At a time where it would seem that science seems to offer more problems than solutions – think natural gas fracking, stem cells, genetically modified crops and the Hadron Collider – I want some optimism.
And this week there is some such optimistic reason, for me at least, to celebrate what is still possible from a dedicated scientist, an endangered species and a forever-changed human landscape. Nautilus online magazine this week describes the quest of some optimistic ornithologists and ecologists who convinced one of Europe’s most cliff-dangling endangered birds. The last bald-headed Ibis migrated to the South of Europe over 400 years ago. A few isolated pockets remained since then, and despite continued devastation by hunting, the bald-headed Ibis had been conserved, sustained by captive, sedentary populations. The populations grew so large as to outgrow facilities and tempt thoughts of reinstating wild populations.
Unfortunately, these fledgling wild populations seemed to still have a restlessness, flying off when migration time came. Without parents to guide them, many wandered and died. This wasn’t a sustainable situation for the Ibis population. Austrian researchers decided to look more closely, and try to re-establish these natural populations with their ancient migration as well. It seemed the desire to move south in the European winter was lying in this Ibis’ genetic code and needed to be refined, not removed.
Nautilus’ Ibis is a story of careful biology, creativity and dedication and how the first migration in 400 years was made. What’s more, the knowledge these now-migrating Ibis have allowed researchers and followers to collect and develop, has spurred others working with endangered birds and mysterious migration biology. Migration is a part of ecology and animal behaviour that is still poorly understood, hard to predict, and even harder to manage for conservation purposes.
But these researchers made it. The Ibis eventually migrate themselves. The story is not without challenge and disaster. But with the assistance of conservation organisations and areas in the Southern part of the migratory route – Italy’s Tuscany – and some fascinating conservation biology along the way, this is a story of Ibis success.
That’s not to say this species is rescued just yet. There are still hunters in the north that have already decimated the population and continue to do so. And without the conservation areas and habitat protection effective migration routes anywhere are not possible.
But ultimately, the optimism lies in the fact that in this time of great human influence over landscapes, continents and entire species, it is still possible to bring such species back to their own natural independence, of sorts. Across such anthropogenic landscapes and environments, this tells me there is as much hope for the future of the conservation as there is energy to pursue it.
But we still need to work with hunting communities to move their livelihoods into a new era, and leave enough areas of wilderness, habitat and conservation reserve to make these sorts of ecological rescues possible in the future.
So I think this makes the pursuit of conservation goals even more important – not because they are important, but because they are possible.
While my field biology seemingly ended with my field biology course in University I might just continue to encourage people to keep looking for ways to keep patches of habitat and conservation reserves part of our landscape even if the species to use them right now aren’t for certain. And to encourage communication and word-spreading to reach communities such as the Ibis hunters who could do with a little eye-opening and re-direction in the their traditional pursuits and stop hunting birds like the Ibis to extinction. And I’ll keep hoping that people such as this Nautilus journalist keeps telling us about the progress that is possible, even with endangered species and anthropogenic landscapes. To keep reminding all of us there is still beauty in science, and optimism in conservation.
- The Research Team: WALDRAPP Team
- Northern Bald ibis project – Austria. By Wildlife Extra.