As the day drew to a close, the orange light reflecting from the Atlantic seemed to soften the texture of the sun-baked Moroccan cliffs so much so they looked like they could crumble in an instant.
There the birds were: perched on a couple of sloping, sandstone ledges, an entire colony of about 20 settling in for the night, low squawks and rustles heard above the scouring waves only a few metres below.
Birds often nest in precarious places, and despite the cliffs in Tamri, southwest Morocco, actually being pretty strong, by knowing this species’ Critically Endangered status, you cannot help but feel a little worried for these large, iridescent-black creatures.
Throughout history, Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita has had a turbulent relationship with humans. This mythical bald bird with a punkish crest once had an extensive range that spread across North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and has been idolised by humans as symbols of fertility and virtue, even mummified to accompany Ancient Egyptian royalty.
Today, almost all remaining wild birds are restricted to Morocco
Yet it has lost its feeding areas to land-use changes, its nest sites have been built on or disturbed, and it has also been poisoned by pesticides, hunted, persecuted, collected in a gold rush for museums, and a dramatic range-reduction resulted in an all-time population low at the end of the 20th century with only 59 breeding pairs remaining in 1997. Today, almost all remaining wild birds are restricted to Morocco.
A local man approaches with a GREPOM (BirdLife in Morocco) cap to watch the colony, having arrived on a motorbike at the exact time the flock landed in the area. He’s a warden, coordinated by Souss-Massa National Park, and trained to prevent disturbance of the ibises at the colony and surrounding fields where they feed on lizards, scorpions and beetles. He also provides safe drinking water and sees off any threats.
They’re social birds, easily spooked, so this work has really boosted the global population of wild Northern Bald Ibis in recent years, bringing it up to 600 birds for the first time in modern history — thanks to long-lasting commitment from BirdLife, and recently, to GREPOM and the Moroccan government protecting colonies at Souss-Massa National Park, and this smaller site at Tamri. GREPOM have also undertaken public awareness work to help raise the profile of such an important species.
“With great cooperation between BirdLife and the Moroccan government, the colonies started to look crowded”, says Chris Bowden, AEWA Coordinator for the species on behalf of BirdLife. “Perhaps along the coast a new colony would form.” Something every conservationist would delight in saying. But don’t count your colonies until your ibises have hatched: with better official protection still needed for the colony at Tamri, for example, nothing could be certain for a species that has been listed in the highest category of threat on the Red List for over 30 years.
A few tentative reports came in. Then: “We found what we’d been waiting for: a new colony!” said Halima Bousadik, GREPOM, who co-authored the paper heralding the welcome news. During the 2017 reproductive season, two new breeding sites were discovered on two distinct coastal cliffs north of Tamri, with adults incubating at least three confirmed active nests, and totaling a new record of 122 wild breeding pairs.
“The importance of this news is that, with a steady population increase, Northern Bald Ibis are now exiting their ‘comfort zone’ of the guarded sites, giving us a lot of hope for more similar discoveries”, said Jorge F. Orueta, SEO/BirdLife (BirdLife in Spain), who has worked on the species since 2000. “We now need to check all suitable sites in the region, and implement a GPS tracking programme to learn their movements.”
A story of East and West
The wild Moroccan birds are those remaining from a western population that used to range throughout northwest Africa, but are now restricted to wandering locally. This year, a flock of 11 to 15 ibises was also seen at the northern edge of the known breeding range. But what of the historical eastern population?
A semi-wild, but substantial breeding colony still exists in Birecik, Turkey. It’s a catch-22, because the birds need to be fully released so their migratory habits are restored, but at the start of winter, a team led by the Turkish government has to put them in captivity else they will fly into bullets over Syria or be subject to illegal hunting further south in Arabia. When they are free to roam in the summer, these birds face threats of disturbance, electrocution or collision with powerlines.
The Syrian conflict has brought added complications, increased disturbance and the possibility of persecution, as large numbers of refugees have settled in around Birecik (more than 400,000 in Urfa Province at present), occupying areas used by feeding ibises.
However, one Syrian refugee, a warden who worked with a small relict Northern Bald Ibis colony in Syria, has joined Doğa Derneği (BirdLife in Turkey), where his unique situation may be the key to protecting ibises once more. And, with conservation programmes to control threats and return the birds to fully wild status, there is no reason why this eastern population should not eventually roam free once again — hopefully remembering their migration route to Ethiopia. Sadly though, for the one wild female, and handful of Syrian birds that remained in captivity in Palmyra, the faint light of hope for them is likely extinguished.
Elsewhere, in the Austrian Alps, and southern Spain, two separate re-introduction programmes have released substantial captive-reared birds with the hope they establish again in Europe.
With new colonies and an international effort, it’s a new phase in the species’ conservation
Whilst, then, probably all wild Northern Bald Ibis are now found in Morocco, the species’ conservation is once again becoming an international effort. Hope is far from lost for the Turkish population, and many countries are joining the effort across the bird’s historical range, with support, both financial and technical, coming through SEO/BirdLife, RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), SVS-BirdLife Switzerland and VBN (BirdLife in the Netherlands). The work is carried out in Morocco with the High Commission for Water and Forest and Fight Against Desertification (Government of Morocco).
The Northern Bald Ibis International Working Group has just held its second ever meeting, as part of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). Held in Sous Massa National Park, attendee conservationists from all ibis territories are now equipped with an updated International Single Species Action Plan to continue the trend.
Leaving the cliffs of Tamri, it strikes you that those who wish to call the Northern Bald Ibis “ugly” haven’t seen healthy birds up close in their natural habitat; haven’t seen how the light shimmers green against their magnificent black flanks. With news of new colonies, and a new phase in ibis conservation, perhaps history will repeat itself and the Northern Bald Ibis will once again be idolised throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
Video by Brian Stone (tnstours.co.uk) of Northern Bald Ibis preening in the sun at Sous-Massa National Park.