The northern bald ibis is listed as critically endangered, with only one remaining colony in Morocco (consisting of around 200 adults) and a few individuals in the Middle East. A further colony with up to 100 individuals exists in Birecik, Turkey. Though these birds are a remnant of a former migratory colony that is now semi-captive, they are a valuable genetic backup for the Middle East birds and a resource for reintroductions. In Europe, the species became extinct about 400 years ago, mainly due to human persecution, possibly worsened by climate change (Little Ice Age) and the Thirty Years' War.
The former breeding range covered major parts of the northern Alpine foreland, parts of the Alps, as well as the southern Alpine foreland. It is documented that the birds departed in autumn and returned in spring, but their historical wintering areas are unknown. However, based on knowledge of the historical European breeding range and the migration pattern of comparable species, it is probable that one wintering area was along the west coast of Africa. Migration through Italy or even a wintering range in Italy seems probably as well. In 1997, a first European sedentary, partly free-flying, northern bald ibis colony was established in Upper Austria. In the following years, further sedentary colonies were established in Rosegg, Austria, and in Andalusia, Spain. The two Austrian semi-captive breeding colonies consist of up to 50 birds per colony and are self-sustaining during the vegetation period. These colonies strongly indicate that in Europe suitable habitats for free-flying birds are available.
The main objective of the project is the reintroduction of the critically endangered northern bald ibis into Europe and the establishment of a pattern of migration that will ensure the survival of the species. The work is based on a ten-year feasibility study that led to the creation of a first small migratory breeding group. Nine partners in three countries will establish migratory breeding colonies in Germany and Austria, with a common wintering area in Tuscany. The majority of birds will be electronically monitored, while genetic screening will optimise the genetic variability. Juvenile birds will be provided by sedentary free-flight and zoo colonies.
Monitoring and management will reduce losses from illegal hunting. In the medium term, a Reason for Hope campaign consisting of conservation and demonstration actions across Europe, with a major focus along the migration corridor, is also expected to reduce losses and raise awareness of European migratory bird species in general. Various public relations activities, particularly with European zoo partners, and media coverage will raise awareness about the need to conserve this species, as well as the importance of sustainable land use and the value of biodiversity.