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
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.
Worthwhile conservation effort?
Some conservationists think preserving and growing established populations of waldrapps is more important to the species than starting new populations. (Photo: J. Fritz/Waldrappteam LIFE Northern Bald Ibis)
Despite its apparent success, Project Waldrapp has been criticized by other conservationists for its narrow view and emphasis on the waldrapp, which is doing fine in zoos.
"It would be much better to focus resources on continuing the upward trend in the Morocco population and doing re-wilding efforts in Turkey, which is part of the historical breeding range," says Armin Landmann, a zoologist at the University of Innsbruck and a member of the science committee of BirdLife Austria, a leading conservation organization, told Yale Environment.
Landmann has further criticized the project as "unjustified introductions and not reintroductions," arguing that the ibises were never really native to the Alps.
"It is highly likely that the waldrapp formerly occurred only in the south of Central Europe for a short time, due to a warming climate, as is usual for highly mobile animals," Landmann explained. He similarly discounts historical records of waldrapps, saying that such accounts were actually show red-billed choughs, an alpine species of crow.
Northern bald ibis foster parents Anne-Gabriela Schmalstieg (left) and Corinna Esterer with birds. Some of the birds will follow them on migrations south. (Photo: J. Fritz/Waldrappteam, LIFE Northern Bald Ibis)
Still, if the birds are thriving, they may be helpful in the event that the populations in Morocco or Turkey being to wane, a position that Matthias Kestenholz of the Swiss Ornithological Institute takes in regards to Project Waldrapp, telling Yale Environment that the European stock could be a "valuable reinsurance for the species threatened with extinction in Morocco."
For his part, Fritz is serious about keeping the waldrapps in Europe.
"We do not want to simply recreate some sort of unspoiled nature from the Middle Ages," he tells Yale Environment. "We want to integrate the waldrapp into a modern landscape that has been created by humans for diverse uses."