When I first wrote about the Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) two years ago, the civil conflict in Syria had already been wreaking havoc on citizens and landscape for over 24 months. It was suspected that chemical weapons had been used on civilians, and historical monuments were being destroyed.
A bit of good news was that a tiny breeding group of northern bald ibis, once common around the Mediterranean and thought to have been extinct, had been discovered near Palmyra and was quietly expanding. One female, dubbed Zenobia, was still making the annual migratory crossing to Ethiopia. By the time I wrote my post in May 2013, she was the lone survivor of the group.
Back in May 2013, few had yet heard of a group calling themselves Islamic State of Iraq. Now this group, known as ISIS or DAESH, is notorious around the world for its expansion, media savvy, extreme brutality and wanton destruction, dismantling and sale of historical treasures.
The group captured the town of Palmyra this week and has been subjecting the place and its inhabitants to deplorable atrocities.
Amongst all this horror, the guards assigned to protect four captive breeding ibis disappeared, as have the birds.
Meanwhile, Zenobia herself hasn’t been spotted. Even if the captive birds are recovered, if they are ever to be set free in the wild they will need a guide to the wintering grounds. Without Zenobia, they will remain captive. If they are found, of course.
As I wrote in my previous post, “The ibis was considered to be one of the first birds released by Noah off the Ark as a symbol of fertility, and in ancient Egypt the bird symbolized excellence, glory, honour, and virtue, as well as the signifier of the soul.”
Zenobia, the last wild ibis who knows the way to Ethiopia, was named for 3rd-century Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, a warrior queen who successfully protected Palmyra for many years against Roman expansion.
“Culture and nature they go hand in hand, and war stops, but nobody can bring back a species from extinction,” said head of the society Asaad Serhal.
Here’s hoping Zenobia takes after her namesake and returns to hold back the tide.
On a slightly more encouraging note: A project is underway in Europe to reintroduce the ibis 300 years after it went extinct in the region. But the challenges faced by that project underline how important it is to prevent local extinction in the first place.