The Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita was once a widespread bird that was idolised across North Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe. By 1998, habitat loss, pesticides and hunting had driven the population to the brink of extinction, with just 59 pairs remaining, most of them confined to a single breeding colony in the Souss-Massa National Park, Morocco. The species was classified as Critically Endangered, the highest possible threat category of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. To protect the breeding colony from human disturbance and predators, BirdLife International, working with the Moroccan government and organisations including BirdLife in Morocco (Groupe de Recherche pour la Protection des Oiseaux au Maroc), employed local fishermen as wardens. Thanks to this and further conservation measures, numbers have risen to a modern day record of 147 breeding pairs and the ibis has spread to two small new breeding sites.
On the other side of the continent, on Mauritius, a similar conservation success story is unfolding. In 1990, the population of the Pink Pigeon Nesoenas mayeri had been reduced to only 10 wild individuals by habitat loss and introduced mammalian predators such as the Black Rat, Crab-eating Macaque and Small Indian Mongoose. In response, BirdLife in Mauritius (Mauritian Wildlife Foundation) and their associates combined a captive breeding programme with intensive conservation in the field. These efforts helped Pink Pigeon numbers to reach an estimated 400 individuals.
The Northern Bald Ibis and the Pink Pigeon have recovered to such an extent that in BirdLife International’s latest assessment of the extinction risk of the world’s birds, which was released this month, these iconic species have now been downlisted to lower threat categories on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. The Pink Pigeon’s wild population was deemed stable enough to downlist the species from Endangered to Vulnerable. The Northern Bald Ibis has been downlisted to Endangered, as numbers remain very low and much work remains to be done to secure its long-term future. But semi-wild populations in Turkey and high-profile captive release projects in southern Europe raise hopes for further recovery across its former range.
Against the backdrop of the current ongoing biodiversity crisis, the recovery of these species shows that highly threatened species (such as the highly threatened Griffon vulture Gyps fulvus in the case of Cyprus) are not necessarily doomed to extinction, but can be saved with effective conservation action. However, the update also warns us that conservation challenges are continuing. At the forefront of these concerns are illegal trade, large-scale habitat loss and climate change. To tackle these threats, targeted, species-specific interventions alone will not be enough, and large-scale international collaboration between NGOs, governments, businesses and local communities is required, along with robust policies to protect the world’s most important sites for nature.