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 was 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 would be based on a twelve-year feasibility study that led to the creation of a first small migratory breeding group. Eight partners in three countries would establish migratory breeding colonies in Germany and Austria, with a common wintering area in Tuscany. The majority of birds would be electronically monitored, while genetic screening will optimise the genetic variability. Juvenile birds would be provided by sedentary free-flight and zoo colonies.
Monitoring and management would 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 in Italy, was 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 would raise awareness about the need to conserve this species, as well as the importance of sustainable land use and the value of biodiversity.
The LIFE Northern Bald Ibis project made a significant contribution to the reintroduction of a self-sustaining wild and migratory population of the northern bald ibis in Central Europe, with three colonies established in Austria (Kuchl) and Germany (Burghausen and Überlingen am Bodensee).
The project led to an increase in the ibis population in the breeding colonies, and an increase in the number of birds migrating to Italy with the help of the human-led migration. At the end of 2019, the release population consisted of 142 individuals. The reproduction rate in the Kuchl and Burghausen colonies steadily increased. In 2019, 13 pairs raised 37 chicks in the two breeding areas. 29 chicks were hand-raised and released in a third colony (Überlingen, Germany) and 18 juveniles from Rosegg Zoo (Austria) were integrated into the migratory release population.
In total, the project team conducted six human-led migrations by microlight aircraft with 162 ibises, from the three ibis colonies in Germany and Austria, in order to train the birds to find their wintering grounds in Tuscany, Italy.
Moreover, the project actions could significantly reduce illegal hunting pressure in Italy, by an estimated 50%. Obtaining the participation of hunting associations in the protection of ibises in Italy was one of the key project measures, which certainly contributed to the positive development of less ibis being illegally shot in Italy during the project’s duration.
The project received considerable media coverage, with almost 1 000 press articles, 59 TV contributions in various countries, and participation in TV shows (even in the USA). Thanks to this media coverage, northern bald ibis and the LIFE project became popular throughout Europe. The project team published a number of scientific papers in high-ranking journals (e.g. Nature, PNAS).
This single species project contributed to EU policy related to the reintroduction of the formerly extinct ibis in its original territory, and to threats facing migratory birds by illegal hunting in Italy. The project is also in line with the Italian national biodiversity strategy.
The reintroduction of the northern bald ibis in Europe is the first time that a migratory bird population has been built from zero by establishing a new migration tradition and by the use of chicks from zoo colonies. If the project succeeds, it is likely that similar projects for other species will be set up.
Since the ibis breeding colonies are located in or in the vicinity of small cities (Burghausen, Überlingen), they may help to attract more visitors to these areas. The project assessed potential socio-economic benefits arising from nature conservation, tourism, hunting and reduced environmental crime.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report (see "Read more" section).