A rare bird may become extinct in Syria because of the capture of Palmyra by Islamic State, experts say.
A tiny breeding colony of the northern bald ibis – a critically endangered species – was found near the city in 2002.
Only one female returned from the wintering grounds in spring 2013.
The heroic Ibis guards, are still doing their most to protect the 3 captive birds & the new offspring, under extreme circumstances, way and above the call of their duties.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon has offered a reward of $1,000 for information on the whereabouts of Zenobia (named after the queen of Palmyra), the only remaining bird who knows the migration routes to wintering grounds in Ethiopia.
SPNL and its Global Environment networks, would extend their support, and stand ready to support and help in any way needed. Regardless, of the unknown fate of the wild Zenobia at the moment, and the future of the Ibis at Palmyra, and the other 30 Globally Threatened Birds, and other bio-diversity on the brink, in our troubled region.
Zenobah is the only wild female documented at the Kataraha hima at Palmyra , while there was three birds in captivity ( 2 males & one female ) , plus one egg , that hatched lately . Without her, birds bred in captivity cannot learn the migration routes and the species could go extinct in the wild in Syria, say ornithologists.
“Culture and nature, they go hand in hand, and war stops, but nobody can bring back a species from extinction,” Asaad Serhal, Director General of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, told the BBC.
The BBC’s Jim Muir in Beirut says that for several decades the species was thought to be extinct in the Middle East until six birds were found nesting near Palmyra more than 10 years ago.
Despite being protected, and breeding, their numbers dwindled to just four wild birds by 2012.
A tagging project in 2006 discovered that the birds from the Syrian colony were wintering in Ethiopia. But it was unclear what was happening to the fledgling or immature birds.
In a previous study of the same birds, Dr Steven Portugal and his colleagues revealed why birds fly in a V formation.
Bald ibis were originally widespread across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, but due to hunting, habitat loss and pesticide poisoning, they underwent dramatic population declines and are now only found in Morocco and Syria.
These two populations are incredibly small, with the Moroccan population being unusual for the species in that they are not migratory, spending all year at the same site in the Atlas Mountains.
Most historic populations were highly migratory, and the relic Syrian population contains the only remaining individuals who have the knowledge of historic migration routes from Syria to wintering grounds in Ethiopia.
The loss of this remnant population would result in the loss of the last migratory bald ibis, while also losing the genetic diversity that these migratory individuals contain.
On the other hand, Dr. Gianluca Serra said the iconic and unique population already went extinct in Syria a few months ago. Gianluca Serra has been engaged in front line biodiversity conservation as a researcher, civil servant, practitioner and activist during the past two decades internationally, on the five continents. During 2000-2011 he has worked in Palmyra, Syria, under various umbrellas (UN, EU, NGOs, volunteer). He assisted the Syrian Government in prompting biodiversity conservation in the country and in establishing the first protected areas. He led the discovery of the colony in 2002 under a UN-FAO/Italian Cooperation project, and coordinated the protection and research efforts, while training local and Government staff, up to the onset of the war.
In an article published by The Ecologist, Serra wrote: “The Northern Bald Ibis vanished from the wild as a breeding species due to known threats along the migratory route, including hunting and habitat degradation. One of our tagged birds, named Julia, was shot in northern Saudi Arabia in 2009. Three birds, including Zenobia, had been observed at the wintering site in Ethiopia during winter 2013-14, but only she came back to Palmyra in spring 2014, alone for the second year in a row. That made 2014 the last year she was seen at the Palmyra breeding site. So this year, for the first time in millennia the Bedouin nomads of the Palmyra desert saw no Northern Bald Ibis in late February, at the beginning of the spring, as I was informed by my contacts in Palmyra”.
“We are currently experiencing what has been called the sixth wave of mass extinction on the planet. Species of life forms are estimated to become extinct in the order of hundreds every year. Most of them are not known by science – and never will be. The extinction of the oriental population of Northern Bald Ibis from its native range (Middle East and Eastern Africa) is an irreversible loss for the ecosystems of the Syrian steppe and of the Ethiopian highlands. It is also a permanent loss for the cultural heritage of the Middle East where the bird had been contemplated with awe by successions of civilizations through the millennia. The few surviving birds in question were the last living descendants of those revered by the ancient pharaohs. The bald ibis is in fact unmistakably represented in hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt dated thousands of years ago, symbolizing the afterworld divinity Akh. It is also mentioned in the Old Testament as a messenger of fertility, and was regarded as a guide for haj pilgrims bound to Holy Makah by Muslim communities of Southern Anatolia”. Serra added.
Declaring a species extinct in the wild can require years. The same relict colony of Northern Bald Ibis in question, according to the ornithological literature, should have not existed at all. Its oriental population was declared extinct from the Syrian desert around the 1990s, as no bird had been sighted there since the early 1930s. That is why the news of their rediscovery in 2002 made headlines worldwide.
But this time it seems that the extinction of the Oriental Bald Ibis from the Middle East is really turning into something awfully true. Surely the bird is now extinct in Syria as a breeding species with the disappearance of Zenobia. The only hope for the species – and a slim one at that – is that a few immature birds may still survive somewhere between western Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia.
Reduced to only seven individuals in 2002 (when they were rediscovered) and breeding in a then politically highly secretive and paranoid country like Syria, undoubtedly only a miracle would have enabled to prevent the extinction of this long-range migrant, travelling twice a year across 10 countries among the most difficult to work within.
And yet during the first years soon after the discovery the miracle seemed almost to take form thanks to the enthusiasm and passion of few dedicated individuals, including Syria’s First Lady.
In the end despite its cultural relevance at regional level, the strenuous and misadventurous efforts taken along ten years in Palmyra and the mobilization of the upper circles in Damascus, the extinction of this unique and iconic population could not be prevented due to a complex combination of reasons.
Certainly the fact that the species is included in the Western Paleartic Bird Guide (together with all other species of birds occurring in Europe), that it is listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List, listed among the 100 most endangered species in the world and among the top 100 most Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered species were not regarded as sufficient reasons by international conservation organizations to raise to the challenge with the required energy, strategic approach and determination.
The onset of the war in 2011 appeared as the classic straw that broke the camel’s back. At that time the adult population was reduced to only two individuals. And the emergency action plan I had proposed two years earlier had just remained on paper. says Serra. At that moment, in 2011, the fate of the ancient guide of haj pilgrims seemed to me already determined.
For more information about RSPB’s Project titled” Conservation of the Northern Bald Ibis in Syria and the Middle East”