A Northern bald ibis in the Vienna Zoo. Photo by Roberto Verzo via Flickr.
It's got an awfully ugly mug to have inspired any kind of romantic association, but our guide at the bird sanctuary in Birecik, on the Euphrates River in southeastern Turkey, waxed poetic about how the bald ibises resident there mate for life and return after their annual migration on Valentine's Day each year. The exactness of this date is surely apocryphal, but the bird that's been a sign of the coming of spring in Birecik is now a symbol of the growing political ties between Turkey and its southern neighbor Syria.The rarest bird in the Middle East, the critically endangered Northern bald ibis was thought extinct in the region until 2002, when a tiny population of less than 10 adult birds was discovered outside the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria. (There are two wild, but non-migratory, colonies, consisting of at most a few hundred birds, in Morocco.) Their long migration -- across Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the Red Sea before reaching Ethiopia -- leaves the birds vulnerable to habitat loss, hunters' guns, electric fences, and simple exhaustion.
With the Palmyra population down to just four birds, BirdLife groups working in Syria and Turkey initiated dialogue between the two countries' governments about cooperating to protect the species -- a cause adopted by Syria's first lady, Asma Assad, and the Turkish prime minister's wife, Emine Erdoğan.
A group of the endangered birds at the sanctuary in Birecik, Turkey. Photo by Jennifer Hattam.
This summer, six captive-bred ibis (called "kelaynak" in Turkish) from the Birecik population of around 100 birds were donated by the Turkish government to Syria to help boost the population there, the Associated Press reported:
Before the transfer took place, the six birds were kept in cages as a group and were given more room to fly than the other captive birds so they could become accustom to wild conditions. Conservationists admitted there were still doubts about whether the juveniles would join the Syrian birds. But as soon as they arrived in Palmyra by truck, a wild bird approached the cage and things went well from there.
"Amazingly, the Turkish juveniles joined the Syrian birds and migrated with them," [Birdlife International's Sharif] Jbour said. "Those birds had never before migrated. They had lost their migration instincts. It's truly a triumph in the preservation aspect."
The strange-looking birds still face long odds, of course -- odds that naturalists with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other groups hope to improve by tracking three of the remaining Syrian birds and two of the newly introduced Turkish juveniles in an attempt to better understand their migratory route, diet, and the threats they face.
But fittingly for an animal once revered by the ancient pharaohs as the diplomat god Thoth, the complicated and much-delayed transfer is a sign of improving ties between two countries that had tense relations in the 1980s and 1990s, but have recently boosted cooperation, including easing visa restrictions.
"I think it's an illustration of warming relations at a high level in the interest of conservation," Chris Bowden, chairman of International Advisory Group for the northern bald ibis told the AP. "It's a very positive thing."
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