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Volume 40, Number 6November/December 1989

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Last of the Mohicans

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Nik Wheeler
Additional photographs by Tansu Gürpinar and Udo Hirsch

A small band of conservationists seems to have lost its 22-year battle to save the last wild breeding colony of Turkey's bald ibis. Only three of the rare and remarkably ugly birds returned from their Red Sea wintering grounds this year to Birecik in southeastern Turkey - their last known nesting place. All three birds apparently died before they could reproduce.

It is possible that some young birds still survive in Red Sea regions, where they spend six years maturing before returning to their birthplace to breed. But without older birds to guide them back to Birecik, the revival of the Geronticus eremita breeding colony on the banks of the Euphrates must be considered unlikely.

"It will be several years before we know for certain," says Gernant Magnin, a project officer of the International Council for Bird Preservation based in Turkey, "but we have to conclude that this migratory subspecies of bald ibis will soon be extinct in the wild."

Some 200 bald ibis do still survive in the wild in northwest Africa. But these birds, known as the western population, are ecologically and morphologically different from Turkey's eastern population. The Turkish birds were migratory, but those of northwest Africa are resident, both breeding and wintering mostly in Morocco and Algeria. The African birds also have a slightly longer bill. Although classified as an endangered species, the future of the western bald ibis seems relatively bright. Its three most important breeding colonies are within the limits of the Massa National Park, presently being established in southwest Morocco. This park also includes a large portion of the known wintering area of this population. Furthermore, some 650 western bald ibis are kept in 45 zoos around the world - many with good breeding records - ensuring its survival in captivity at least.

A Birecik captive breeding colony was established in 1976 in an attempt to reinforce the rapidly declining wild population of the birds, but its effect was to reduce the wild population still further. The 32 bald ibis adults captured for the breeding station produced only 24 healthy young birds, most of which disappeared or died on their release to the wild.

The long story of the eastern bald ibis - also known as the crested ibis or by its German dialect name of Waldrapp - is full of such ironies: According to legend, the bird was freed by Noah following the flood as a symbol of fertility - yet it was made temporarily infertile by modern man. One of the world's first officially protected species - it was named in a decree by Archbishop Leonhard of Salzburg in 1504 - the bald ibis died out, in the end, at least partly because of official neglect. And although it is the emblem of the Turkish Society for the Protection of Wildlife (TDHKD), it was the one species the society could not save.

"They were the last of the Mohicans," says TDHKD president Nergiz Yazgan, in wry reference to the crest of long, black feathers which sprouts like an Indian headdress from the back of the bird's pink-and-grey bald head. Goose-sized and iridescent black, the bird has a long, red down-curved bill and gawky red legs.

Fossil finds show that the bald ibis was part of the fauna of a wide mountainous area of southern Europe even in stone-age times, and it was recorded as a "local ibis species" by a Roman official traveling in the Alps during the first century of our era.

In medieval times, when its nestlings were a delicacy for the tables of the rich, the bald ibis's range extended from Eastern Europe to the Rhone Valley in France. But by the middle of the 17th century it had completely disappeared from Europe, due partly to climatic cooling, partly to overhunting and destruction of the bird's preferred habitat: stony cliffs, usually along rivers.

Within a single century, the bird was so well forgotten that 18th-century naturalists believed it to have been a myth. They argued that earlier naturalists like Switzerland's Konrad von Gesner, who had published a drawing and description of the bald ibis in 1555, had been either hoaxers, or hoaxed themselves.

Thus when a wandering ornithologist discovered a huge colony of bald black-crested birds in Syria in 1854, they were treated as an entirely new species, and it was not until after 1906 that this bird was finally accepted as Gesner's Waldrapp, or forest raven. By that time the Syrian colony had been destroyed and the Birecik colony had been discovered, in 1879, by a passing English ornithologist.

According to legend, Birecik's links with the bald ibis date back to Biblical times, when Noah and his family, after releasing the bird from the ark, followed it to a fertile river valley where they built a small house and settled down. Bir eveik, meaning "a small house" in Turkish, is said to be the origin of the name of today's village.

Indeed, the Qur'an says the ark "came to rest on Mount Judi." Birecik lies near one of several Middle Eastern mountains that bear the name cited in the Qur'an. And although the Bible places the ark's landfall upon "the mountains of Ararat" - and popular Western belief says Noah's journey ended on the peak of that name in northeastern Turkey - the two geographic descriptions are not mutually exclusive, since at one time the designation "Ararat" denoted much of eastern Turkey.

Birecik, situated where the mountains of Anatolia plunge down sharply onto the upper Mesopotamian plain, backs against a steep limestone cliff. Rock holes and crevices in that cliff have been favorite nesting sites for the bald ibis as long as anyone can remember - certainly since the colony came to Western ornithologists' attention. During the first half of this century, the Birecik colony of bald ibis maintained a relatively stable population of about 500 breeding pairs. The first accurate count, in 1953, showed 1300 birds, including young.

Then, between 1956 and 1959, Birecik was repeatedly drenched in insecticides as simultaneous spraying operations were carried out in the region: Intensive prophylactic spraying against swarms of locusts which had invaded the Euphrates basin coincided with DDT and dieldrin spraying to combat malaria.

The effects of this double dose of toxic chemicals were catastrophic. Concentrations of DDT and its derivatives were so high in the environment that many people fell ill, domestic animals died and much wildlife was destroyed. Six to seven hundred bald ibis, about half of the Birecik population, died of acute organophosphate poisoning.

The long-term effects on the birds, who use their long beaks to probe for grubs and insects in the earth, were even more devastating. For more than a decade the bald ibis produced hardly any young. Even 15 years later an analysis of their eggs revealed high levels of insecticide contamination. And, weakened and disabled by toxins, the bald ibis were abnormally susceptible to accident, weather and disease.

In 1967, only 50 ibis pairs nested in Birecik; in 1970, 36 pairs; and in 1972, only 26 pairs, and the total population of the colony had declined to some 60 birds. It was at this point that Turkey's well-known bird painter Salih Acar, rug specialist Belkis Balpinar and German wildlife photographer Udo Hirsch learned how close the birds were to extinction and moved to protect them (See Aramco World, January-February 1974).

After the pesticides, Birecik's own townspeople had become the main continuing threat to the ibis colony. Although they had once welcomed the birds back each year with a day-long celebration, the force of the legends and superstitions surrounding the birds had faded. The ibis, now nesting mostly on a long, narrow ledge in Birecik's cliff, found rooftops - where people might cook, eat, sleep, hang laundry, keep pigeons or dry peppers - within a few meters of their nests. In 1973, three-quarters of the colony's heavy egg and chick losses were due directly to human interference.

The World Wide Fund for Nature supported the conservationists' proposal to wall off the nesting ledge - to protect it from household garbage dumped from above - to hire stonemasons to deepen it, and to install wooden shelving to increase its length.

But the human and bird worlds of Birecik failed to coexist, and the breeding population continued to decline.

In 1977, with the number of breeding pairs reduced to 13, a colony of captive birds was established up-river from Birecik. The goals were to attract the wild population away from town and to preserve a captive breeding stock to reinforce the wild population.

In the following six years 32 bald ibis were captured for the breeding station, and the first objective was achieved in 1982 when the wild population - now down to six pairs - left town and began nesting on rocky ledges near the breeding station. Inexperience, however, turned the captive breeding program into a disaster. In its early years, many of the young born in captivity died within a few days because of overcrowding in the breeding cages: A cage built for 14 birds at one point contained 41. And an inadequate diet of chicken feed gave many of the birds rickets and caused deformed legs and bills.

Starting in 1981, young birds successfully raised in captivity were released from the cages to reinforce the wild population.

But they failed to adapt to the wild. Disoriented and unable to feed themselves, they did not migrate south in the winter, and most died of hunger in the vicinity of the breeding station. Only those who stayed at the breeding station, and were fed by the wardens along with the caged birds, survived.

Subsequent scientific research carried out in Morocco and in various zoos has shown that the bald ibis has a much more complicated and stronger family bond than ornithologists had previously known, and that the young are dependent on their parents for a much longer learning period than most other species.

This applies particularly to the bald ibis's complex migration pattern. In late June or early July, small groups of birds fly south and winter in the Red Sea coast-lands of Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, as well as the central highlands of Ethiopia. They have also been observed in North Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Jordan in winter and during migration.

Immature birds remain in the Ethiopian highlands and, as they mature, perform northward movements in the appropriate seasons. After six years, finally adult, they fly back to Birecik to breed - but how they find and join their elders, who know the flight paths to follow, is not understood.

Efforts to improve the breeding success of the wild population in Birecik were only marginally more successful than the captive breeding program: The free birds produced an average of 1.83 young per pair per season, compared to 1.45 chicks from caged parents. They often used a second long wooden shelf, attached to a cliff face near the breeding station, as a nesting site, but it faced south, and nests built on it were unprotected from birds of prey and the fierce heat of direct sunlight.

"Most of this misfortune could have been avoided," says Dr. Sancar Baris, leader of the Bald Ibis Project of the TDHKD, "had the authorities responsible for the captive breeding program accepted help offered by bald ibis experts and international conservation agencies. Exact directions for construction of successful breeding places and preparation of a proper diet have been available for years."

But there is enough blame to go around. In Turkey as in many other countries, private conservation groups and government agencies have been at odds for years, and international organizations hesitate to commit funds to disputed projects. It was not until February of this year, with the wild population in Birecik down to three birds, that representatives of governmental, private and international conservation agencies finally agreed on a new, eleventh-hour rescue plan: Existing nesting ledges were to be destroyed and replaced by nest-boxes, the feeding program of the captive ibis was to be urgently improved, and all 36 young birds in captivity were to be released to the wild.

The measures came too late: Two of the three remaining wild birds at Birecik were killed in March by a freak hailstorm. The third, recapitulating the history of his species, simply disappeared.

John Lawton, an Aramco World contributing editor, is a frequent visitor to Turkey.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the November/December 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1989 images.