The northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) was once a common sight in northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East and portions of southern and central Europe. Today, the bird is critically endangered in the wild. Some 600 individuals reside in Morocco while another semi-wild group of 200 lives in Turkey.
In Europe, the bird is practically gone from the wild, but thanks to some dedicated conservationists, the northern bald ibis is once again flying over portions of Europe.
A rare bird
The northern bald ibis appeared in Conrad Gessner’s ‘Historia animalium,’ an encyclopedic inventory of animals that published during the 1550s. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Prior to the 17th century, the northern bald ibis, sometimes referred to as a waldrapp, appeared in parts of Austria, Germany and Switzerland, reports Yale Environment 360. Unlike other ibises that favor trees for nesting, waldrapps preferred castles for breeding. The birds were common enough in some cities to be included in Conrad Gessner’s five-volume “Historia animalium” or “History of Animals.” Records of the birds in Europe stopped not long after Gessner’s bird-focused volume published in 1555. The bird’s disappearance was blamed on hunting and a cooling climate. Today, the birds only exist in a handful of zoos in a region they once called home.
The Waldrapp Project has been steadily working to change that, however. Volunteers with the organization have raised 84 captive-bred and reintroduced birds to Austria and Germany. It’s not just a matter of reintroducing the birds, either. The Waldrapp Project is helping the birds learn how to migrate, using microlight planes that feature a pilot and the human foster parents the birds imprinted on at birth to lead the birds to Tuscany.
Johannes Fritz developed the initiative in 2001, after witnessing waldrapps attempt to fly south from the University of Vienna’s Konrad Lorenz Research Institute — and going in the wrong direction. He also had recently watched the classic Anna Paquin film “Fly Away Home.” In the movie, a young girl helps a group of geese find their migratory route by using an ultralight plane. In 2004, Fritz was able to fly a flock of birds along a path that would ultimately become their migration route.
Building a migratory route, however, proved to be difficult. The historical migration habits of the birds isn’t known, forcing Fritz and the rest of the Waldrapp Project to look for the best potential place for the birds to winter today. Working with the WWF, the project settled on Tuscany’s Oasis of Orbetello, a three-week flight away from the Waldrapp Project’s branches in southern Germany and Austria.
In 2011, the first bird flew to Tuscany on its own, and even returned to Burghausen in southern Germany. The bird was killed by a hunter in 2012, but the bird’s success proved that the route would work. Since 2010, four more human-assisted flights have taken place, with 29 individual birds taking flight this year, up from 16 in 2014.
“It really is pioneering, the first [example] of its kind in which we have reintroduced a bird species with the help of human-led migration,” Fritz told The Guardian.
The success of the program has resulted in 84 waldrapps thriving in Austria and Germany. While the project was intended to cease operations n 2019, Fritz has applied for additional funding from the European Union with a goal of reaching 500 self-sustaining birds by 2057.