20 March 2011

Zenobia's Triumphant Return to Palmyra (Latest News)

Zenobia the ibis, that is.

Further updated in March 2012 (see below)

A miffed-looking Zenobia (left), self-appointed queen of Palmyra's Northern Bald Ibises, after being tagged in 2006, shortly before taking off for her annual winter migration to Ethiopia.  

Since then, she's been recorded as returning to her Palmyra breeding grounds each year in March.  And now, just days ago, right on time, she flew back again, the first of her tiny flock to come home -- exactly as you'd expect of an uppity queen-bird.

The ibis' annual migration route takes them across seven countries, flying more than 5,000 km [3,800 miles], to spend the winter in the Ethiopian highlands.

For those who haven't been following the story on my blog since 2007, here's the scoop: 

The Palmyran ibis colony was only discovered in 2002 and its numbers have never risen above 13. They are thought to be the last of a Middle Eastern population that formerly numbered several thousand; and the bird is now classified as critically endangered – the highest level of threat there is. The northern bald ibis, Geronticus eremita, is a large bird with black plumage that flashes irridescent purple and green when the light strikes it, with a bald red face, red bill and legs and a strange crest of long feathers on the back of its head, which makes it look as though it is wearing a feather wig. It is usually silent but hisses and grunts (like an angry queen) when at its nest and in display.

Gianluca Serra, undoubtedly the top specialist on the northern bald ibis, representing the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has just updated us on the latest desperate efforts to forge a stable population of these red-list endangered birds, now one of the rarest birds in the world.* 

Syria’s tiny population of ibises was doing well at its protected breeding site, but the young birds were not returning to the colony after their migration. The Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society determined that there was no short-term threat at the wintering grounds in Ethiopia.  The problem for the ibis, it seems -- and for a number of soaring birds which use the African-Eurasian flyway – is what kills them off during migration:

Hundreds and thousands of migratory birds, including many that are protected under international wildlife treaties are destroyed by man-made barriers such as power lines, tall buildings, wind turbines and communication masts. Using satellite tracking and, with National Geographic support, IUCN has recently identified the two most likely severe causes of the huge mortality of immature ibises along western Arabia: hunting and electrocution by electric cables.
This discovery has important and general conservation implications, as the ibis migratory route along western Arabia is a major flyway used by other threatened long-range migratory birds as well.

Nice as it is to know what is killing them, it may already be too late to save the northern bald ibis.  The Syrian birds have raised 24 young since 2002 but breeding totally failed in 2008 and, by 2009, the bird was just short of extinction: the seven adults discovered in 2002 had dwindled to three individuals, plus one juvenile reared that year.

Last throw of the dice for Zenobia's brood

In summer 2010, scientists managed to carry out a test at the breeding grounds in Palmyra, the first of its kind.

Semi-captive Turkish Northern bald ibis from Birecik
In a deal symbolically negotiated by the Syrian and Turkish first ladies (Mrs Asma al-Assad and Mrs Hayrünnisa Gül), it was decided that the Palmyra birds should be supplemented with juveniles taken from the expanding semi-wild population at Birecik in Turkey, belonging to the same genetic stock.  The Turkish ibises are free-flying for five months, breeding on natural nest sites and nest-boxes on cliffs, but are taken into captivity after the breeding season to prevent them from migrating.

The gift that keeps on giving: six little birds

The Turkish Government donated six juvenile ibises from the Birecik population in the hope that they can prevent the extinction of the wild Syrian birds.  Two of these have been fitted with satellite transmitters and have been carefully introduced to the wild birds in the hope they will follow them and, ultimately, join the adults on their migration and become part of the colony.  On the face of it, it seems straightforward to do, but the birds are socially particularly complex, and there are always risks of disease.

Two chicks born in captivity in Turkey were slowly introduced into the wild colony in Palmyra. The remaining four Turkish birds will be kept in aviaries for breeding to bolster the colony's numbers by releasing their offspring in future years.

An amazing video (below) by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds/BirdLife shows the getting-to-know-you process between the three Syrian birds (Zenobia, Odeinat, and Salama) and the two Turkish juveniles (Ishtar and Amina) as well as remarkable scenes of a bird's life in the Syrian desert.  When the juveniles are finally released, you see them joining the adults foraging for food. 

Northern bald ibis release in Syria from The RSPB on Vimeo.

Astonishingly, on release, the two youngsters followed one of the wild adults for almost 1,500 km [950 miles] along the migratory route up to southern Saudi Arabia.  But, in Saudi, their trail went cold.  According to the RSPB, "We've already found out that the adult ibises travel to Ethiopia for the winter, but we're not totally sure where the youngsters go." 

The adults were followed this year all the way to Ethiopia -- where Salama was discovered hobnobbing with two unknown ibises (perhaps Syrian juveniles from 2007 that never returned to the breeding grounds; presumed dead, but truly, no one knows what teenage ibises get up to!).  The good news is that, as of last week, Zenobia, Odenait, and Salama have returned to their breeding grounds near Palmyra, each by separate routes (confirmed by the RSPB blog that has been tracking them via satellite transmitters since they left Syria) ... but there is still no sign of the little Turks.

Are they alive? Will they make it back to Palmyra?  Fingers crossed that they appear quite soon and boost the breeding population!

Latest News 2012 Below

* Barbara Moffet of the National Geographic Society interviews Gianluca Serra, in 'New Hope for a Rare Bird in the Syrian Desert' at NATGEO News Watch.

For more information, see the RSPB Community webpage on the Northern bald ibis (updated regularly), and the BirdLife International website.


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

Middle left: Close-up Northern bald ibix.  Photo by J. Crisali (via Zenobia: Empress of the East).

Lower left: Turkish juvenile ibis.  Photo by
Andy Hultberg; www.rarebirdsyearbook.com (via BirdLife International)

Update 7 March 2012

Three Birds Back

This year again, Zenobia, Odenait, and Salama have returned safely from their long migration.  RSPB reports (2 March 2012):
We've just heard from the team in Syria that all three adults....are safely back from migration on the Syrian breeding grounds today! This is particularly pleasing since Salama had not transmitted since late last year, but this now seems to simply be tag failure rather than anything worse. Still no sign of the other two untagged birds that were seen on the Ethiopian wintering grounds, so where those birds go is becoming a source of speculation. Or perhaps they will appear at Palmyra one of these days?
Salama is the lone adult female whose partner never returned from the 2010 migration.

An unpaired adult Turkish male from the aviary was introduced to her last year in the hope he might adapt to the conditions and breed with her:

The release aviary was put in place and he and Salama did show a lot of interest in one another, even offering twigs (nest material) to each other through the wire. So it was agreed to let the male go. Unfortunately, he spent just an hour with the wild birds after release before they flew off together, but he then disappeared during a sandstorm, and no longer stayed with Salama or the others.
He was eventually recaptured and put back in the aviary.  Salama remains mate-less and now migrates on her own. 

Juvenile Deliquents

The two untagged juveniles that fledged in 2011 have not been seen, but where youngsters go to after they fledge remains a mystery as they have never been observed with the adults in Ethiopia.  Both seemed healthy when they left on their migration last year. The two other juveniles that were taken from the semi-captive tagged Turkish birds set out from Syria, but both disappeared some time ago and their fate is unknown.

As of now, that leaves just one single breeding pair in their old stamping grounds near Palmyra.  Come on, kids, come home!


Illustration ibis chick and egg: Photo Credit: International Advisory Group for the Northern Bald Ibis


13 March 2011

A Crippled Hunter-Gatherer and a Feisty Woman

Finding 'Perak Man' at Elephant's Head Hill

In 1990-91, Malaysian archaeologists discovered the grave of an 11,000 year- old human buried in a cave at a place called Elephant's Head Hill -- one of many limestone hills amid dense tropical forest in the Lenggong Valley in the state of Perak.  Hence, the skeleton (the most complete Palaeolithic remains ever discovered in Southeast Asia) was named 'Perak Man'.*  His cranium and limbs displayed Australo-Melanesian characteristics similar to those of aboriginal peoples in Australia, Papua, Indonesia and some parts of Malaysia today.**

'Perak Man'  would have stood about 157 cm (ca. 5') tall, and was 40-45 years old when he died -- a ripe old age for a hunter-gatherer.  He had been given a decidedly up-market burial.  His body was curled in the fetal position, i.e. with legs tucked towards chest, his right arm touching shoulder and his left arm bent so that his hand would rest on his stomach.  In and around his hands were at least five kinds of meats: yummy pig, deer, monitor lizard, tortoise, and monkey.  The corpse and foods had been covered by thousands of shells of small river molluscs, with selected larger shells put nearest the dead man.  Ten pebble tools and stone hammers lay above the shells, followed by another shell layer and a final dirt layer. 

A lot of labour went into sending the old man off in high-style.

This elaborate burial is even more exceptional because 'Perak Man' suffered from a congenital deformity, Brachymesophalangia 2A (the only prehistoric skeleton known to have this disorder): he had a malformed left hand, meaning his left arm and hand were much smaller compared to his right arm and hand; and his spine curved towards the right due to his living with only one good hand.  

So, that up-market burial was for an old man who probably couldn't ever have earned his keep: with only one good hand you can’t really hunt or gather very well and so living to 45 with that kind of handicap is pretty astonishing.  

Feisty Woman Meets 'Perak Man'

As I brushed away the dirt, a reverential feeling overcame me. Although he had been buried thousands of years, I felt both respectful and uncomfortable. 

The very first Malaysian archaeologist, Professor Datuk (an honorary Malay title) Zuraina Majid, founder and first Director of the Centre for Archaeological Research at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, had previously proved that Homo sapiens occupied Perak state some 74,000 years ago, which meant that the penninsula was the gateway that man had used to migrate to Australia and beyond.** This unprecedented discovery put Malaysia in the archaeological limelight and quashed the belief that the region was a backwater of civilisation:
This was our first foray into the Lenggong valley which I had identified as a hotbed of prehistoric activity. At the time, prehistoric archaeology of Malaysia was almost a blank slate. By identifying ... a stone tool workshop and identifying many artefacts as failed attempts at stone tool creation, I got a glimpse into the mind of prehistoric man as they engaged in trial-and-error experimentation to create the best tools with the materials they had.
Armed with a PhD in anthropology in the 1970s, the only person in Malaysia with such qualifications at that time (M.A. Cambridge, PhD Yale), Zuraina made it her goal to develop the field so that Malaysia would no longer be regarded as a laggard in archaeology. 

“Three decades ago, I started off with the mission to develop the field of Malaysian archaeology and to train a future generation of Malaysian archaeologists. Throughout the journey, I never had time to think of myself apart from the work at hand.  It is a special job – building up a nation’s past.  It is a serious job that has to be grounded in evidence as it has to stand up to the international scrutiny of professionals.”

What's so fascinating about archaeology?
Archaeology is wonderful because our discoveries are not stand-alone pieces of information to be filed away in a library. Each piece of research is like a jigsaw piece that contributes towards a big picture of understanding our deep past. We are like detectives, reconstructing the past to solve mysteries of time. 
When she and her team discovered Perak Man (that's her seated on the right side of the trench in the top photo), they also put the 'missing piece' into the jigsaw of the spread of mankind from mainland Asia to Indonesia and Australia.  This virtually-complete skeleton could be compared with other prehistoric to modern examples from Southeast Asia and Australia.  Dental and cranial studies demonstrated that Perak man's closest affinity was to the Australian aborigine and it now seems clear that Perek Man and other prehistoric people originated in that area in the Late Pleistocene.  They are, in short, the ancestors of modern Southeast Asian and Australian aboriginal people. 

Zuraina says quite rightly, "Archaeology may largely deal with the dead in our remote past -- but the human connection is very much alive."

In 2006, Zuraina, then Professor Emeritus (sic, but her honorary title of Datuk is masculine, too) was appointed to her current position of Commissioner for the National Heritage Department of Malaysia.  As such, she is the person ultimately responsible for the protection of all historical buildings and sites throughout the country.  Less gravely, she's also charged with safeguarding genuine Malaysian food lest it be hijacked by culinary pirates.***

Now, just in time for International Women's Day (March 8th), came this breaking news:

For the first time, Malaysia will be standing for a seat in the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) and, if successful, she will be represented by none other than Prof. Emeritus Datuk Zuraina Majid.

The WHC has the final say on whether a natural or cultural property is of sufficiently outstanding universal value to be inscribed on the World Heritage List, and -- of huge importance nowadays -- it monitors the conservation of every such listed property.  In addition, as her cherry on the cake, with any luck, the Lenggong Valley (Zuraina's 'golden valley') will make the grade to be listed in 2012.

Announcing Malaysia's bid, the spokesman for the Information, Communication and Culture Ministry assured possibly sceptical Committee members that
... Prof Zuraina and her team will be able to withstand the mental strain of very long days of tough discussions, which I am told can go on for as long as a fortnight.
May I assure the Minister, in turn, that the rigours of committee meetings are little or nothing compared to the sweat and grime of archaeological digs, and roughing it out for weeks on end in the deep jungles of Malaysia.

So, Zenobia salutes Prof. Emeritus Datuk Zuraina Majid, the first archaeologist of Malaysia, and wishes her well in her quest for a place at the top.  She has brought together three of my four most favourite things:

1. Archaeology.  I quote her:"The excitement of being first to see and touch an artefact after it has lain buried for thousands of years is adrenaline plus!"  Anyone who can say this is my kind of person.

2. A feisty woman.  To those who claim that archaeology is 'a luxury a developing country can't afford', she ripostes: "If we allow this narrow view to gain currency ...  we will know neither our origins nor the struggles and successes of our ancestors that shaped our cultural heritage."

3. A mystery dig.  After all, we haven't yet answered the question as to why the crippled hunter-gatherer, Perak Man, was given such an extraordinary burial.  

Yes, yes, I know, my first thought too was 'Shaman!' 

But proving it is another matter entirely.

(posted with a special nod to Women's History Month)

* Because the pelvis, most helpful for determining sex, was in very poor condition, it is not quite certain that the skeleton was male but other bones did exhibit strong male characteristics.   In 2004, another skeleton was found in Lenggong, this time decidedly 'Perak Woman',  148 cm in height and aged in her 40s.  Her funeral repast consisted of yukky rat, monkey and iguana.

**  Before 10,000 years ago, the Malay peninsula formed the western part of the huge and now partially drowned subcontinent of Sundaland, which must have served as a land connection for ancient movements of population from Asia into Indonesia, and ultimately Australia.

*** In case you were wondering, the heritage stamp of approval has gone to yee sang, mooncakes, Penang char kway teow, air batu campur, rendang, laksa, nasi lemak, teh tarik, putu mayam and roti canai.  A committee is still mulling over  pulut kukus periuk kera (glutinous rice cooked in monkey pot plants) and ikan panggang tanah liat (grilled fish wrapped in clay).  Zuraina confesses, “I myself did not know about pulut kukus periuk kera.”

For this post, I have made use of Stephen Chia & Zuraina Majid, 'The Conservation and Preservation of Perek Man from Gua Gunung Runtuh Site in Lenggong, Perak, Malaysia', available online through the Universiti Sains Malaysia; and several newspaper articles published by The Star Online.  My thanks, too, to Johan Arif of the blog Hanjorifa.


Top: The grave of Perek Man on Elephant's Head Hill. Photo from The Star Online. Credit: THAM AI MEI.

Middle: Perek man reassembled and on display in Lenggong Museum (the purple-coloured silica gel containers keep the humidity low).  Photo via IpohWorld

Below: Photo from the blog of A.F. Yassin.

07 March 2011


'Mister Liso' wouldn't be nearly as nice.

Italy celebrates International Women's Day (Festa della donna, 8 March) with wit, a poster, and panache -- a word borrowed, naturally, from the Italian, pennacchio

And a jolly extra: Tomorrow, women can enter all state-owned museums and cultural sites free-of-charge!

This news is hot off the press of the Ministry of Art and Cultural Affairs (isn't it great to have a whole Ministry devoted to art and culture?).  Here's a rough translation of the key part of the announcement (original Italian below) from la penna di Zenobia:

Women have always been the inspiration for the many languages of art: in body and spirit, passion and sentiments, sacred love and profane love, mother and mistress.  For very many centuries, Woman was the Muse, the source of inspiration; now she has become an active agent, a creator of artworks with her own artistic commitment.  Just try to imagine for a moment any Art without its female component and you will quickly realize Woman's absolutely central role.

I confess it sounds better in Italian, but you get the idea.  

Wishing you all, world-wide, an exceptional International Women's Day 2011!

PS:  Don't forget, there is a special Women's History Carnival running throughout the month of March.

First off the bat is Early Modern Notes on the 9th of March, with a follow-up towards the end of the month which will round up all the activities.  You can nominate blog posts for the Carnival using this nomination form.  Plus, keep up to date on what's happening by subscribing to the RSS feed for Women's History Carnival announcements.

Follow events on Twitter, too:

From the Ministry website:
MIBAC - Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali
Emblema della repubblica italiana Bandiera italiana Bandiera europea

Da sempre soggetto ispiratore per il linguaggio dell’arte: corpo e spirito, passione e sentimento, amor sacro e amor profano, madre e amante, la Donna è stata nei secoli rappresentata in tutte le sue sfaccettature, passando nei secoli da primigenia musa ispiratrice a protagonista attiva nella stessa produzione e committenza artistica. Basta pensare per un attimo cosa sarebbe l’Arte senza la componente femminile per comprenderne il ruolo assolutamente centrale.

Per questo il MiBAC celebra la Festa dell’8 marzo, offrendo a tutte le donne l’ingresso gratuito in tutti i luoghi d’arte statali (musei, aree archeologiche, biblioteche ed archivi), molti dei quali per l’occasione hanno organizzato mostre, aperture straordinarie, visite guidate ed eventi a tema.

My thanks to Blogging Pompeii for the tip-off.

Blog Archive