A pair of northern bald ibis were released from a breeding site in Palmyra, Syria last spring for their annual migration to the Ethiopian highlands.

Syrian bald ibis. (painting, Waldrapp)

Fitting a satellite tag to a northern bald ibis in Syria in spring 2006. (Photo: G. Serra)

Odeinat, an adult male and father of two just fledged juveniles, was fitted with a tracking tag. The female, Zenobia, was not. Two juveniles from a semi-wild population in Turkey were released concurrently.

Ibis migration.

Researchers tracked the birds via satellite. Odeinat’s tag stopped transmitting in southern Saudi Arabia last July. It has not been possible to search for him, as the last signals did not give an accurate location.

Ibis in Ethiopia. (Photo: G. Serra)

Subsequently, a total of four birds were seen briefly this January at the usual Ethiopian highland wintering site. Researchers have just reported that Zenobia has returned to Syria without Odeinat. There are no signs of any more birds so far returning from their migration to Ethiopia. Zenobia may be the last of her kind.

    The ibis is a legendary bird in the middle east. Given the name “eremita” meaning living like a hermit because it breeds in inaccessible cliffs, its yearly migration south along the peninsula of Saudi Arabia in the direction of Mecca made it a companion of Muslims on their pilgrimage, who came to regard it as a holy bird. In Turkey it was presumed that the ibis carried the souls of the ancestors and was therefore untouchable. Despite its cultural importance the bird’s numbers began plummeting.

The population was believed to have been obliterated starting from 1989 until three breeding pairs were rediscovered in Syria in 2002. Despite all efforts the colony dwindled to a single pair in the past two years and now there appears to be just the one bird.

Ibis range.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Syrian ibises aren’t a distinct species or subspecies, but they are genetically different from their northern African cousins (found chiefly in Morocco) and are the only members of the species to undertake long-range migrations.

Among the hopes for maintaining the eastern population are further releases from the former colony site at Birecik in SE Turkey where a semi-wild population of around 100 individuals are being raised. But the birds are not free-ranging and they don’t migrate. If released they will not know the location of their wintering grounds since this information is believed to be transmitted from bird-to-bird. The only other wild population which is also the subject of dedicated conservation efforts comprises just over 100 breeding pairs at two colonies in Morocco. The Moroccan ibis are also residents birds, they do not migrate.

Last Syrian ibis among bedouin khaimas. (Photo M.S. Abdallah)

The bad news about the birds comes at a time when coordinated conservation efforts are strengthening. A new International Working Group for the Northern bald ibis was held in Jazan, Saudi Arabia last November, sponsored by the Saudi Wildlife Authority and Jazan University.

It is believed there are about 500 wild northern bald ibis remaining in southern Morocco. The bird is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List.