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Palmyra, Syria


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A relict colony of Northern Bald Ibis was unexpectedly discovered in the central Syrian Desert in 2002 thanks to scientific decoding the traditional knowledge of the local community.

Immediately a yearly specific protection program has been activated by the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture as early as 2002 under the technical assistance of BirdLife International, IUCN and FAO and an Ibis Protected Area (IPA) was established in 2004. Recently the competence for IPA and the ibis protection program has passed to the Desert Commission, headed by Eng. Ali Hamoud who started to support the ibis conservation program enthusiastically. The program also enjoys the support of H.E. the Syrian First Lady as early as 2006.

An ecotourism feasibility study for the Palmyra Desert was prepared in 2007 by BirdLife Middle East and a socio-economic and cultural survey of the nomadic Bedouin community living at the ibis breeding grounds has been carried out in November 2008 under an IUCN/DGCS project.

 In 2008/09 an Ibis Emergency Action Plan and in 2010 a supplementation took place.

Breeding success

The adult birds normally arrive separately in their breeding grounds during the second half of February but they leave all together around mid July. They feed on overgrazed pastures at an altitude ranging from 400 to 900m asl and feed mostly on Tenebrionidae beetles and other invertebrates found on the surface, poke on larvae underground and take juvenile toads found at artificial reservoirs.

ibis-7-web xxx ibis-10-web

 

The protection program resulted in a very high breeding performance of the colony,  a total of 24 chicks successfully fledged during 2002-2007, since 2004 a total of 5 sub-adults have returned to the colony (2004-07) and three of them were successfully recruited into the colony. Nonetheless, the number of pairs gradually diminished from 3 in 2002 to 2 in 2004, and finally 1 in 2010...

Wintering grounds

The Syrian NBI are migratory: a behaviour that makes them unique globally, but also very vulnerable from a conservation point of view (different from the Moroccan ibises, which are living more or less in resident colonies).

In 2006 three adult birds were trapped and tagged with satellite transmitters (PTT) which allowed tracking their migratory route when they left Palmyra in mid July. The birds migrated southward and, after a staging of 2 weeks in western Yemen, found their way to the central highlands in Ethiopia.
During the surveys carried out by the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society and BirdLife / IUCN in November 2006, October 2007, November 2008 and January 2009 only 4 breeding adults could be found at the ibis wintering site. The ibis wintering home range proved to be very much restricted (about 15 km²) compared to the breeding grounds totalling several hundreds km².

Threats

The protection program at breeding grounds, even when intensive and successful as during period 2002-04, appears not to be sufficient: the fact is that the NBI has to be protected also in the rest of its unknown range (for 6 months a year they live outside Syria).

The main threats are:

* hunting and poaching
* unknown threats along the migratory route, especially across the Arabian peninsula
* poverty and habitat ecological degradation fuelled by unsustainable exploitation of natural resources (shared by both the breeding grounds in Syria and the wintering grounds in Ethiopia)
* draught during the breeding period
* chick depredation by ravens
* human disturbance during settling and incubation
* possible inbreeding depression at the Palmyra breeding grounds

 In parallel, we had to record 2 consecutive breeding failures in Palmyra (2009 and 2010) due to largely unknown causes: we can only hypothesize that inbreeding and social disruption (only 1 pair attempted breeding in 2010) could be involved. At this stage the colony seems to have reached the point of no-return...

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