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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Saving the NORTHERN BALD IBIS from extinction

I appreciated Richard Porter's response to the personal email of Gianluca Serra that was posted shortly before Christmas. Also Gianluca's apology and clarification that he never intended the email to go more widely, but I still feel it may be useful to give some clarifications and background. So here's a brief summary of the activities and involvement of BirdLife, RSPB and other partners in the combined efforts to conserve the Syrian NBI population, and why open criticism can be very destructive to our shared goals to prevent this population from extinction in the wild.

It is clear that the eastern NORTHERN BALD IBIS population is in as precarious a state as is possible, and working to prevent its extinction is a priority, and relies on cooperation between the multiple governments, NGOs and all those concerned. Since the rediscovery in Syria back in 2002, the BirdLife Middle East office has taken a leading role within the region on this, in addition to the IUCN programme, the Syrian Desert Commission together with research and coordination support from RSPB (BirdLife UK), and key support in Turkey from Doga Dernegi (DD - BirdLife Turkey) and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS - BirdLife Ethiopia). Longstanding and more recent involvement has come from Saudi Wildlife Commission (SWC), Waldrappteam (Austria), several committed individuals among a longer list of other supporting funders and technical experts. As BirdLife International endeavours to work more widely internationally, identifying a potential national NGO partner to work for bird conservation in each country, which is an ambitious overall goal of the Partnership and it is fair to say that in the MiddleEast, this Partnership is a long way from being comprehensive. Despite this, the Partnership in the region is growing, with very strong Partners in Iraq and Jordan and a long standing Partner in Ethiopia that has been the most relevant one to draw upon in the context of the ibis.

Newer to the scene, in Syria there has been good progress with the Syrian Society for the Conservation of Wildlife (SSCW) and in Turkey, DD has had a long standing involvement with the species. The International Advisory Group for NBI (IAGNBI) also adds what support it can, but is largely composed of elements of the above mentioned elements. One crucial feature in all this is, of course, respective Government support, involvement and activity. Further challenges have arisen due to (in some cases) frequent changes of personnel, and often squeezed environment budget lines, and a paucity of qualified biologists within Governments.

Meanwhile, the need to understand the threats to the remaining few birds has been paramount, as there is a real risk of putting resources into activities that are not actually linked to the major threats. The fact that breeding productivity in Syria was almost double that in the stable Moroccan population was suggestive of subsequent low survival rates, but the need to protect the birds at the breeding sites was also a major activity, requiring considerable coordination and engagement with the local authorities. It was unfortunate that Gianluca was excluded from these activities by the authorities, perhaps because of his public criticisms of their performance, which also made it more difficult to include him within the BirdLife programme, but he was certainly not excluded by BirdLife.

The progress there includes the establishment of protection scheme for the breeding and feeding areas in Syria (not perfect but definitely having some effect), permissions to tag in Syria and Turkey (this has been a major stumbling block for other Critically Endangered species in Asia even in recent times), establishing the migration route and stop-off areas, permissions to transfer birds from Turkey, practical aspects of achieving this carried out, engagement of senior public figures in both Turkey and Syria, surveys of Ethiopian, Saudi and Yemen sites (included direct collaboration between Syrian and Saudi biologists, Yemen Minister of Environment involved in the field, etc), ,

I do feel that the level of collaboration has generally been excellent, and Gianluca has been ready to collaborate throughout. But many of the actions need to be taken by people from within the region and the countries directly concerned, and despite the frustrations, it very rarely helps to criticise from outside, as so often inaction is caused by other players who from the outside may not seem to be part of the process. I may be accused of putting too positive a spin on things, but echoing Richard Porter's email, knowing how complex such things often are, I think we've helped achieve a huge amount in what has from the outset been a precarious situation, and the way the trial supplementation in 2010 went far exceeded expectations based on the prior documented research on how the species has coped with earlier release trials. I was unofficially privy to an exchange between two senior very long standing biologists from the region (I won't name them here and they didn't know I'd get to see this when they wrote it) who agreed that the progress and cooperation "was little short of a miracle,and we should all start believing more that miracles for conservation are possible!". But whether the progress has been small or large, we all know that there's a huge task ahead to keep the possibility alive that the NBI population can be maintained in the wild and its most important to focus on how we achieve that.

Chris Bowden, International Species Recovery Officer, RSPB