"Bird of the Pharaohs" Stages Comeback

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
October 3, 2003

A few years ago it looked like the only northern bald ibises that would last until the new century were the ones mummified by the ancient Egyptians. But ornithologists say the bird the pharaohs so revered has staged a spectacular comeback thanks to a last-ditch conservation effort in northern Africa.

One of the world's most endangered birds, by 1997 less than 100 adult northern bald ibises (Geronticus eremita) remained in the wild. Almost wiped out by human pressures, the species clung on at the Souss-Massa National Park in Morocco.

This wildlife reserve, located near Agadir on the Atlantic coast, became the focus of an emergency conservation program. Launched by the British-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity, measures included the provision of wardens and freshwater drinking sites.

The reserve's ibis colony has since grown to 85 pairs, representing a 60 percent increase in the world population.

Chris Bowden, an RSPB conservation biologist and ibis expert, says that without the program the bird faced extinction in the wild.

He added: "We are confident we have found the key to its survival in Morocco. The ibises spend much of the year living and feeding close by local people, so wardening and awareness-raising work is vitally important."

Outside Souss-Massa National Park, the sole surviving northern bald ibis population is in Syria. Discovered only last year, this genetically-distinct colony managed just seven young this summer, compared with 100 raised in Morocco.

Clean Water

RSPB spokesman Grahame Madge says the reserve's new wardens have prevented human disturbance, while the drinking areas are essential in providing a source of clean water.

"Many ibises died in the past from water contaminated either by pesticides or some other pollutant," he said.

Madge says efforts to educate local people have also been crucial, adding: "We've made giant strides in informing them about the importance of this bird and getting their backing in trying to conserve it."

The northern bald ibis was once found across northern Africa, the Middle East, and much of Europe, including the Alps.

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