Passage migrant and migrant breeder Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni) is a globally threatened species.
Photo M. Abdallah
The work of the project has led to a new awareness about the current status of biodiversity in the Palmyrean steppe.
A comprehensive inventory of wildlife in a given environment is both an invaluable tool and a good indicator of its scientific and ecological interest. Even more important is an assessment of the local conservation status of the species found and identified: a comparison of the local and the global conservation status of the species found in the area gives an idea of its international conservation significance. This information is also crucial for preparing a scientifically sound management plan of a protected area.
The project wildlife team established that at least 14 species of wildlife, globally threatened with extinction (according to IUCN Red List 2000), can still be seen, although in reduced numbers, in Al Badia. This figure gives a clear idea of the international conservation significance of the area, and also of the responsibility that the authorities and people of the Syrian Arab Republic, have in the global challenge of biodiversity conservation.
These species currently have no legal protection and people are not aware of their significance: there is thus a very real threat that they will disappear from the country, and perhaps globally as well.
N. Bald Ibis on Al Badia rangelands.
Photo M. Abdallah
Intensive fauna surveys conducted by the project wildlife team culminated in the discovery of a critically endangered species, breeding seasonally within the project area: the Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita), a legendary and iconic bird considered to be one of the rarest and most critically endangered wildlife species on earth.
Between 1900 and 2002 the global population of the N. Bald Ibis declined by 97.8 percent. Few birds have as colourful a history or as uncertain a future as this bird.
Since 1989 it has been on the IUCN Red List as globally critically endangered, which means that the risk that it will become extinct at some point in the future is extremely high.
Before its rediscovery in the Syrian Arab Republic, it was believed that the only N. Bald Ibis population in the world was in Morocco, in two resident colonies with a total of only 220 birds. Its last known Eurasian outpost was the famous colony of Birecik, Turkey, along the upper Euphrates, where it still numbered 1 000 to 1 300 birds during the 1950s. Sadly, this colony vanished completely in 1989, despite considerable conservation efforts by the Turkish authorities and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In a long struggle from the 1960s to the 1980s, the ibises of Birecik were driven almost to extinction by the pressure of massive pesticides use (DDT), and human population growth.
To the disappointment of the whole international conservation community, by 1989 the colony at Birecik had retreated to the wilds, and with it the whole eastern population of the species.
A semi-captive population of N. Bald Ibis has been kept in Birecik since then.
Two ornithological surveys carried out in 1910 and 1928 within the Syrian Al Badia resulted in the discovery of several major colonies, two of them the same size as the one in Birecik), in the area around Qarietin and Palmyra. These colonies were believed to have disappeared sometime after 1929. Several authoritative ornithological surveys undertaken between the 1970s and the 1990s reaffirmed this belief.
During spring 2002, the project wildlife team interviewed around 70 nomadic Bedouin sheperds and village hunters, using a specially designed questionnaire, digging deep into the memory of the local community, from recent years back to the 1930s and 1940s. In so doing, the wildlife team benefited from the experience gained during 2 years of questioning local communities about wildlife occurrence, and also from the anthropological experience gained by the project through its extension component.
N. Bald Ibis at nest with a young chick.
Photo M. Abdallah
Questioning of locals was combined with an intensive systematic search in the most likely habitats in remote mountainous regions (across an area of about 17 600 km2), where the GPS navigation device was the only means of orientation. These combined and systematic efforts over a period of about one month, led to the discovery of a small relict breeding colony of ibises in April 2002.
These efforts, reinforced by investigation into the natural history and archaeology of the area, enabled the wildlife team to unveil a story that was surprisingly different from the received view of the situation.
The N. Bald Ibis has never disappeared completely from Al Badia and its decline took place significantly later in time than officially reported. The N. Bald Ibis was still common in Al Badia up to 20 years ago, and even abundant up to 30 years ago, according to interviews with people from local communities.
The seven birds discovered may well be the last remnants of the eastern population of the N. Bald Ibis. After the discovery, the three nests were guarded, monitored and photo-documented throughout the whole breeding cycle of about 5 months. Three chicks were successfully fledged, out of three breeding pairs, about 40 days after hatching. With the involvement of local ecoguide trainees from the Al Talila reserve, data were collected about the breeding cycle, the feeding habitats and the diet. These data were used to prepare scientifically based urgent conservation recommendations for submission to Syrian decision-makers.
N. Bald Ibises survivors feeding on Al Badia rangelands.
Photo G. Serra
Originally a waterbird like all the other ibis species (constituting the family of Threskiornithidae, relatives of the storks), the N. Bald Ibis, during its aberrant evolution, has adapted to semi-arid habitats, nesting on remote, sheer cliffs and feeding on stony terrain with sparse, low vegetation. This bird, not exactly a champion of beauty (bald head with naked, reddish face, long straggly hindneck feathers, sturdy legs), has nonetheless always fascinated man, probably because of its weird appearance and the iridescent sheen on its wings. The scientific name Geronticus eremita refers to its resemblance to an old man, bald and wrinkled, and to the fact that it nests in remote places like a hermit.
Hieroglyphs of 5 000 years ago clearly show that N. Bald Ibis was sacred to the Egyptians; they revered it as a symbol of brilliance and splendour because of its wing sheen, and because it stood for excellence, glory, honour and virtue.
The people of Birecik in Turkey co-existed for centuries with a colony of more than a thousand ibises nesting on a large cliff, on top of which sits the fortress of the town.
Villagers considered these birds sacred and protected them for centuries.
It was the traditional reverence for the bird on the part of the Birecik villagers that enabled this large and historical colony to survive for such a long time. The villagers celebrate the return of the first migratory N. Bald Ibises with an annual festival in mid-February, heralding the end of the winter.
Typical coffee pots of Bedouin nomads.
Photo G. Serra
They believe that the N. Bald Ibis is responsible for the transmigration of souls. The bird is also mentioned in the Bible in the form of the legendary messenger of fertility released by Noah from the ark. Moreover, Muslims believed that the N. Bald Ibis guides the haji pilgrims to Mecca (interestingly, the migration route of this bird probably passes through western Saudi Arabia, and thus also through Mecca).
The N. Bald Ibis could well become an important ecological indicator of the status of the Syrian steppe, since it feeds on the invertebrates of the rangelands. This was confirmed by data collected by the project wildlife team in 2002.
Direct observations of feeding N. Bald Ibises during spring 2002 confirmed that they use the same rangelands as the sheep (Bedouin shepherds sometimes even spot the ibises feeding among the sheep).
Furthermore, the beginning of the degradation of Syrian rangeland ecosystems coincides with the decline of the bird - i.e. about 30 to 40 years ago, according to the local inhabitants.
The story of the dramatic decline of the N. Bald Ibis is paradigmatic of the conservation status of biodiversity of the Syrian Al Badia. Every aspect of biodiversity in the Syrian Al Badia can be regarded as currently under threat, mainly due to over-exploitation of natural resources and consequent destruction of ecosystems and habitats, combined with an apparent general indifference or lack of awareness.
A breeding pair of N. Bald Ibis at nest flanked by an unpaired individual.
Photo G. Serra
To be scientifically accepted as a valid indicator, additional information on the N. Bald Ibis should be collected and analysed; in particular, data demonstrating:
that the N. Bald Ibis is directly affected by the overall process of loss and degradation of the steppe;
how the N. Bald Ibis responds to change (improvement, or further degradation of the steppe) of the environment;
how widely the behaviour of the N. Bald Ibis is understood by the people.
What is the importance of having found a few ibises still surviving in the wild in Syrian Arab Republic? The difference between the eastern population and the western one still breeding in Morocco, is that the former is migratory while the latter is resident. Eastern birds were reported to winter along the coast of the Red Sea (Ethiopia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen), and to migrate in spring northward to the Middle East, for breeding.
Juvenile ibises learn the migration route from adults. This renders the difference between the present 60 Turkish semicaptive birds and the seven wild Syrian ones dramatically significant: the Syrian birds still know the migration route, while the Turkish ones, being all born in captivity, have all lost this culturally transmitted knowledge. In other words, the seven ibises recently found are invaluable as survivors from a genetic point of view.
Despite having been one of the worlds first officially protected wildlife species - first named in a decree by Archbishop Leonard von Keutschach of Salzburg in 1504 - the N. Bald Ibis had disappeared from Central and Eastern Europe by the seventheenth century, and was thought to have become extinct after that. It was afterwards sighted and re-discovered in the Middle East and North Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, by European travellers. History is again repeating itself: in the year 2002, the N. Bald Ibis reappeared in the Middle East.
All this recalls the myth of the Arabian Phoenix, the weird and colourful bird which was said to periodically regenerate from its ashes. But actually there is a difference between the N. Bald Ibis and the Arabian Phoenix. This could really be the last reappearance of the N. Bald Ibis, the last chance to save it from total extinction. This challenge needs to be met very carefully and seriously - Birecik experience docet: there may not be a second chance if we get it wrong. The responsibility for ensuring the continued existence of this traditionally revered, historically elusive and critically endangered species has now passed into the hands of the Syrian people.
Passage migrant Little Egret (Egretta garzetta).
Photo M. Abdallah
Not only the natural heritage but also an important and fascinating piece of Arabian culture is presently highly endangered. The survival of the nomadic life-style and cultural heritage of the Bedouin pastoralists is threatened by the degradation of the rangeland ecosystems on which their livestock grazing is based. Conserving the natural heritage of Al Badia is thus directly linked to conserving its cultural heritage.
The discovery of the extinct N. Bald Ibis by the project wildlife team within Al Badia in early spring 2002 drew the attention of conservationists and international media world-wide. Nowadays it is very common for the media to spread bad news about the conservation status of global biodiversity. Positive news on this front is very rare - discovering a new a species long thought to be extinct within a given area is even rarer. This was the reason for the rapid international spread of the news about Syrian ibises following a press release by BirdLife International. The discovery in the Syrian Arab Republic, of the last seven ibises in the Middle East revived the hopes of conservationists of saving the Eastern population of N. Bald Ibises - and the whole species itself. The Syrian Arab Republic, was thus suddenly invested of this remarkable responsibility... Sadly, there is no guarantee that conservation efforts to save the ibises will be successful. When dealing with such a small number of individuals, caution is a must, especially considering the negative experience of Birecik during the 1980s.
Due to the interest raised internationally by the news of the rediscovery of the ibis, the President of the Syrian Arab Republic, the countrys decision-makers, and civil society came to realize the importance of the occurrence of such a rare bird in their country. The official visit of representatives from two leading bird conservation NGOs, BirdLife International and the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), to the project area also confirmed the significance of the discovery.
The project staff and the representatives of the two NGOs visited high level officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment to seek political support and to exploit this favourable moment in order to heighten ecological awareness at the national level. The visits were reported on by national media and the creation of the first Syrian conservation-oriented NGO was discussed. BirdLife International offered financial support for this initiative, and proposed focussing its activities on the conservation of the N. Bald Ibis and adopting the rare bird as its symbol.
Bedouin pastoralists are usually attracted by wildlife in general.
Photo G. Serra