Justification of Red List Category
This species underwent a long-term historical decline. In Syria its population has declined dramatically over the past 30 years and is probably now extinct as a breeding population. At least 95% of truly wild birds are now concentrated in one subpopulation in Morocco. Numbers have increased owing to management actions and consequent improved breeding success, and potential new colonies have been discovered. Despite these increases the population size is still very small, and so the species is listed as Endangered.
In Souss-Massa National Park and Tamri, Morocco in 2015, 116 pairs raised 205 fledglings with a total of 580 individuals present at the end of the breeding season (Oubrou and El Bekkay 2015). In 2014, 115 pairs produced 192 young which went on to fledge (Oubrou and El Bekkay 2014). In 2013, 113 pairs (i.e. 226 mature individuals) nested, out of 319 adults, and produced 148 fledged young with a total of 443 birds at the end of the breeding season (Oubrou and El Bekkay 2013, J. F. Orueta in litt. 2016). In 2011, 110 pairs produced 138 fledged young (J. F. Orueta in litt. 2016), matching the breeding success of 2010, when 105 pairs fledged 138 young (R. Grimmett in litt. 2011). After the breeding season the total number of birds in the western population may have exceeded 500 in 2011-2012 (IAGNBI 2012), and almost reached 600 individuals in 2015 (Oubrou and El Bekkay 2015). Only a single mature female returned to Syria in 2013 (C. Bowden in litt. 2013) and again in 2014, but reportedly no birds returned in 2015 (Serra 2015). The last successful breeding record in Syria is from 2011 when a single breeding pair fledged two young (R. Grimmett in litt. 2011). The Turkish population now numbers around 100 individuals (IAGNBI 2012), but these managed birds are excluded from the total estimate. The species is considered Regionally Extinct in Europe (BirdLife International 2015).
The Moroccan population underwent a catastrophic reduction in the mid-1990s, but has since increased steadily. Serra (2003) provides reasonable evidence, including testimonies of local people, that in Syria the species was still common 20 years ago and possibly quite abundant 30 years ago. Colonies of several hundred probably existed up until 1980. Although the Turkish population may now be recovering to similar levels as ten or more years ago, this heavily managed population is excluded from the overall trends; as are the reintroduced populations in Austria, Germany and Spain. Overall, though, the current trend is tentatively suspected to be stable.
The historical range of the species probably extended throughout North Africa and into the Middle East. However, since the beginning of the 20th century the species has been known from two disjunct populations: a western population in Morocco and an eastern population in Turkey and Syria. In Morocco it is found at Souss-Massa National Park (Souss-Massa NP) (338 km2, three sub-colonies) and at nearby Tamri (one colony, half the breeding population) (Bowden 1998), with some movement of birds between these two; and in 2017 two new breeding sites were identified (Aourir et al. 2017). In 1995, the Moroccan population was estimated at 300 individuals (74 breeding pairs that laid eggs) (Bowden et al. 2003). In 1998, it had declined to 59 pairs, following the mysterious death of 40 birds in 1996 (Bowden 1998, Touti et al. 1999), but by 2015 there were 116 pairs that laid eggs (Oubrou and El Bekkay 2015). Importantly, since 1980 there has been no overall decline in numbers at Souss-Massa NP (Bowden et al. 2003). At present the population in Morocco is stable. In 2014, the total number of birds in Morocco was estimated at 524 individuals, with 115 pairs successfully raising 192 young which went on to fledge (Oubrou and El Bekkay 2014); and in 2015 there were 116 pairs, 205 fledglings and 580 birds at the end of the breeding season (Oubrou and El Bekkay 2015). These breeding numbers are the best since detailed records began 30 years ago (Safford unpubl. 2016). There is some cause for optimism that former areas may soon be recolonised (C. Bowden in litt. 2006), this is supported by observations of groups of up to 12 birds (both adults and sub-adults) in areas within the species's former range (J. F. Orueta in litt. 2016).
The eastern population was believed to have died out, however in 2002 a tiny colony, consisting of just seven individuals, was rediscovered at Palmyra in Syria (Serra et al. 2004). Having barely been rediscovered, this population now looks as though it will once more be lost, with just a single individual returning to the colony in 2013 (C. Bowden in litt. 2013) and again in 2014, and reportedly no birds returning in 2015 (Serra 2015). Being migratory, the Syrian population is behaviourally distinct from the Moroccan one, from which it is thought to have separated long ago. During the six breeding seasons following the rediscovery (2002-2007), the three, and then two, pairs bred well and a total of 24 chicks fledged and left the breeding area successfully (Serra et al. 2009). Between 2004 and 2007, five immature ibises returned to the colony (Serra et al. 2009). In 2008, breeding failed with four chicks dying, probably due to predation by Brown-necked Raven Corvus ruficollis (Hirschfeld 2008). The causes of failed breeding in 2009 are uncertain, but intraspecific disturbance and low spring rainfall are possible factors (Murdoch 2010). In 2011, a single breeding pair fledged two young (R. Grimmett in litt. 2011), but the same pair failed to breed in 2012 (C. Bowden in litt. 2012). Searches in 2003 for further colonies within the Syrian steppes proved fruitless (Serra et al. 2004).
Satellite-tagging has revealed that the Syrian population migrates south through Jordan and Saudi Arabia; six birds spent three weeks in Yemen (July-August), then wintering in central Ethiopia; migrating back to Syria, through Eritrea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in February (Lindsell et al. 2009); with very few individuals located in Ethiopia in the winter over recent years (Serra and Wondafrash 2009), with the most recent sightings being three adults in winter 2014 (Bowden 2014) and only one individual seen since 2015, which is suspected to have come from Syria (C. Bowden in litt. 2017). Records of untagged birds in Israel and Djibouti in late 2007 may relate to immature birds from the Syrian colony or birds from an as yet undiscovered population (Hirschfeld 2008). A semi-wild population numbering 91 individuals in 2006 exists at Birecik, Turkey (J. Tavares in litt. 2007), where birds are free-flying for five months, breeding on natural nest sites and nest-boxes on cliffs, but are taken into captivity after the breeding season to prevent them from migrating (G. Eken in litt. 2005, J. Tavares in litt. 2007). Three birds from the colony migrated in 2009 travelling via the Palmyra site. However, three were found dead in Jordan (Niemann 2009). In 2013, six individuals were selected to remain in the wild and at least five of these migrated south in August stopping very close to the Palmyra site (C. Bowden in litt. 2013). However in September 2013 the birds moved westwards towards Homs and a few days later all three tagged birds stopped transmitting (Bowden 2013), for unknown reasons, but hunting and electrocution on power lines are possible causes of mortality.
Historically, the species occurred across parts of southern Europe, and reintroduction projects are underway for a migratory population in Austria and Germany (numbering c.30 individuals [Wald 2014]) which has been successfully trained to winter in Tuscany, Italy (Waldrappteam 2014a, b); and the reintroduction a more sedentary population has been initiated in Andalusia, Spain, with a long-term aim to re-establish the species (C. Bowden in litt. 2016). There are currently around 1,200 studbook registered individuals in European zoos (Wald 2014) and probably a further 800 unregistered birds of Moroccan origin (C. Bowden in litt. 2016). Around 190 birds were released in Spain between 2004 and 2009 (Boehm and Bowden 2010), and in 2008 a released pair laid two eggs, perhaps the first breeding of the species in the wild in Spain for 500 years (Hirschfeld 2008). Up to 24 breeding adults were present on three breeding cliffs in 2013 (Jordano and Márquez 2013) and 25 breeding pairs in 2014 (UvA Bird Tracking System undated). However, predation by eagle-owls has meant a near-complete breeding failure there in 2017 (J. F. Orueta in litt. 2017, M. Quevedo in litt. 2017), and the population is not yet self-sustaining, with yearly restocking releases (A. Cunningham in litt. 2017). There have been some sightings of some Spanish re-introduced individuals crossing to Morocco (e.g. Muñoz and Ramírez 2017), although these predominantly appear to be hand-reared juveniles (Bowden et al. 2018).
Behaviour: The small Syrian population is migratory, but the larger western population is dispersive (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Breeding occurs in colonies of up to 40 pairs, beginning in mid-February, and eggs are laid in March-April (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Colonies are vacated in late June or early July, but migration and dispersal do not commence until August, with birds recorded on the breeding grounds as late as November (Cramp and Simmons 1977). Some reside in Souss-Massa NP and around Tamri throughout the year (Bowden et al. 2003). Juveniles tend to disperse over the longest distances (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Movements appear to be to some extent determined by rainfall (Hancock et al. 1992). Migrating birds from the Syrian population do not arrive in their Ethiopian winter quarters before December (Cramp and Simmons 1977). All return to their breeding colonies in February and March (Cramp and Simmons 1977). Birds in general are gregarious throughout the year (Brown et al. 1982). The species forages in loose groups with birds well spread out, but commutes in flocks between the colony or roost and the feeding grounds (Cramp and Simmons 1977). Winter flocks vary from a few individuals to over 100 (Cramp and Simmons 1977). Breeding performance is highly variable from one year to the next (Bowden et al. 2003), but does not appear to be related to rainfall in the vicinity of the colonies as previously reported elsewhere. It is suggested that coastal fogs in the Souss-Massa region may buffer the adverse impacts of low rainfall, and may in part account for the year-round residency of the birds (Bowden et al. 2003).
Habitat: Breeding Colonies are usually situated in rocky areas, cliffs and escarpments in remote arid regions (Cramp and Simmons 1977). In the past castles, ruins and walls were used as nest sites even in urban areas (Hancock et al. 1992). They are often located near the banks of rivers, along streams or on the coast (Hancock et al. 1992). Birds may feed on dry ground and rocky slopes, as well as in wetlands, on coastal sandy strips, on river beds and in sandy banks on the sea shore (Hancock et al. 1992). Roosts away from the breeding site can be in trees, on cliff ledges or sometimes in fields (Hancock et al. 1992). Non-breeding During the non-breeding season it may be found in mountain meadows, stubble fields, short grass, rocky semi-arid ground, and damp ground in lower areas of high plateaus (Hancock et al. 1992). It prefers areas with very sparse vegetation, but sometimes frequents pastures and cultivated fields (Aghnaj et al. 2001). It avoids tilled fields and pastures where the grass exceeds 25 cm in height (Hancock et al. 1992). Birds that migrate to Ethiopia during the non-breeding season feed on high moors, wet meadows and by fast-flowing mountain streams and lake margins up to 3,500 m elevation (Hancock et al. 1992).
Diet: It has a broad diet, feeding on any available animal life (Aghnaj et al. 2001) including insects, arachnids, scorpions, earthworms, snails and vertebrates such as fish, amphibians, lizards and snakes, small rodents and small birds, whether alive or dead (Hancock et al. 1992). It will also feed on vegetation including berries, shoots, duckweed, and rhizomes of aquatic plants (Hancock et al. 1992).
The species has been in decline for several centuries, perhaps partly owing to unidentified natural causes. However, the more recent rapid decline is undoubtedly the result of a combination of factors, with different threats affecting different populations. Hunting was the main threat to the tiny Syrian population, and overgrazing and collecting of firewood have reduced habitat quality in feeding areas, with food availability declining during the pre-dispersal period when the species's nutritional requirements are high (Lindsell et al. 2011). The ongoing conflict in Syria makes it very difficult to assess current threats and whether the species persists there. Prior to the conflict, suspected threats were; construction of a well at a main feeding site; disturbance from other human activities, and this population was also potentially threatened by trophy hunters, combined with a lack of safe areas with water sources (Serra et al. 2009). The integrity of the protected area at the Syrian breeding colonies was potentially threatened by oil concessions, infrastructure development and plans for urbanisation (Serra et al. 2009, Murdoch 2010). Satellite tracking of juvenile birds indicates that the main threat to the eastern population was mortality from hunting in the Arabian Peninsula. Three birds tagged in summer 2010 did not survive their first winter (R. Grimmett in litt. 2011). Breeding productivity in Syria in 2005 was zero: local rangers reported predation as the cause. The most serious nest predator had been Brown-necked Raven Corvus ruficollis, however, predation by Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus on young ibis chicks was also suspected (Serra et al. 2009). The Birecik subpopulation has also suffered from losses to predation in some years (J. Tavares pers. comm. 2008). At Souss-Massa NP, the most recent causes of breeding failure have been loss of eggs to predators and, more importantly, poor chick survival as a result of starvation and predation (Bowden et al. 2003).
In Turkey, a major historical threat was poisoning and reduced breeding success caused by pesticides used against locusts and mosquitoes (Murdoch 2010). In Morocco, illegal building and disturbance close to the breeding cliffs and changes in farming on the feeding grounds are the threats that may have the most severe impact on the population. A proposed tourist development at the national park could prove detrimental to the birds if it is not constructed in a sensitive way (Anon. 2009). Poisoning was originally suspected to be the cause of death of three tagged individuals found in Jordan, however electrocution whilst standing on electricity pylons is now believed to have been the most likely cause (Anon 2009). On the Ethiopian wintering grounds disturbance of the last few birds, as well as rainfall shortages have been identified as threats in the short-term (Serra et al. 2013). In the longer term, conversion of pastures to crops and increasing use of fertilisers and pesticides are likely to threaten wintering birds (Serra et al. 2013). Illegal hunting in Italy has been identified as a key threat to birds undertaking human-led migration from captive breeding populations in the Alps (Wald 2014).
Conservation Actions Underway
CITES Appendix I. CMS Appendix I and II. In 1999, an international advisory group IAGNBI was created to coordinate efforts and provide scientific advice (Bowden 2001). The IAGNBI met in August 2016 (Boehm and Bowden 2016, C. Bowden in litt. 2016). The eastern sub-population is listed as Critically Endangered in the regional Red List for the Arabian Peninsula (Symes et al. 2015). An international species action plan was published in 2006. An African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) International Working Group was established in 2012 and a revised International Single Species Action Plan (ISSAP) for the Conservation of the Northern Bald Ibis was approved by AEWA in 2015 (C. Bowden in litt. 2016). The revised ISSAP has four objectives to be achieved by 2025: increase reproductive success; reduce adult/juvenile mortality; establish new colonies; fill key knowledge gaps (Bowden 2015).
Over 1,000 individuals of the western population exist in captivity worldwide, but birds from the eastern population are much rarer in captivity (four Turkish zoos hold 20 birds and participate in an ex situ breeding operation [Böhm 2004]). An international studbook was discontinued in 1998 (Böhm 2004). An in situ breeding programme at Birecik aims to establish a partially captive population of 150 birds to provide birds for release to the wild population if this action is agreed in future (Böhm 2004). Supplementary feeding is conducted for the Turkish population, but there is no evidence that this increases productivity (Yeniyurt et al. 2017). Colour-ringing of young at Birecik has begun and there were plans to attach satellite transmitters to a family party in July 2007 (J. Tavares in litt. 2007). A captive breeding centre has been built at Ain Tijja-Mezguitem, north-eastern Morocco, and is stocked with zoo-bred birds imported in 2000 and 2004 (WAZA www.waza.org). In 2004, an information centre was also constructed. Six pairs bred in 2006 and successfully reared six offspring. In 2007, the aviary contained 19 birds (13 adults and six juveniles). The centre was closed in 2016 with the remaining birds transferred to Rabat Zoo (J. F. Orueta in litt. 2016). A reintroduction was planned once the population has reached around 40 birds (WAZA www.waza.org). Other captive breeding schemes exist or are planned in Austria, Spain and Italy, and programmes of releasing captive birds are either in progress or in the experimental phase in Bavaria, Spain, and Italy (N. Schaffer in litt. 2007, UNEP/CMS 2008, Fritz 2010). In southern Spain, a total of 190 birds were released between 2004 and 2009 (Boehm and Bowden 2010). Although juvenile mortality has been high, the first breeding pair was formed on nearby cliffs in 2008. A small independent non-migratory colony is now becoming well established in the area (Matheu et al. 2014). There are two introduced populations in the Alps, totalling 30 individuals, in Burghausen (Germany) and Salzburg (Austria) (Wald 2014). These birds have undertaken human-led migration to Orbetello Lagoon in Tuscany, Italy and in 2011 the first wild bird independently migrated from Italy to Burghausen (Waldrappteam 2014a). There have been experimental field studies of the feeding ecology of hand-raised individuals in potential summer and winter habitat in Europe (Zoufal et al. 2006). An EU LIFE+ project was initiated in 2013 (Waldrappteam 2014b). The primary objective of the project is to re-establish migratory breeding colonies in Germany and Austria which will winter in Italy. A small breeding colony already exists in Burghausen (Germany) and a further two colonies are to be established in Kuchl (Austria) and Uberlingen (Germany) (Waldrappteam 2014b). By 2019 the colonies should consist of at least 119 individuals (Fritz 2014). The project also aims to reduce illegal hunting of the species in Italy (Anon. 2014). In Turkey, efforts have focused on increasing the semi-wild population through better husbandry, and now awareness-raising activities are ongoing, targeting locals and particularly farmers, focusing on the ecological importance of the species and the negative effects of using pesticides (Hatipoglu 2009, C. Bowden in litt. 2015).
In 1991, the Souss-Massa National Park was designated specifically to protect nesting and feeding areas (Bowden et al. 2003) and in 1994, a monitoring and research programme was set up involving local people (Bowden 1998). The provision of freshwater near the breeding colonies in the national park has been shown experimentally to increase productivity, buffering individuals against the impacts of low rainfall, and is now an ongoing conservation measure (Smith et al. 2008). The Palmyra project in Syria has initiated a research and protection programme in collaboration with local communities, however the current security situation means any work on the species is very difficult. Three birds were satellite-tagged there in June 2006 (Anon. 2006), and one in 2007; giving an indication of the migratory route of Syrian individuals. Syria's first local conservation society, the Palmyra Society for the Protection of Environment and Wildlife, aims to develop ecotourism in the area (Anon. 2008). The breeding area in Syria was declared a protected area in 2004 by Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform. It was also declared as an IBA by BirdLife in 2007. Ecotourism and awareness raising has been promoted throughout the range. Conservation action to date has focused on reducing the negative influences on breeding success, but it is recognised that for such a long-lived bird, adult survival is also likely to be an important limiting factor on the population size. Plans to release young birds from the Birecik colony in Syria during 2009 were halted by delays in obtaining permissions from the Turkish authorities, although it was hoped that this would be possible in 2010 (Anon. 2008). Five birds were released from the Birecik colony in 2013 and fitted with satellite tags but these birds were lost over Syria and future releases halted to prevent further losses (Safford unpubl. 2016).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Conduct research into feeding and breeding biology, and habitat requirements (Brindley et al. 1995), and investigate (safety concerns allowing) whether the eastern subpopulation persists. Continue to monitor numbers and breeding success (Bowden et al. 2003). Protect key breeding and roosting sites from disturbance and development (Bowden et al. 2003). Ensure the Moroccan breeding sites are protected, and wardening operations are supported (as there is a wardening crisis [J. Fritz in litt. 2017]). Explore the possibility of reintroducing captive-bred birds into previously occupied sites (when detailed information on ecological requirements is available) (Brindley et al. 1995, Mendelssohn 1994, Bowden 2001). Research feasibility of re-establishing wild (preferably migratory) population in Turkey (J. Tavares in litt. 2007). Continue with current husbandry at Birecik to increase colony size (J. Tavares in litt. 2007). Protect potential wintering areas in Ethiopia in case the eastern subpopulation persists. Raise awareness among hunters on the migration route (Anon. 2006). Where possible, study threats along the migration route and in the non-breeding range of the Syrian population (Anon. 2008).
70-80 cm. Large ibis. Black overall, with iridescent tints of blue, green and copper in sunlight. Red, naked face and crown. Long, narrow feathers project from nuchal area to form ruff. Voice Usually silent. Various hisses and grunts at nest and in display.
Text account compilers
Pilgrim, J., Pople, R., Shutes, S., Symes, A., Taylor, J., Westrip, J., Benstead, P., Ashpole, J, Bird, J., Allinson, T, Butchart, S., Calvert, R., Ekstrom, J., Khwaja, N., Martin, R.
Tavares, J., Ayé, R., Orueta, J., Cunningham, A., Sekercioglu, C., Bowden, C., Engin, G., Buckley, P., Serra, G., Eken, G., Heip, C., Fritz, J., Schäffer, N., Quevedo, M.
BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Geronticus eremita. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 22/03/2023. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2023) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 22/03/2023.