Proyecto EREMITA, Sierra El Retín, Spain
© Miguel A. Quevedo
To breed and reintroduce northern bald ibises into their former range in Spain
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 waldrappteam.at respectively. They are supported by the zoos of Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
The northern bald ibis has declined dramatically over the past 50 years and is listed as Critically Endengered.
The Souss-Massa region near Agadir (SW Morocco) holds the last known
viable breeding population. In 1999, an 'International Workshop on a Strategy for the Rehabilitation of the Northern Bald Ibis' hold in
Agadir, highlighted the necessity of performing studies on
releasing techniques to reintroduce a non-migratory and viable population in another area. In cooperation with the IUCN/SSC
Reintroduction Specialist Group, the workshop developed specific
guidelines for a release/reintroduction programme. The International Advisory Group for Northern Bald
Ibis (IAGNBI) was created to promote international co-operation.
The "Proyecto Eremita" aims to evaluate the efficacy of different releasing techniques in La Janda Area, Southern Spain. Hand-rearing method will be used in the first two years of the project, but the project protocol will be updated from experience gained, results and ongoing research. The success of this study will be assessed by the establishment of a sedentary, self-sus. in this area during the time of the project.
In 2003, a group of northern bald ibises was hand-reared together with cattle egrets (Bubulcus ibis) and was released in the remote area of El Retin. In 2004, a smaller group of young parent-reared birds were added to the group when the birds had to be kept in the aviary during the dispersal period. The birds were then released and are now freely flying in the area of El Retin. This method was pursued in 2005 and 2006 in which years respectively 2 and 14 birds left the area. Nothing is known about their fate, but one ringed bird was observed in the Middle Atlas, Morocco, in 2005.
WAZA Conservation Project 04004 is jointly operated by the Zoological-Botanical Gardens of Jerez and the Nature Conservation Authority of Andalucia.
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© Miguel A. Quevedo