Syria Archive

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Tagging success boosts hopes for Arabian phoenix


An international mission to save the rarest bird in the Middle East has cleared its first hurdle.

Satellite tags have been attached to three of the remaining seven adult Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita in Syria, a species thought extinct in the region until four years ago.

Scientists from BirdLife International's Middle East Division and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) are tracking the trio’s migration after they left their breeding sites near Palmyra in south-east Syria on 18 July.

Bedouin nomads and Syrian government rangers have been watching over the nests of the three birds. Scientists hope to locate their winter base and discover why so few birds are returning. The project is being strongly supported by the Syrian government and the Syrian Society for the Conservation of Wildlife, and has also received funding from the National Geographic Society's Research and Exploration Committee and the Africa Eurasian Waterbird Agreement.

Paul Buckley, Head of Global Country Programmes at the RSPB, said: "We know next to nothing about where these birds go but if we can follow their migration and locate their winter home we should find out why their numbers are so low and how we can protect them. That is the first step towards increasing their numbers again."

The Northern Bald Ibis is a large, mainly black bird, with a bald red face, red bill and legs and ‘punk’ plumage. It was once widespread across the Middle East, northern Africa and the European Alps, was revered by the Egyptian Pharaohs and had its own Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph. Numbers plunged because of habitat loss, human disturbance and persecution and the species is now classified by BirdLife on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered.

The Syrian group forms one of only two wild populations of the species in the world. The other is found in Morocco, mostly in the Souss-Massa National Park, south of Agadir.

"Discovering the ibis was like finding the Arabian phoenix. Our survey and tagging work was some of the most challenging fieldwork we had ever done. We knew they were in Palmyra because of reports from Bedouin nomads and local hunters. Without this tracking project, the bird would have been consigned to history and hieroglyphics." —Ibrahim Khader, Head of BirdLife's Middle East Division

Since leaving Palmyra the three birds have travelled around 2,000 km south into Saudi Arabia, in just one week. They are likely to continue flying south as a group and may reach as far as Yemen, or cross the Red Sea to Eritrea.

Dr Ken Smith, a senior scientist at the RSPB said: "Tracking the birds and finding their wintering sites may be the last chance to save them. Helping the mature birds stay alive is crucial because they teach their young where to migrate to and when to go.

"The low numbers and difficult terrain in the region make this species particularly difficult to work with but its resilience so far suggests it has a future. Other birds have been brought back from the brink and with the Syrian authorities backing our work we are hopeful that we can save this bird."

Dr Gianluca Serra, Field Team Leader for BirdLife (and National Geographic Society Grantee) added: "Not only have we tagged the birds at last but we now have 13 ibis in Syria after the best breeding season yet. Our chances of saving this bird now seem more than just a dream."

Syrian ibis photo exhibition


A photo exhibition depicting the story of the Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita was opened last week (8 February 2006) in the Old Town of Damascus, aimed at promoting conservation of this Critically Endangered bird and creating a sense of ownership of the project to the Syrian authorities.

This successful event was organised by the Ministry of Agriculture & Agrarian Reform (MAAR) in conjunction with BirdLife’s Middle East Division, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, BirdLife in the UK) and the Syrian Society for Conservation of Wildlife (SSCW). Generous support was provided by the British Embassy.

The exhibition entitled Bald Ibis in the Syrian Desert: Natural and Cultural Heritage under Threat was inaugurated by the Agriculture Minister.

During the three-day event, visitor numbers exceeded more than a thousand people from different sectors in the country, with great interest in the ibis from the general public.

Addressing the opening ceremony, the Minister said that the exhibition gives the true story of the species as a natural and cultural heritage symbol of Syria’s Al Badia region. He also acknowledged and thanked BirdLife’s support in conserving and protecting the ibis in cooperation with the local community. The ceremony was attended by the ambassadors of UK, Italy and Iran, and high officials of Syrian Ministries, UNDP, the private sector and other NGOs.

The photos were taken by Gianluca Serra (Conservation Biologist) and Mahmud Abdallah (MAAR ranger) who worked together in the Palmyra project during 2000-2004, contributing to the discovery of the species in Syria and its subsequent protection. Gianluca generously offered his photos and services in the preparation of the exhibition on a voluntary basis. The photos feature portraits of the Northern Bald Ibis and its natural breeding habitat, along with local Bedouins living in and around the Palmyra area – the breeding ground of the species.

Syrian survey throws up surprises


Researchers in Syria last winter found significant numbers of various endangered species of birds, as well as internationally important numbers of wintering wildfowl.

Very little is known about Syria's birdlife, but recent fieldwork has revealed some unexpected finds. In 2002 a small breeding colony of the Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita (Critically Endangered), last known to have bred in the country in 1928, was found in mountains near Palmyra.

Three teams totalling 12 conservationists of six nationalities visited Syria during February 2004. Their aim was to carry out counts of winter visitors, and identify areas of significant conservation value. Much important information was derived from local people by the expedition's Syrian conservationists.

Among a total of 185 species, the expedition recorded over 3,000 Pygmy Cormorants Phalacrocorax pygmeus (Near Threatened) including 1,400 at one roost site in north Tishreen, and a total of 60 White-headed Ducks Oxyura leucocephala (Endangered) at three different sites. Several flocks of Ferruginous Ducks Aythya nyroca (Near Threatened) numbered in their hundreds, with lesser numbers on small oxbow lakes. In total, the researchers counted more than 400,000 waterbirds.

The rarest globally threatened bird to be recorded was the Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarius. This Critically Endangered wader was recorded at widely distant parts of the country, leading the team to speculate that internationally significant numbers may winter in Syria. One was seen at Lake of Homs, four over Talila Reserve, and three on agricultural land west of Tal Brak, north-eastern Syria.

The Syrian population of Iraq Babbler Turdoides altirostris, first found in the country in 2001, was believed to be small and restricted in range. But the expedition revealed that the bird occurs all along the Syrian Euphrates, with good numbers in the reedbeds along the lower part of the river. It was even found away from the Euphrates basin, on the shores of Sabkhat al-Jabbul.

"The range extension of the Iraq Babbler might be explained by a recent population increase, but may be because the species has been largely overlooked in the past." —Tobias Roth, Expedition member

Another important objective of the expedition was to pass on techniques and tools, including optical equipment, fieldguides and the use of GPS (Global Positioning System), to the Syrian conservationists who accompanied the teams.

The expedition was supported by BirdLife International, the Dutch Van Tienhoven Foundation and the Ornithological Society of Middle East OSME), and was led by David Murdoch.

'Extinct' Ibis breeding in Syria


A new colony of critically endangered Northern Bald Ibises has been discovered in an Al Badia (desertic steppe) area of central Syria. The small colony contains three pairs which were discovered incubating eggs, and a seventh adult. This is the first evidence of the continued breeding of Northern Bald Ibises in the Middle East since a colony at Birecek in Turkey became extinct in 1989. Since then there have been sporadic sightings in Saudi Arabia and Eritrea, suggesting that a breeding population still existed somewhere in the region.

The new birds were found in spring 2002 by a team carrying out wildlife surveys on behalf of the Syrian Government's Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform (MAAR). Survey Team leader Gianluca Serra said, "Discovering this bird was like finding the Arabian Phoenix regenerated from the ashes. The survey work through remote and rough terrain was some of the most exciting and challenging fieldwork we had ever experienced. Throughout it all, my Syrian colleagues from MAAR, Ghazy Al-Qaim and Mahmoud Abdallah, were optimistic that Northern Bald Ibises still existed in the Al Badia or desertic steppe of central Syria because we had received reports of their presence from Bedouin nomads and local hunters, such as Mr Adib Assaed of Palmyra, who was instrumental in locating the birds."

The project staff responded quickly to the important discovery. Two guards, Talal Fayad and A. Abdallah, both trained as birdwatching and eco-tourist guides at the Al Talila reserve, were appointed to watch over the colony 24 hours a day and collect data on the breeding cycle. Joint funding and advice has been provided by the RSPB, the BirdLife International Partner in the UK, who have considerable expertise in the conservation of Northern Bald Ibis in Morocco.

Dr Michael Rands, Director of BirdLife International, said "This fascinating species, once common throughout much of the Middle East and southern Europe, is now on the brink of global extinction, despite much conservation effort in Morocco and Turkey. This fantastic discovery gives new hope that the Northern Bald Ibis can be saved, and the BirdLife Partnership will do all it can to assist the Syrian authorities to conserve this amazing threatened species for future generations to enjoy."

The Birder's Market | Resource | Bird news for Britain / Rest of the World | World Bird News | World News archive. | Bird News archive for Middle East |  Syria Archive

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