Monday 12 December 2011

Last data on the Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) in Algeria

A contribution by Amina FELLOUS 
Agence Nationale pour la Conservation de la Nature

The National Agency for Nature Conservation (ANN) works to study and monitor threatened species of fauna and one of our latest projects is investigating the last breeding site of the NBI in Algeria.

Current data on the NBI in Algeria:
Morocco and Algeria have been recognised over the last few decades as being important sites for the NBI but there was very little data on the current status of this species in Algeria.
The NBI is classified as a critically endangered species. At the international level, the main threats are:
 - Direct persecution
 - The use of pesticides (antilocust campaigns in Morocco and DDT in Turkey)
- Disturbance and loss of foraging areas due to human activities
- Disturbance of breeding sites

In Algeria, most of the data on the historic distribution of birds or colonies date back to the 1950's, when a dozen NBI colonies were known to exist in semi-arid zones of the country. Another colony was discovered by ornithologists in 1974, in the north-west  of the country, in the El Bayadh region, which persisted until the 1990's. 

Recent distribution of Northern Bald Ibis in Algeria

Our research started in 2000 and focused on this site, aiming to establish the main causes of the NBI decline in the region. Our investigations involved local people, to get as much information as possible on this bird and also to get their perspective on the rehabilitation of the NBI in the area.

Data from the questionnaire: 
We designed 20 different questions to ask the older members of the main tribes living near the nesting site in the El Bayadh region. The tribes were Ouled Aissa, Zwa and Ould Moumen. These questionnaires were carried out by technical staff from the UCD (Conservation and Development Unit) in El Bayadh.
The questions related to:
- Past and/or recent distribution of the species
- Data on species biology (e.g. arrival/departure periods, the use of foraging areas)
- Main causes of declining numbers (hunting, predation, drought etc)

First results

The most interesting result from the questionnaires have revealed that in Autumn 2004, two NBI were seen flying at Thiet Ould Moumen, two km north of the last known breeding site for this species.

Habitat around the last nesting site

The symbolism of the species
The older people who were interviewed referred to the NBI as Aicha El Garaa, which translates as Aicha the Bald. Their responses to the questions confirmed the symbolic value of this bird and its' relation to religious beliefs on the region, as the birds choiced nesting sites facing Mecca. 
As the species disappeared during the 1990s, when political events disrupted the country, the presence of the NBI was seen by the local people as a symbol of peace, serenity and richness. 

Species Biology
- NBI generally arrived in the area towards the end of Winter (February and beginning of March) and departed around the end of the summer. 
- Juveniles arrived and left with the adults
- The birds arrived and left in large groups
- Foraging areas were always located close to the breeding site or close to water
- No data on the reproductive biology of the NBI were obtained from the questionnaires (start of nesting period, number of eggs etc)

Estimation of Numbers: 
- The colonies were composed of 300-400 birds and the initial signs of population declines were noted in the 1950's
- The last birds (12-18 individuals) were observed up until the end of the 1980's

Northern bald ibis ar El Bayadh, spring 1985 (photo  Koen De Smet)
Causes of the Declines:
- Direct hunting of the birds by French soldiers during the French occupation
 (El Bayadh city was a garrison town)
- Persistant periods of drought during the 1970's and 1980's 
- Divine causes were also mentioned by the local people

Other causes which were suggested to the local people but which they didn't agree with:

- Natural predation at nesting sites by raptors or corvids
- Disease
- Disturbance due to the cliff being used as a hermitage site 

- Loss of foraging areas due to overgrazing
- The use of supposed pesticides in the region
- The impact of new agricultural activities close to the breeding site

Last nesting site

The last question asked the opinion of the local people on reintroducing the NBI to the region: all the answers were very positive and some people put themselves forward as protectors of Aicha the Bald, a role which their ancestors had taken on in the past. 

Conservation and rehabilitation of the NBI in Algeria
NBI is a protected bird in Algeria, although  there is no current national action plan for its protection. Nevertheless, with  the recent data we are opbtimistic and looking forward the "the return" of the NBI.

This bird can be used as a symbol of peace and prosperity for the region and the country as a whole.

We have several ideas to focus further on this important, threatened bird in Algeria, by:
- Attracting local ornithologists and encouraging them to consider the NBI as a research priority.
- Establishing a national action plan for the rehabilitation of the species through an objective and scientific evaluation of the current status of the NBI in Algeria
- Researching further information and investigating other possible nesting sites
- Collaborating with laboratories, specialised institutions, local government, local and national NGO's - IUCN, Birdlife, IAGNBI etc
(More information in French)


Note:  Between December 2004 and March 2005 there were reports of some untagged NBI in  Avila and Cáceres provinces, Spain, and the origin of the birds has been under discussion. 

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