08 May 2014


[My long blog silence was caused by the pressure of work + a computer crash.  I mark my return with something not close to my subject but close to my heart.]

Some faint hope for Zenobia, the Syrian ibis

Zenobia, queen of the ibis colony in Syria
Almost exactly a year ago, we were grieving not only for Syria and its raging civil war, but for Zenobia, seemingly the last ibis of Palmyra (left). 

Zenobia was the only Northern Bald Ibis to make it back to the breeding grounds in the desert near Palmyra after their annual winter migration to the Ethiopian highlands (the whole, sad story in Zenobia, Last Ibis in Syria). 

It had started out so well.

Right on schedule, Zenobia flew off with her mate, Odeinat, the one and only hope for her to continue the dynasty:

Taking flight after tagging
Zenobia had been paired the previous year to Odeinat, the last surviving male ibis.  But his satellite tag stopped transmitting before he ever reached Ethiopia -- the final bleep having been sent from southern Saudi Arabia in July 2012....  

After which he went radio silent.  Zenobia returned to Palmyra alone and no other birds followed her home.  Since no sole bird, not even a queen, can breed by herself, the Syrian branch of ibises -- once numbered in the thousands -- moved from Red-List Endangered (the highest level of threat) to the edge of Extinction.

On the Brink

That didn't stop Zenobia, however.  According to her satellite transmitter, in autumn she set off again to fly to Ethiopia for her winter break -- which meant crossing seven countries and flying over 6,000 kilometres (3,800 miles) to the Ethiopian highlands.

But was she alone?

Or did some Turkish ibis fly with her?  

A Turk in Time?

In July 2013, six birds from the semi-wild Northern Bald Ibis population at Birecik, Turkey were released in a trial re-introduction to nature.  Three were fitted with satellite transmitters and ringed. Four of the birds were juveniles, and two were one-year-old birds. The hope was that the gang of six would survive and migrate.

For the first two weeks, the birds remained very close to their home breeding station.  However, excitement mounted as five of the birds departed south, and the intriguing news was that they had stopped off very close to Palmyra in mid-August, where the remaining wild population was now just the one individual, our intrepid Zenobia.

What happened next is unknown.  The war had spread to Palmyra, making it almost impossible for the Syrian team of Bird-Life International to continue field checks at the ibis breeding site in the desert.

A Flutter of Hope 

Ibis grabbing tasty scorpion prey by its sting
A trusted Ethiopian field-worker of Bird-Life International, however, picked up the trail.  News from the highlands moves slowly: in February, as I've only just heard, he visited the site where the relict Syrian birds mainly overwintered.  He reported spotting three adult northern bald ibis!  These included the female Zenobia, who was accompanied by an unringed adult.  Another lone ibis was also sighted it the area.  So, there’s a faint hope that Zenobia and the unringed bird (one of the Turks?) are indeed a pair, and might make it back to breed in Syria. 

If so, they should be returning to Palmyra any day now. 

Keep your fingers crossed for Zenobia, that rarest of rare birds and last queen of the colony at Palmyra.

Sources: We have been following Zenobia's story from March 2007 (Zenobia's Triumphant Return to Palmyra) with further hopeful flights of Latest News in 2011 and 2012, only to be grounded in 2013 with  Zenobia, Last Ibis in Syria


Top: Zenobia the ibis, during satellite tagging at Palmyra in 2006. Photo courtesy of G. Serra (via NATGEO News Watch)

Upper left: Conservation officer, Adel Abouajaja, releasing Nader  (meaning 'rare'), at the Northern Bald Ibis Conservation Project in Morocco.  Photo Credit: Víctor García Matarranz (via SEO/Grepom).

Lower left: Northern Bald Ibis.  Photo credit: Brian Stone (via SEO/BirdLife).

Bottom: Ibis catching scorpion by its sting.   Undoubtedly this is a skill learned when they’re young, demonstrating the importance of learning in these birds.   Photo Credit: Víctor García Matarranz (via SEO/Grepom).


  1. Provisional Hooray! What's good for Zenobia the Ibis is probably good for us all.

  2. Anonymous17/5/14 22:28

    Yeah, I will pray for this wise and elegant mysterious lady,....

  3. Zenobia Kloppers is a Namibian-born South African-based singer (soprano), actress (stage and television), voice artist (radio theatre), and writer (plays and educational publications). She is well known for her versatility as a performer and vocal interpreter, with numerous roles depicted in theatre, music and radio theatre productions, showcasing her God-given talent in theatres, at arts festivals, on television, and on radio airwaves in South Africa, Namibia and abroad. More info: http://www.zenobiakloppers.com

  4. Unfortunately, No one will know if any NBI bird has returned back to Palmyra this year. I have contacted the official bird watchers at NBI reserve at Palmyra and they told me that they were not able to carry out field visits because the war had extended to the territories of the reserve.

    1. I am happy to hear that you and others are still trying to follow the ibises. But I am utterly miserable -- as we all are -- at the extension of this terrible war. I wish there was something we could do and not just write epitaphs.

    2. An update:

      Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia sources in Syria: Ibis colony in Palmyra disappeared in 2014

  5. Too sad to read this today (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32872350) after remembering reading this hopeful post of yours on Zenobia.

  6. Thank you Abdulhadi and Monique, I am too sad for words.


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