The northern bald ibis, an endangered bird, may have been wiped out in Syria since Islamic State fighters took over the ancient city of Palmyra — home to the last known habitat of the species in the country.
Observers are concerned IS may destroy the ancient city in a manner reminiscent of the way it has destroyed antiquities at other ancient sites in the region like Nimrud and Hatra, as well as artifacts housed in museums in Iraq. These fears extend to the fate of Hebrew inscriptions that constitute the jewels of Palmyra’s Jewish past. Now the threat of destruction hovers over the northern bald ibis as well, with at least three of the last four birds missing.
The ibis is considered “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Its Syrian population, unknown to the world until seven birds were discovered outside the city in 2002, has struggled, and was down to four as of last year.
Three of the birds, which were in captivity near the city, were reportedly abandoned as IS fighters advanced earlier this month. It is not clear if Zenobia — the sole female, named after a 3rd century queen of Palmyra — was one of them.
The UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reported last year that Zenobia was the only female to have returned from winter migration to Ethiopia, leaving the colony already on the brink of disappearance, but the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon is now offering a $1,000 reward for anyone with information on Zenobia.
The northern bald ibis was once seen widely in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, but disappeared from Europe some 300 years ago. There is a semi-wild breeding colony in Turkey, and it is also found in such colonies in Austria, Spain, and northern Morocco, where there are also some 500 of the birds in the wild. Populations have rapidly fallen because of hunting, loss of habitat, and poisoning from contamination with pesticides, according to the SPNL.