With its black body and wide wings, the bird flying along Austria’s Salzach Valley on a mild summer day looks, at first glance, a lot like a crow. But when it lands in a nearby meadow, it quickly becomes clear that this is a very different animal.
The bird’s iridescent feathers give it an almost magical appearance. Its long, curved beak enables it to hunt for small animals, and its naked head, with feathers that point straight into the air, Mohawk-style, make it look like no other bird in Europe.
This particular bird even has a name: Liethe. It is a waldrapp, or northern bald ibis, a species that is critically endangered in the wild. In former centuries, the species occurred widely in northern and eastern Africa, Asia Minor, Arabia, and parts of Europe. The ancient Egyptians revered the northern bald ibis as an afterworld divinity, and its likeness can clearly be seen in hieroglyphs dating back thousands of years.
Today, however, all that’s left of the northern bald ibis is a small population of around 600 wild birds in Morocco, a semi-wild population — dependent on captive breeding — of about 200 individuals in southern Turkey, and perhaps a few individuals in East Africa. A tiny remnant population in Syria, numbering seven individuals, was discovered in 2002. But that population dwindled to a single bird in 2014, and an expert on the northern bald ibis in the Middle East says the bird is now extinct in Syria, with the civil war acting as “the classic straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Today, the northern bald ibis is in such a precarious state that the global zoo population, with 1,600 birds, is larger than the wild one.
Now, however, several northern bald ibis reintroduction projects are underway, which explains why the waldrapp (Geronticus eremita) can once again be seen flying at the northern fringe of the Alps — a habitat it last occupied nearly 400 years ago. Until the 17th century, waldrapps were recorded in parts of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland in and around cities with castles, where they liked to breed. Historical records about where the bird occurred are scant, with the exception of cities like Graz and Salzburg, where waldrapps lived among humans, just as white storks did. Waldrapps showed up in one of Europe’s oldest and most famous illustrated books about native wildlife, the Bird Book, published by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner in 1557. A few decades later, records stop. Hunting and a cooling climate are seen as possible causes as to why the bird vanished in Europe at around the time of the Thirty Years War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648.
Today, Liethe is part of one the most ambitious, elaborate, and controversial species reintroduction programs in the world. The population of waldrapps in the project’s German and Austrian branches now numbers 84 captive-bred and reintroduced birds, and conservationists are teaching them to migrate south by leading the birds in ultralight aircraft toward the Mediterranean. While most reintroduction programs aim to help bring back species subjected to relatively recent habitat loss, poaching, or other forms of human depredation, the Waldrapp Project aims to reverse events that took place centuries ago. The initiative’s founders claim it is the world’s first project that aims “to reintroduce a continentally extinct migratory species and to establish a new migration tradition.”
Some prominent zoologists and conservationists are critical of the project’s aggressively interventionist approach.
But some prominent zoologists and conservationists are critical of the project’s aggressively interventionist approach, which combines some of the most hotly debated aspects of modern biodiversity protection: The project concentrates on one species instead of a habitat or ecosystem. It makes heavy use of technology in the form of geo-locators and aircraft. And it focuses on birds that have lived in zoos for a long time.
“It would be much better to focus resources on continuing the upward trend in the Morocco population and doing re-wilding efforts in Turkey, which is part of the historical breeding range,” says Armin Landmann, a zoologist at the University of Innsbruck and a member of the science committee of BirdLife Austria, a leading conservation organization.
The Waldrapp Project was initiated and designed in 2001 by Johannes Fritz, an Austrian behavioral biologist. Fritz first encountered waldrapps in 1997 when he worked at the Konrad Lorenz Research Institute, founded by the world-famous behavioral biologist. There, 10 birds were brought in from the Innsbruck Zoo for a research project. “I didn’t find them particularly interesting at first sight, certainly not beautiful,” Fritz recalls.
Then, those 10 birds vanished overnight. For a few days, they were assumed to be dead, perhaps killed by eagle owls. But it didn’t take long for reports to come in from the north that individual birds or small groups had been sighted. “They took off at the right time of the year, only in the wrong direction,” Fritz says. He attributes this to the peculiar topography of the area around the research institute, which is closed off by sharp mountain cliffs to the south.
Fritz recalls that the idea to develop what is now a reintroduction program was conceived over arolla pine schnapps and under the influence of a Hollywood movie, “Fly Away Home,” in which a girl helps a flock of Canada geese find their migratory route. Working with animals from the Innsbruck Zoo, Fritz and his team started to breed waldrapps near Burghausen castle in southern Bavaria. At the same time, Fritz completed a flying course. In 2004, he took off with a flock of birds for the first time, using the first of the project’s ultralight aircraft as he led the way for the waldrapps, which were trained to follow him. With considerable media fanfare, the unusual team managed to cover at least a stretch of the ultimate migratory route.
In order to establish a new migratory pattern, Fritz wasn’t able to build on any known overwintering sites south of the Alps due to a lack of knowledge about the life history of the northern bald ibis in Europe. Instead of traditional sites, his goal was to find an area suitable for today’s birds. In cooperation with WWF, the team picked a nature reserve in Tuscany, Oasi Laguna di Orbetello. This was the destination of the first successful human-led waldrapp migrations, as the birds were primed to migrate on their own to a safe refuge for the winter.
It took years of training to get the first flock of waldrapps across the Alps successfully. In 2011, the first bird migrated on its own to Tuscany. The bird, called Goja, even returned to Burghausen the following spring. “This was our proof of concept,” Fritz recalls. But in the fall of 2012, an Italian hunter shot Goja and one of its offspring. Despite this killing, the new migration pattern Fritz wanted to establish began to work for other birds. Since 2010, another four human-assisted trips took place, and the number of birds doing round-trip migrations between Germany and Tuscany has increased from 16 in 2014 to 29 this year.
The goal is to achieve a self-sustaining population of about 500 birds, with a breeding range extending into Switzerland.
This success has encouraged Fritz to start a third flock of waldrapps at Lake Constance, consisting of 32 juvenile birds. Fritz and his team are in the midst of preparing this 620-mile journey, which will take place in a half-dozen flight stages and is expected to last 15 to 20 days.
The number of waldrapps in Germany and Austria has nearly doubled from 43 in 2014 to 84 in 2018. Last month, Fritz handed in a second application for EU funds to extend the project until 2027. The goal is to achieve a self-sustaining population of about 500 animals, with a breeding range extending into Switzerland.
In Syria, the fate of the northern bald ibis has headed in the opposite direction. An Italian naturalist, Gianlucca Serra, lived and worked in Syria from 2000 to 2011, and led the effort that rediscovered the relict population of the bird in the desert steppe near the ancient city of Palmyra in 2002. Of the seven birds rediscovered then, one tagged bird was shot in northern Saudi Arabia in 2009, according to Serra. Three of the Palmyra northern bald ibises were seen at a wintering site in Ethiopia in 2013-2014. One of those birds, named Zenobia, returned to Palmyra in the spring of 2014. But as far as Serra can tell — he fled Syria in 2011 because of the civil war — 2014 was the last year Zenobia migrated back to Syria, signaling the extinction of the species in that country.
Just how little the Waldrapp Project has to do with classical nature protection becomes tangible at the two breeding sites near Kuchl and in the Bavarian town of Burghausen, 25 miles north of Salzburg. In Kuchl, the caves that the birds use for hatching their offspring have been modeled by an architect. They look like straight out of a Flintstone movie and have been attached to a cliff by construction workers. In Burghausen, which is home to the longest castle in the world, waldrapps live and breed on wooden shelves attached to an ancient wall. In both sites, field managers call individual birds by their names.
Daniela Trobe, field manager of the Waldrapp Project, is in charge of making sure that the 13 adult birds that live in the small Kuchl colony will successfully raise their offspring — 14 young birds this year —over the summer. During breeding and hatching time, half of the group is taking care of the young ones, while the other half forages for insects, worms, mice, and other small animals in the meadows surrounding nearby farms. With the help of her smartphone, it only takes her minutes to locate the group, thanks to the geo-locators Liethe and the other birds carry on their backs like rucksacks. A local farmer shows Trobe the way to a meadow at the edge of a village. “We quite like to have these birds around us,“ the farmer says.
But the project’s critics are not won over by the inherent appeal of the Waldrapp Project. The strongest detractor is Landmann, the University of Innsbruck zoologist. In a series of publications, Landmann has claimed that the Waldrapp Project isn’t based on sound science, doesn’t effectively promote the conservation of the species, and isn’t worth the more than 1.5 million euros in European Union funding spent so far on reintroducing the bird.
Landmann doubts that the northern bald ibis was ever truly native north of the Alps. “It is highly likely that the waldrapp formerly occurred only in the south of Central Europe for a short time, due to a warming climate, as is usual for highly mobile animals,” Landmann says. He maintains that historical sources supposedly depicting waldrapps actually show red-billed choughs, an alpine species of crows.
“We want to integrate the waldrapp into a modern landscape that has been created by humans for diverse uses,” says the project’s founder.
Fritz refutes the notion that waldrapps were never firmly established in central Europe, noting that the scant 16th- and 17th-century records that do exist reflect a wide distribution. He says his project will help scientists better understand the waldrapp’s life history and will lay the groundwork for a safe future for the species beyond Morocco.
Lars Lachmann, chief scientist at the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union — Germany’s largest bird and nature protection organization, with 620,000 members — says he sees the Waldrapp Project as a “borderline case” when it comes to meeting IUCN’s criteria for reintroduction. But, he added, “Due to the worldwide extreme rarity and the attractiveness of the species, it also is possible to support this program from a nature conservation perspective.”
Matthias Kestenholz of the Swiss Ornithological Institute thinks that establishing a wild and independently viable bald ibis population north of the Alps could act as “valuable reinsurance for the species threatened with extinction in Morocco.“ He points out, however, that such an initiative is only possible because of special EU funds and private backers. His institute finds it hard enough to protect the 50 high-priority bird species in Switzerland, which are “urgently dependent on support so that they do not die out, as the bald ibis once did.“
Fritz sees the meaning of his work in a more future-oriented approach to conservation: “We do not want to simply recreate some sort of unspoiled nature from the Middle Ages,” he says. “We want to integrate the waldrapp into a modern landscape that has been created by humans for diverse uses.”