Eyewitness: Holiday village threatens last colony of rare birds

August 17, 2001

Talks later this month between conservationists and Club Mediterranée may seal the fate of the last colony of one of the world's rarest birds.

The holiday village company wants to develop an area identified by scientists as a winter feeding site for Morocco's bald ibises. The 65-pair colony in Morocco's Souss-Massa National Park, set up ten years ago to protect the species, was already classified as "critically threatened" by conservation agencies. Its decline was blamed on loss of feeding habitat, human disturbance at the breeding sites, hunting and pesticides.

Club Med's plan to build a 7,000-bed complex could be the final nail in the coffin. In January, the company signed a contract with the Moroccan government, agreeing to a massive investment to establish several villages including two at Tiznit, where a research programme found an important ibis feeding area outside the park.

Nigel Collar, fellow in conservation biology at Cambridge University, said:

"The bald ibis is a unique problem for conservation in the wider Mediterranean basin.

"All the once-healthy populations in the eastern Mediterranean appear to have gone, a few Red Sea birds seem to linger in limbo, and the multitude of Moroccan colonies has shrunk in size and number to a pathetic few.

"On recent past form, this bird is destined for extinction... but the work of the Moroccan authorities and conservation organisations shows that it is possible to save species.

"It is absolutely crucial that any activity that might prejudice the survival of the species be scrutinised with the greatest care.

"Finding a way of developing the area without affecting the bald ibis is a big responsibility. Depending on how it responds to the challenge, the reputation of Club Mediterranée can be greatly enhanced or significantly tarnished."

Chris Bowden, a researcher who has worked on the ibis for seven years, said: "If the development went ahead without strict control and conditions, it could be a huge threat... We don't have another chance with this last wild population in the world."

Facts: the ibis

Only 65 breeding pairs of northern bald ibis are left. The entire populatin depends on Morocco's Souss-Massa national park, set up in 1991, primarily to protect the ibises, and the unprotected Tamri area, within 60km of Agadir.

In the 16th century, the ibis was living in cliffs and old buildings in Switzerland. By the start of the 20th century, it was known only from western North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean in Syria and Turkey, and a handful of record from Ethiopia and the red Sea. By the start of the 21st century, the eastern Mediterranean population appears to have gone, a few Red Sea birds remain, and the multitude of Moroccan colonies has shrunk in size and numbers to 65 pairs.

One in eight - about 12 per cent - of all bird species is at risk of extinction in the next 100 years. There are 182 "critical" species with an estimated 50 per cent chance of surviving over the next ten years. A further 320 are "endangered" and 681 are "vulnerable", according to Birdlife International.


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