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Bird Revered By The Pharaohs Stages A Comeback

Bird Revered By The Pharaohs Stages A Comeback

The Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita), one of the world’s most threatened birds, is staging a spectacular comeback in its Moroccan heartlands, thanks to an on-going emergency conservation programme launched by the RSPB, on behalf of BirdLife International, supporting the Moroccan Water and Forests’ Souss-Massa National Park. [1,2]

Formerly, the Northern Bald Ibis, a distant relative of storks and herons, was widespread across northern Africa, the Middle East and even the Alps, but now is classified as Critically Endangered. [3] Along with the closely-related sacred ibis, the bird was known to the Egyptian pharaohs and even had its own hieroglyphic symbol. However, by 1997 the bird’s population has fallen to less than 50 pairs and was largely confined to the Souss-Massa National Park, near Agadir. The long-term population decline has been driven by human persecution, especially hunting, and habitat loss. Pesticide poisoning and human disturbance have also contributed to the decline.

Thanks to the conservation programme, the bird’s population has increased by almost 60 per cent to 85 pairs this year that between them reared 100 flying young. The bird’s population has risen by 15 pairs since 2002. Conservation measures including the employment of local staff as wardens to protect against disturbance and the construction of drinking points to provide clean water close to the breeding cliffs.

The birds breeding at the Souss-Massa National Park are the only wild ones in the world, apart from a remnant, and genetically-distinct population of three pairs recently rediscovered in Syria, which this year raised seven young.

Conservation biologist and ibis enthusiast Chris Bowden of the RSPB, BirdLife International’s UK partner, is convinced that without the emergency programme the bird might have been consigned to history and hieroglyphics. He said: “The ibises spend much of the year living and feeding close by local people. The wardening and awareness-raising work is vitally-important; in Syria it is clear that the involvement of local Bedouin has already reduced hunting pressure. Although the full reasons for the decline of the charismatic bird are not fully known, we are confident that we have found the key to its survival in Morocco.

“So far attempts to re-introduce the Northern Bald Ibis into the wild have been fruitless. With more ibises alive in captivity that in the wild a breakthrough in reintroduction techniques coupled with successful conservation measures at key sites could see this charismatic bird restored to parts of its former range. Co-ordinating work on a release programme while ensuring that the wild population remains viable, give this species a far more encouraging future than seemed possible five years ago.”

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