Scharnstein Waldrapp Project
To establish a 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 waldrappteam.at respectively. They are supported by the zoos of Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
The aim of the Scharnstein Project is to develop and test a release method by extending the fostering method already used in the Grünau Project, in particular by developing a method to control and guide the autumn migration of a founder population, which then can pass this migration tradition to the next generations. In May 2002 the project started by hand-raising eleven Waldrapp ibis from the Vienna Zoo, Alpenzoo Innsbruck and the Grünau colony. The birds were trained to follow two microlight planes, and from19th July on, microlight flights were carried out to five sites 2 to 18 km away as often as the weather conditions allowed, simulating local feeding flights.
In 2003, a first attempt was made to fly with a group of birds from Upper Austria to southern Tuscany. However due to weather conditions and technical problems the birds could fly only a few stages and had to be transported by road over a considerable part of the distance.
In contrast, the 2004 migration was a big practical and scientific success. Since March 2005, a group of seven birds roamed permanently free in their winter quarters. The birds started their migration back to Austria towards the end of May. They flew up along their expected migration route as far as the Italian province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which borders Austria, but then returned to Tuscany. In spring 2006 5 more birds left Grosseto and 2 found the way up North to Carinthia (Austria).
WAZA Conservation Project 03001 is operated by the waldrappteam.at. Animals, financial and other support are provided by the Alpenzoo Innsbruck, Zoo Schmiding, Vienna Zoo , Cumberland-Grünau Wildlife Park, Rosegg Wildlife Park, Parco Natura Viva-Bussolengo and the following zoo associations: Verband Deutscher Zoodirektoren, ZOOSchweiz, Deutscher Wildgehegeverband, Österreichischer Wildgehegeverband. The project is also supported by Government authorities, the KLF Grünau, private companies and NGOs.
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