Grünau Waldrapp Project

To establish a non-migratory colony of northern bald ibises in Austria


The Northern bald ibis or waldrapp ibis, Geronticus eremita, is a critically endangered species with only about 250 specimens surviving in the wild in Morocco and an even smaller number in Turkey and Syria. In contrast, nearly 2000 birds are living in zoos and are reproducing prosperously. Thus, it is time to consider re-establishing new colonies in suitable habitats. However, all attempts to release ex situ-bred birds were unsuccessful. Consequently, research projects need to be undertaken before any release can take place, in agreement with the IUCN Guidelines for Reintroduction and an internationally agreed strategy for the conservation of the Waldrapp ibis.


The first description of the waldrapp ibis dates back to the Bird Book of Conrad Gesner, a Swiss naturalist of the 16th century. It is believed that the Waldrapp formerly occurred in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Spain, possibly also in France, northern Italy, Hungary and Poland. By no later than the early 17th century, the species had disappeared from Central Europe. Hunting pressure and nest robbing are considered the main causes of extinction. However, habitat destruction and climatic changes may have precipitated the population decline.


In the 19th century, huge waldrapp colonies were discovered in North Africa and in the Middle East. However another decline followed rapidly. In 1940, 38 different breeding colonies were known from Morocco. In 1975 only 15 remained, and in 1989 the number had dropped to three. The same happened to the eastern population in Turkey, which comprised more than 600 pairs till 1955. Then the numbers declined rapidly, and in 1989 the last known free living colony of the eastern population went extinct. The main reasons were direct persecution, changes and disturbance at nest sites and feeding habitats, and the use of DDT.


All waldrapp ibises kept in zoos originate from Morocco. First imports into zoos occurred in the 1940s but all birds died soon after their arrival. The next imports in the 1950s were successful and these birds are the founders of the current zoo population. Three bloodlines exist within the zoo population, which is managed under a European Endangered Species Programme (EEP): Basel Zoo, birds imported in the 1950s and 60s, Rabat Zoo, birds captured in the 1970s, and Naturzoo Rheine, the last imports of wild birds in 1976 and 1978.


The following projects are carried out by the Konrad Lorenz Forschungsstelle, Grünau/Austria, and the respectively. They are supported by the zoos of Austria, Germany and Switzerland.


A research project was started in 1997 with the general goal to establish a local, non-migratory colony of semi-tame birds. The aims were to have another bird model available for basic research into the mechanisms of social life and to collect know-how for establishing Waldrapp colonies from zoo offspring in the wild. After initial problems were solved, the colony showed the first full reproductive bout in 2002, with 9 nests, 22 eggs and 4 fledged young, which were raised with only marginal supplemental food. By 2003, 25 experienced birds were roaming the Almtal valley, except for the migration time from September to November, when they were kept in a closed aviary. For the years to come, the local Grünau colony will remain a subject of intense research. By 2006, their number has increased to 36. Investigations on social behaviour and hormone status, behavioural and ecological aspects of natural foraging ,and the establishment of traditions via social learning are under way. The plan for 2007 is to split the colony and to test how the transferred birds cope with this new situation.

WAZA Conservation Project 04003 is operated by the Konrad Lorenz Research Station at Grünau and is supported by the zoos of Innsbruck, Vienna and Cumberland-Grünau, as well as by a supporters' association, Government authorities and private companies and individuals.


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