Conservation of the northern bald ibis in Syria and the Middle East

The migratory colony of northern bald ibis (discovered near Palmyra, Syria in 2002) remains on the brink of extinction despite intensive protection work.

Bald ibis, single bird flying in to roost at sunset, Soussmassa Nation Park, Morocco


A relict population of three pairs of northern bald ibis was discovered near Palmyra, Syria in 2002.  This migratory colony remains on the brink of extinction despite intensive protection work. RSPB’s programme in Syria also encompasses work on sociable lapwing and building conservation capacity of Government and NGOs.
RSPB started to support conservation work in Syria as a result of the rediscovery of a relict population of northern bald ibis near Palmyra in 2002, the last wild population of the species in the Middle East. Since the population is migratory this has also involved work elsewhere, notably Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In addition Syria is an important migratory area for populations of sociable lapwing and a further three endangered species – Egyptian vulture, saker falcon and white-headed duck.
Syria has made recent strides in conservation although there are still no national parks and limited conservation infrastructure, little awareness among the population and an active hunting community.  There are opportunities to make a wider impact on conservation in the country.
Until now most of the work on bald ibis has been undertaken with the Syrian Government. However, they also have good relations with a young, growing NGO the Syrian Society for Conservation of Wildlife, and we are also working to strengthen the capacity of this NGO to work on bald ibis and the many other pressing conservation challenges.

Species affected (not UK birds)

The focus of this work is on northern bald ibis and to a lesser extent sociable lapwing and other threatened species.


  • This project aims to secure the conservation of the last northern bald ibis colony known in the Middle East.

Main outcomes are:

  • Strong protection is given to the ibis colony during the breeding season
  • Key stakeholders in Syria have a raised awareness of the importance of bald ibis conservation and their role in its recovery
  • The understanding of ecological barriers to and mechanisms for species recovery is enhanced
  • Local capacity for bald ibis conservation and other priority conservation work is strengthened
  • Necessary initiatives taken to conserve ibis on wintering grounds and on migration
  • Development of Syrian programme for captive breeding of ibis and possible supplementation of the wild population 

Key Dates

  • 1960s - recently discovered nesting cliffs suggest that until the last few decades hundreds of pairs of ibis still nested in the deserts of Central Syria
  • 1989 - last wild population in Turkey disappeared when the fast declining remnant population was captured and kept partially feral in Birecik
  • 1994 - RSPB started working with northern bald ibis in Morocco since the populations recovered substantially from 59 to 106 breeding pairs
  • 2002- three pairs discovered in the desert near Palmyra by joint Syrian - Italian team. RSPB starts to assist Government team with protection and attempting to satellite tag birds to discover their wintering grounds
  • 2006 - Excellent breeding season with six young fledged but problem is very few seem to ever return. We finally tagged three adult birds and tracked wintering grounds to Northern Ethiopia but no young birds with them
  • 2007 - one juvenile bird tagged but presumed lost on migration. The mystery of where the young birds goes remains
  • 2008 - driest year for 20 years in Syria. No young birds reared
  • 2009 - only two nests and no young fledged due to continued drought. Advanced plans to establish captive sub-population of ibis in Syria


Planned Work

Current RSPB involvement includes:
  • Continuing to support the site protection, habitat research and tracking initiatives outlined above, primarily through BirdLife Middle East, Syrian Government and SSCW.
  • It has been agreed in principle that a small captive breeding colony should be established near to Palmyra, using birds from the breeding colony in Birecik, Turkey.  Preparations involve identification of location, design and construction of captive facility, training of rangers in ibis husbandry, securing of import and CITES permits from Turkish and Syrian Governments. Protocols for possible supplementation of wild colony will also be further refined and this activity may take place later in 2009 or 2010.
  • Continuing work with SSCW to assist their evolution into an effective, independent and well governed NGO encompassing a range of conservation actions in Syria.
  • Other assistance to conservation work in Syria including monitoring and conservation of migratory flocks of the critically threatened sociable lapwing and assistance to the Ministry of Environment with ornithological assessments of new and proposed protected areas.


We have supported (along with birdlife Middle East and IUCN) a protection programme whereby the ibis population has been protected by a 24-hour guard comprising local Bedouin and wardens on secondment from the nearby desert reserve.
The Syrian government authorities led by the Desert Commission have been extremely supportive of and proactive in efforts to conserve the Ibis and a protected area has been created around the breeding colony.  However further awareness raising is essential both in Palmyra and Damsacus to generate a sense of national pride in the birds, so that there is political support for the programme.
In the six years since the birds were discovered, most resources have been placed on protection activities. However, we have undertaken studies on feeding ecology to better understand the use of different areas and habitat preferences. This has been essential in guiding management decisions and in influencing development in the surrounding area eg a collaborative programme of work with Petro-Canada in relation to their exploration of gas fields in the region.   
After discovering the wintering grounds of the adults, we continue to attempt to place additional satellite tags on fledgling or immature birds.  This may require research and conservation intervention in other countries outside of Syria although at present the birds appear safe in Ethiopia and knowledge of migration remains too poor to enable meaningful interventions. However, conservationists, especially in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabla and Yemen, have been proactive in searching for ibis and visiting birds identified by satellite tracking.
BirdLife has formed an association with the Syrian Society for Conservation of Wildlife (SSCW), a fledgling NGO based in Damascus. RSPB are working to support their institutional development as the NGO movement expands in Syria. We will also assist the development of skills and training among local government staff involved in the ibis programme including appropriate personal assistance, training and exchange visits.




RSPB assisted projects also funding by a range of other organisations including Prince Albert of Monaco Fund, Italian and Dutch Governments.


Coast on a stormy day

Chris Bowden

International Species Recovery Officer, Head of Vulture Programme

Further reading

Tagged with: Country: Ethiopia Country: International Country: Saudi Arabia Country: Syria Country: Turkey Country: Yemen Project status: Project types: Education Project types: Organisation development Project types: Species protection