-2010)
A FAO/DGCS ibis protection program, in operation in the Palmyra desert since the year of the discovery (2002), involved the traditional indigenous people (i.e. Bedouins pastoralists) and Palmyra hunters (Bowden et al. 2002, Serra et al. 2003 b)
It was an intensive protection program against hunting and human disturbance, successfully in operation during period 2002-2004, resulting in a very high breeding performance of the colony – actually, higher than figures recorded at the wild colonies in Morocco. Furthermore due to the successful protection efforts of years 2002-04 and 2006-07, the natural recruitment of the colony – not recorded in years 2002-03 – revitalized starting from 2004. Out of a total of 24 chicks successfully fledged during 2002-2007 and since 2004 a total of 5 sub-adults have returned to the colony (2004-07). Three of them successfully recruited into the colony, partially compensating the 20% annual mortality of adults (Serra and Peske, 2006 b, Serra et al. 2009). Unfortunately in 2005 and 2008, protection program was weaker and these were the years when fatal breeding failures occurred for the first time. The colony failed the breeding surely due to consequent raven depredation.
Known threats at breeding grounds in Syria had been reduced through the years but were still dramatically present, especially during incubation. In fact, experience showed that it really takes nothing for a Bedouin shepherd or an unaware and unaccompanied ecotourist to scare an incubating ibis and make its whole clutch die. Also, as we noticed through the years, the small size of ibis colony makes them completely unable to counter-act the depredation of nestlings by ravens. Further good evidence has been collected about behavioural ecology showing that the ibis feeding habitats are heavily degraded at their breeding grounds in Palmyra.
This makes evident that the ibises heavily depend on intensive and specialized protection – including the need for scientific coordination and international technical assistance – in order to breed well. (see Standard Ibis Protection Protocol, Serra 2009)
On the other hand, the mortality rate of immature during the 2-3 years they spent outside breeding grounds is around 80% – which is far too high for the colony to be viable. Due to this reason, together with the disastrous fact that the colony started failing the breeding due to unknown causes in 2009 and 2010, the ibis colony size diminished reaching the lowest point in 2010, when only 1 breeding pair survived.
The protection program at breeding grounds, even when intensive and the breeding success were high, appeared not to be sufficient: the fact is that the ibis should have been protected also in the rest of its unknown range (for 6 months a year they live outside Syria). The Syrian Northern Bald Ibis is different from the Moroccan ibises, which are living in resident colonies. The Syrian ibis survivors are migratory: a behaviour that makes them unique globally, but also very vulnerable from a conservation point of view.