Northern Bald Ibis: baldly leading the way in ibis conservation

Northern Bald Ibis © Tristan Reid

Four ibis species in three very different circumstances. All facing extinction. One, the Northern Bald Ibis, is now recovering. What does it take to turn the tables on extinction?

With the setting sun still warming a sandstone ledge on Morocco’s west coast one evening in November, a bulky bird tenderly preens its partner’s feathers using its long, scythe-shaped beak. As its black neck feathers catch the sea breeze, this Northern Bald Ibis is oblivious to the recent news regarding its entire species: on 22nd November 2018, BirdLife celebrated the improved fortunes of the Northern Bald Ibis as we declared its downlisting from Critically Endangered to Endangered. Thanks to sustained conservation efforts, wild colonies in Morocco are doing so well that the species’ population is on the rise.

For conservationists putting in hard graft for this ibis (for as much as 24 years in the case of Chris Bowden, now Coordinator of the AEWA Northern Bald Ibis International Working Group,) it was an emotional moment: “The ultimate accolade for a conservationist working to save endangered species is to contribute to improving the threat status of a species,” he says.

But what did it take to turn the population decline of the Northern Bald Ibis into an upcurve? It’s an important lesson to learn, because three other Critically Endangered ibis species also need all the help they can get. We will name this select group – which includes the Dwarf Ibis endemic to São Tomé, and the Giant Ibis and White-shouldered Ibis found mostly in Cambodia – ‘the downcurves’, not only because of the characteristic shape of their beaks, but because over the course of their history, they have also suffered human-caused population declines with the graphs to grimly match. Yet, despite differing circumstances of ‘the downcurves’, hope can be gleaned from some surprising similarities to Morocco’s story of conservation success.

The first part of the Northern Bald Ibis’s scientific name Geronticus eremita means ‘old man’, owing to its unusual bald head. But ‘old’ certainly doesn’t have to mean lacking in vitality or strength. The species was listed in the highest category of threat for more than three decades: once widespread across northern Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe, habitat loss, pesticides and hunting drove the Northern Bald Ibis down to a small and dwindling wild population, mainly confined to just one breeding colony in Souss-Massa National Park, Morocco. At its worst, after a mystery die-off in 1996, just 59 pairs existed in the wild.

The task must have seemed insurmountable, but one has to start somewhere. Protecting the breeding and feeding areas of the remaining colonies was clearly the first step and Bowden, working for the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), basically dropped everything and flew to Morocco, living there for over seven years based within the National Park. An early priority for the park and his team was to instil in local communities the “unique value of these rather bizarre-looking birds”, and actively recruit young wardens from the fishing villages adjacent to the colonies.

“I used to spend hours talking through the importance of daily monitoring with Mohammed El Gadrouri and Abdallah Essamar [the first wardens] in what can only be described as a sandstone cave, overlooking the cliff-ledge colonies. They’ve become the best of friends, and are still stalwart ibis wardens today.”

The wild Northern Bald Ibis population has now risen to a modern-day record of 170 chicks fledged this season, with a total population of at least 708 birds (up from 589 in 2017). With the Souss-Massa colonies swelling, the ibises even started to spread along the coast, with two new sites and some isolated pairs discovered in 2017. “The consistent presence and dedication of the team of ibis wardens at the Moroccan colonies and roost sites has been absolutely crucial, and this news is above all a tribute to them,” says Bowden. “And the fact that the wardens are now supported directly by the National Park is tremendously important.”

“Without the creation of Souss-Massa National Park in 1991, there would have been little hope for the wild population,” says Jorge Orueta, SEO/BirdLife Spain, who has worked passionately for the species since 2000. But the Park wasn’t enough on its own – BirdLife ensured a network of NGOs would support the Moroccan government to research what was needed and manage the key areas for the ibis, in what became a decades-long relay of conservation effort. This started in the mid-90s with the RSPB, then with SEO/BirdLife – and more recently GREPOM (BirdLife in Morocco) – taking over the ibis baton.

“This network helped everyone to understand the key issues facing the species, and keep focusing on addressing them,” says Bowden. “And we’ve been fortunate in having continuous and positive interest of several key players – including Mohammed Ribi, Director of the National Park when BirdLife action began who, along with others, has also played a vital role.”

Whilst this is certainly a conservation win, we can’t relax. Downlisting to Endangered doesn’t mean ‘saved’; by definition the species is still ‘at very high risk of extinction in the wild’. The latest breeding sites – where ibises have cleaned cliff ledges and delicately started nest-building – are fragile. “The majority of the Moroccan ibises are inside protected areas, but these sites of new reproduction attempts are not,” says Khadija Bourass, Executive Director of GREPOM. The longest-standing colony outside the park, at Tamri, has some basic protection administered by the Forestry Department (as a formal ‘no hunting’ area watched over by wardens, on land that can’t be sold easily), but more comprehensive and meaningful protection has been a long-standing issue that still needs work – an urgent priority that’s emphasised in the ibis’s International Species Action Plan.

Also, lest we forget, the entire eastern population of the Northern Bald Ibis is thought to be extinct in the wild. Whilst a semi-captive population in Turkey is going from strength to strength, the project has been waiting for war in Syria to end, so the birds can be released to migrate safely south towards Ethiopian wintering grounds. Meanwhile, the last few remaining truly wild birds that know the route instinctively are thought to have been killed, though some hope remains and Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS, BirdLife in Ethiopia) will be on the look-out this coming season.

The celebration is still justified despite the eastern population, however. What the ‘old man’ of conservation has taught us is that what’s being done in Morocco is working very well indeed. And in order to see continued success, we mustn’t stop. “Targeted action does help bird species to recover,” says Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife International’s Chief Scientist. “But the trends in bird populations globally are negative, showing that much greater efforts are needed to replicate such successes more widely.” Thus, in terms of membership to ‘the downcurves’, for now we can (and should) celebrate the Northern Bald Ibis as one ‘up’, three to go.

You can find out more on this reblogged story by Shaun Hurrell here:

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