Europe's only free-living colony of Critically Endangered Northern Bald Ibises is to be boosted with captive-bred birds from Chester Zoo, Cheshire.
The rare species has been missing from Europe's avifauna for more than 300 years, but a Spanish city and municipality in the province of Cádiz, Andalusia, southern Spain, as part of a breeding and release programme which is succeeding in reintroducing the species to Europe.
Northern Bald Ibis has undergone a substantial long-term decline and is currently close to the edge of extinction, with 98 per cent of its former population lost as a direct result of hunting, habitat loss, pesticide poisoning, disturbance and an increase in construction work around their preferred nesting sites. The species was once widespread across the Middle East, North Africa and southern and central Europe, but is now Critically Endangered with approximately 500 individuals remaining in a small population in Morocco, and perhaps a tiny population of only a few birds in Syria, though just one bird was seen in 2013, and none since.
As part of an international conservation effort to tackle the species' drastic decline in numbers, reintroduction programmes are being established in Turkey, Austria, Spain and northern Morocco. Chester Zoo has successfully bred four chicks which will be relocated to a dedicated site in Jerez. A free-flying flock is already established there, numbering around 100 individuals, which has successfully bred on several occasions. On arrival at Jerez Zoo, the four Chester Zoo birds will be introduced to other chicks bred in other European zoos (all affiliated to the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums, EAZA) this year.
Lauren Hough, bird keeper at Chester, explained what the breeding success meant to the team: "It's amazing enough working with these remarkable birds in the zoo, but to be part of a successful reintroduction programme is something extra special. We hope that by reintroducing birds into the wild, they will go on to breed and boost the wild population themselves, securing the future of the species.
"The four chicks that hatched here at the zoo have done so well. We weighed them frequently to make sure they were getting enough food from their parents and, depending on what we found, we altered the number of times and the amount we fed the flock throughout the day. It's a huge achievement to be able to release birds back into the wild and proves just how vital conservation projects can be for species facing huge threats and possibly extinction."
Chester Zoo has been home to a 'safety-net' population of Northern Bald Ibis since 1986 and is currently home to 28 individuals, the oldest being 22 years old and the youngest hatching in May this year. The zoo joined the ibis reintroduction programme in 2007 and has since been working with other conservation organisations across Europe to save the species from extinction in the wild.