Fred Pearce / The New Scientist – 2016-02-24 23:32:26
Bald Ibis among Wildlife Driven to Extinction in Syria and Libya
Fred Pearce / The New Scientist (Issue 3061)
Zenobia: Empress of the East: The northern bald ibis, Geronticus eremita
(February 20, 2016) — The northern bald ibis is now extinct in the Middle East. The final member of this genetically distinct Syrian population — a ringed female called Zenobia — was last seen in Palmyra in 2014, a few months before ISIS fighters showed up, says Gianluca Serra, a conservation biologist.
With no mate, the bird was probably doomed even without ISIS, but Zenobia’s story typifies the plight of wildlife in a region engulfed by conflict. The recent troubles there have led to human tragedy, as well as destruction of ancient monuments. Now it appears nature is not to be spared either.
Across the Middle East and parts of North Africa civil war, poaching to buy guns, and refugees’ urgent need for food and firewood, are extinguishing relic populations of wildlife and wrecking habitats.
In Libya, since the fall of Colonel Gaddafi, hunting parties have been killing wildlife for fun and meat in the lawless badlands of the “wild south”, says Gus Gintzburger, a rangeland ecologist.
“No meat is imported to Libya these days, and local herdsmen are hoarding their camels, sheep and goats as capital because they don’t trust the banks,” he says. “So people are turning to wild meat.”
“In Libya, people are turning to wildlife for meat. In Syria, protected forests are being cut down”
On the kill list are desert gazelles, but also migrating birds. Cranes, flamingos, bustards and herons are being shot in large numbers on coastal wetlands that are no longer guarded, according to the Libya Wildlife Trust.
In 2008, Gintzburger fenced off a 70-hectare area round the Jbebina oasis near the Tunisian border to protect migrating birds resting there on their way south. “The last news I got is that this is now totally open to poachers and fighters, shooting ducks, herons, cranes and each other with Kalashnikovs,” he says.
The country’s treasured coastal juniper forests are also under attack, says Ben Miller of the Kings Park botanic gardens in Perth, Australia. Forests in Jebel, a biodiversity hotspot near Benghazi, are being cut down and the land used for farming, he says.
The Libyan conflict is threatening wildlife in neighbouring regions, too. UN observers say that weapons used in the 2015 slaughter of a rare population of desert elephants in northern Mali came from Libya.
The ivory may be funding Libyan and other Saharan militias. Mali’s desert elephants may disappear within three years, according to the Mali Elephant Project at the WILD Foundation.
Syria’s northern bald ibis may already be gone, but much more is at stake in the country. “A big concern is uncontrolled deforestation in the coastal mountains,” says Hassan Partow at the UN Environment Programme in Geneva, Switzerland.
“More than a million people have fled the conflict zone around Aleppo to the coastal region and the Mediterranean forests,” says Aroub Almasri, a government ecologist at the National Commission of Biotechnology in Damascus.
“These people need to fulfil their basic needs in food, electricity and fuel for warming, cooking and pumping water. They have no other choice but to do this in protected areas,” Almasri says.
The Fronlok forest, once a protected area, has suffered badly, as have forests in the mountains of Jabal Abdulaziz in north-east Syria. “Hardly any trees are left,” says Almasri.
Wardens still try to patrol such places, but lawlessness is rife, Almasri says. “The protected area teams negotiate daily with local people to minimise damage, but no one can prevent the cutting of trees now.”
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