Poison clue to bird catastrophe

June 21, 1996

A leading British specialist in animal disease has returned from Morocco after investigating the sudden deaths of scores of a rare bird unique to the country.

James Kirkwood, chief vet at London University's Institute of Zoology, and the world expert on the bald ibis, was summoned to the Parc National Souss Massa near Agadir by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, as the count of ibis corpses mounted.

It is now believed that more than 40 birds have died out of a world population of only about 220 adult birds, and investigations are continuing.

The dead birds were found initially by Christopher Bowden, who is running an RSPB research project in the park to discover the exact requirements of the birds and advise on site management. The catastrophe will put a different slant on the management control necessary to save the bird from extinction.

The birds are already vulnerable because they are all concentrated in two areas just outside Agadir, a popular beach resort. The Moroccans have set aside an enormous area as a nominal reserve for the bird, but the main Souss Massa site suffers from overuse, with grazing, fishing and some tourism often at odds with the bird's interests.

The site is managed by Eaux et Forets, the Moroccan forestry commission, which has shown considerable willingness to comply with suggestions from BirdLife International, the RSPB and the Comite des Programmes de Conservation de la Nature (CPCN) the partner organisations in the ibis project.

However, the loss of almost one quarter of the population inevitably recalls the fate of the ibis in Turkey, where a substantial number could be found in the wild until the 1950s when the population was wiped out by pesticide poisoning. Only a few captive-bred birds remain.

The Moroccan veterinary authorities are still analysing the Souss Massa corpses but Dr Kirkwood says the initial findings show that poisoning cannot be ruled out.

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