There is a public park near my house, in a corner of this park is a sort of small zoo; containing various domesticated and wild animals, in a small damp aviary in this park there is a small group of sad-looking and slightly ugly birds with glossy black plumage, a straggly crest and a bald, red head. These birds are far from home and are highly unlikely to ever see their home, for they are Northern Bald Ibis and Northern Bald Ibis are nearly extinct in the wild. Their natural home is the cliffs and desert pastures of the Mediterranean, once (hundreds of years ago) their home also encompassed Switzerland, Italy, Austria and much of central/southern Europe, now their home consists of a few cliff ledges in Morocco and until recently Syria. Why until recently were they in Syria I hear you ask? Well they were believed extinct in that country but in 2002 a very small relict population was discovered, a few years ago that population fell to just three individual birds, and today (last I heard) there is just a single Bald Ibis, that for all I know may be gone by now.
Within the last decade there have been several re-introduction programmes in southern Spain, Austria and Turkey (In Turkey there is a ‘feral’ population of free-flying birds that are caged in the winter to prevent them from migrating) and the wild population in Morocco has been supported by Birdlife International, the RSPB and various local organisations. But what went wrong in the first place? It would seem that a combination of habitat loss (the dry pasture land that they feed on has been ploughed up or used for cattle farming), pesticide poisoning, drought, overgrazing and surprise surprise – hunting.
It cannot be said that there has not been a lot of effort to protect this species, because there has, but these are difficult birds to protect – the fact that they migrate (except for the Moroccan populations) makes it very difficult as they often die on route or at their wintering grounds and it is practically impossible to protect them across such a large area. To protect their breeding grounds is probably the easiest and best option, by providing adequate feeding areas and nesting sites, and by boosting populations by releasing birds from captive stock (there are many in zoos and aviaries across the world, although some of these have declined to release any into the wild) could just stop the species from tipping over the edge and joining the long list of extinct organisms. They are difficult birds to cater for though, with specific habitat requirements and high infant mortality rates, not to mention that climate change is only going to make their current breeding grounds less and less suitable as it gets hotter and drier.
But lets focus on the bird itself – Geronticus eremita – is not the prettiest bird in the world, but to not care for or pay attention to a creature near extinction just because you can’t get a fluffy toy out of it would be really very wrong. The fact that it is different makes it special, it has a frailty about it that makes it quite endearing, the ‘expression’ on its face is one of innocence – unlike the ‘evil’ look on similarly bald vultures (I have nothing against vultures and recognise that they also need protection but they do look nasty). But what does this bird contribute – what does it do for us – what is it for – why should we protect it? To ask these questions is like asking why we should have art galleries, it does not matter one iota whether the Bald Ibis plays a major part in the ecosystem or not – it is here on this planet, as we are, to lose it would be another black mark against humanity, not to mention losing a bird that just by existing enriches the Earth and gives us something to look at that isn’t a bloody Panda.
I look at how rapidly the Syrian Bald Ibis population disappeared right under the noses of conservationists and despite their best efforts, and I look at how climate change will alter the birds habitat, and I look at the Mediterranean peoples attitude to hunting birds, and I also look at how the Ibis is barely known about in the UK and is under-represented worldwide. When I look at these things I seriously doubt if the poor Bald Ibis will exist in the wild in 20 or 30 years time, and I seriously wonder if anyone will notice when its gone. I hope I am wrong.
Do please check out the website and blog of the Moroccan conservation programme here where you can also donate.