What We Talk About When We Talk About War (VIII)

Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) Image via WildlifeExtra.com

Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita)
Image via WildlifeExtra.com

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.

A northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). Photo: Waldrappteam

A northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). Photo: Waldrappteam

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.”

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon told the BBC  that the species could go extinct in the wild in Syria.

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.

Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra Artist: Herbert Gustave Schmalz via Wikipedia

Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra
Artist: Herbert Gustave Schmalz via Wikipedia

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.



International Flow

The Source d’Allondon, the head of the Allondon River in France. The ruins are of a former 19th-century mill.
Image: Florence Bourjas/Wikipedia

The Allondon River, a brief little slip as rivers go, starts as run-off from the Jura mountains, courses 22 km (14 m) through the area of France where I live, across the border into Switzerland, where it flows into the Rhône River on the Swiss side of the border before the Rhône itself flows into France. Considering its brevity, it’s quite the international traveler.

On calm days I can hear it from the back of our house, and it traces part of my running path. The name is of pre-Celtic origin and means ‘water of life’.

It’s also one of the sources of our drinking water, along with several reservoirs and two lakes. One of those lakes is Lake Geneva, across the border.

The water supply of our region is a trans-frontier affair, automatically rendering water issues a subject of international relations and negotiations. Fortunately, thus far the French and Swiss authorities seem in agreement on local water issues and how to approach them.

The proposed Gibe III hydroelectric dam in Ethiopia could size up a bit differently. The dam would be built on the River Omo in Ethiopia, which flows into Kenya, where it is the water source for Lake Turkana, the fourth largest lake in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Omo also provides water further downstream to Egypt and Sudan.

A section of the Blue Nile is diverted in May as Ethiopia prepares to construct a hydro-electric power dam. Source: Business Daily Africa

A section of the Blue Nile is diverted in May as Ethiopia prepares to construct a hydro-electric power dam.
Source: Business Daily Africa

The Kenyan government states that it isn’t interested in preventing the construction of the dam, but wants to ensure that the dammed water won’t be diverted for irrigation in Ethiopia, rather than released from time to time to feed Lake Turkana.

I read a reader’s comment on one of the articles. It said, “Don’t expect someone to tell us what to do with the water, it is our natural resource, we can do whatever we want. Our history show(s) that we are a nation that are willing to share our resources…” I’m assuming this was from an Ethiopian reader.

If, by the luck of the geographical draw, a country is rich with water resources that would, if left unhindered, flow through other countries downstream, who owns the water? If France and Switzerland were to develop a contentious relationship, or if resources became too scarce to share, just how generously would we be willing to share the Allondon with people across the border?

2013 is the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation. Not a particularly sexy title, but as stated on the International Water Law site, “it’s an important reminder that cooperation is needed at all levels – among individual and corporate users, districts and provinces within the country, and more importantly among states – to manage, share, protect and conserve the most vital heritage of mankind, its water resources.”

Do you know the source of your water?

Source d’Allondon


One of these things is not like the other ones

Addis Ababa LionImage via Scientific American

Addis Ababa Lion
Image via Scientific American

It’s a strange fact that most creatures seem to know, either by instinct, habit or reasoning, that regular inbreeding does not make for a strong population. Given availability and opportunity, populations will find a way to mix genetic lines and thus keep their species healthy and adaptable. Where this is not possible, a species might still survive, but will be much vulnerable to disease and changes in habitat or food supply.

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are a good example: due to climate changes over 10,000 years ago, the cheetah population was severely diminished. The existing species (the only extant survivors of the Acinonyx genus, which used to roam Europe as well as Africa and Asia) is well adapted to its environment, but with all members sharing 99% of their genes, a single fatal virus could wipe out any exposed individuals instead of just the susceptible ones.

So what to say about the 16 lions found in the decrepit Addis Ababa animal park. They are the descendants of seven forest-dwelling lions collected at the zoo’s founding in 1948 by the emperor of Ethiopia. There is a long, sad backstory to the zoo’s abysmal conditions, the lack of funding, the careful avoidance of inbreeding only to have cubs die due to lack of proper care. The mayor of Addis Ababa reached out to sister city’s officials in Leipzig, Germany for help, and received it the form of Leipzig Zoo veterinarians. The lions were identified as being genetically unique, which is to say they have several unique traits while still belonging to the species Panthera leo.

There are few wild lions left in Ethiopia, and all lions are considered endangered. Conservation efforts are underway for the Addis Ababa lions, both in terms of living conditions and possible further breeding.

These pitiable creatures have spent their lives in tiny concrete and steel cells, fed a spare diet more suited to house cats, their bodies sold to taxidermists to raise money for the zoo. Awful. And yet – would this genetically specific group have survived in any fashion in the wild during the decades when all their tens of thousands of relatives were wiped out? Kept in a concrete bell jar, this tiny population has limped along, a hidden treasure of genetic information that can now be (hopefully) rescued for the overall genetic diversity of lions as a whole. Most likely all those lions will be captive as well.

I keep thinking there must be a silver lining here somewhere, I just can’t seem to define its outlines.

Scientific American

European Journal of Wildlife Research – A genetically distinct lion (Panthera leo) population from Ethiopia, S. Bruche, M. Gusset, S. Lippold, R. Barnett, K. Eulenberger, J. Junhold, C. A. Driscoll, M. Hofreiter
University of York article