Behind the scenes at conservation NGO Waldrappteam

Until 400 years ago there was living a bit wacky bird called Waldrapp. He distributed around the whole mediterranen and migrated tirelessly to diverse winter habitats within close communities/colonies. However on the side of humans there were different opinions about this bird with the „rastafarian look“. On one hand he was a precious creature for ornithologists known as the Northern Bald Ibis. In Turkey his return was celebrated with big festivities. In the middle east he even was counted holy and people believed that this bird embodies the souls! In spite of that Waldrapp was an ambitioned human eating bird! A feast in the ravenous times of the medieval and the 30 year war. So this charismatic migratory bird became extinct, primarily due to excessive hunting. Only a few sedentary populations existed mostly in Marokko.

The Waldrappteam, initiated by behavioral biologist Johannes Fritz, is engaged since 2002 with the long lasting task to reintroduce this lovely creature. Through the efforts of this passionate team one of the most endangered birds in the world gets a second chance from us humans. He will be repopulated as a migratory bird to provide him the flexibility in the very wobbly environmental conditions nowadays. For Waldrapp a unique way of species conservation was carefully considered. The bird is being hand raised and accustomed early on to the sounds of microlite aircrafts. In this way foster parents teach these Ibises the route to Orbetello, Tuscany throughout human led migration. As a very social bird which lives in realtively big colonies Waldrapp unfortunately can only learn his Migration route from his parents or relatives.

They apparently must have forgotten their way to fly so now the birds are reliant upon a human GPS and human orientation. When the juveniles don’t learn the route in their first year they most likely stay sedentary.

Until now more than 100 wild Waldrapps could have been reintroduced. This not yet stable number of individuals migrates independently and breeds in the different project locations and breeding places.

Through the scientific research Waldrapteam undertakes during the project unique discoveries especially in terms of flight behavior in V formation have been gained. These findings are very valuable and relevant for conservation of other migratory bird species. Particularly in the pouching area Waldrappteam could attain a lot of positive achievements. For the next years an instant pouching alert system is being planned where it will be possible to notify police and other similar institutions instantly after a wildlife delict.

For more information and up to date news please visit the website of Waldrappteam: http://www.waldrapp.eu.

In the following I would like to give you some insight about this project and inform you what kind of tasks next to science and animal care are on the agenda. I had the opportunity to be an intern for a month at the training camp „Heiligenberg“.

Day 1

The day began with a glaring white icy cold fog layer. Wavering hands, clattering legs. A strong spiced tea dispels the last morning tiredness. After the first feeding and weighing of each individuals the fog roamed like soon the young Waldrapp protégés into the south and the sun decided to rise. We visited the community in „Frickingen“ and the mayor in „Heiligenberg“ in order to display flyers so even more people learn about this exciting project and get inspired about nature and species conservation. After that – food preperation: hundreds of freshly delivered snail houses had to be crushed and finely grinded. Foster parents Anne, Helena, Freddie and Katharina were now able to still the hunger of their small black green shimmering fluffballs. Obtained from Snail houses the calc is added to the food with small tablespoons. This strengthens bone density and is helpful for the development of the birds. After all 36 „Waldis“ have been strengthened they were playing with teabags and flinged them high in the air! When the demanding behaviour training was done (in order to learn poking which the birds will need in the wilderness to be capable to forage – human parents are teaching them to feed out of holed wood piles) it was time for bed…at least for the Waldrapps!

Day 2

With the beginning of „Pfingst – holidays“ a big visitor load clenched. Almost 30 people, big and small, old and young wanted to observe the „Waldrapps”. We chatted from the individual lift generation of the birds during V formation to the daily tent life of the so called „youth camp“. Collecting snap-frozen cricktets, „mealworm – gold riddling“ (so the birds won’t get infected or ill form the deceased worms) and accessory shopping for the aviary setup which will be built for 4 young swiss Waldis was on the to do list today.

Day 3

Wow! Today we cracked a new visitor rekord! Over 80 people arrived in dribs and drabs in the trainingcamp „Heiligenberg“. 4 visitiors wanted to visit the Waldrappe early in the morning while we were about to mow the yawn in order to keep the camp tidy and also to free a space for the new aviary. Cause soon the 4 young Waldis from switzerland become more independent and fledged! So they are allowed as soon as the aviary is completly set to flap their wings and fly around for their first time.

These youngsters in contrast to the 32 older ones derive not their origin from Rosegg (Kärnten) but form Zurich. Thereby a broader genetic variability can be ensured.

The already a touch older Waldrappe (around 2 1⁄2 months old) could hear the wings and flight noises of their slightly weird mother for the first time today. She swooshed by next to the avary with a humming microlite aircraft and with the encouraging words „Come on Waldis come, come!“

4 swiss Waldrapps with foster parent Freddie (last photo)

Day 4

Zzzzzzt! Loud did the croaking saw cut wood in early morning hours. As the camp is in need of utensils (like today for example signposts, a table and a chair were required urgently) at the biological species conservation project skilled craftsmanship is very welcome as well. Occasionally time and again visitors came round form near and far. This time even some travelers from New Zealand! A handful icy cold crickets were packed up into cans. After all the day was actually fulfilled with ambitious drilling screwing and fresh smell of wood.

Day 5

As soon as the sun rose we all immediately jumped out of bed. Today we had a very exciting day in front of us. The almost fully grown Waldis were allowed to fly beyond the aviary for their first time ! At the morningly feeding the curious long-peaks didn’t sense not at all yet what was coming (had ahead of them) After a short camp cleanup and preparation we were ready for takeoff. Or not? No the door of the glider airfield is closed! Now we couldn’t get the mitrollte aircraft out of its garage and without aircraft a freeflight is not possible. It is of big importance that the Waldrapps connect their foster parents with the aircraft, so the juveniles will really follow their human mums at the big journey to Orbettello tuscany in august! Thank god after a couple of phone calls a member of the association came, unlocked the doors and the wing flapping could begin. The avary opened and the whole flock of birds lifted off high in the air of freedom. Really fast, they circled all over us. After a while parents decided that its enough and called them with tempting mealworms. This worked as far as I can say surprisingly good!

Only Hedwig couldn’t satisfy her thirst of adventure and inner desire to fly. Somewhere beyond our view of sight it apparently urged this bird to further explore the area. Slowly we were all concerned and we began to look for Hedwig. I got on my way into the wood because it could be that due to her very lacking flight experience she crashed into a tree I thought. However far and wide nothing to see.. Then suddenly a rustle in a bush.

Why doesn’t she join her community of other individuals such as her lovely foster parents and Waldrapp buddies? What the heck is she doing there on the roof? Many encouraging and pleading calls. But Hedwig continues to stay stubborn. Almost an hour has passed and eventually she behaved cooperative and the team has just in time made it to catch all their protégées before the big food delivery came.

Step by Step getting used to the aircraft and glider

Day 6

Like already quite often before today this morning the extremly kind and friendly baker Robert visited us. He brightened us up again with some fresh and oven warm bread!
We strenghtened ourselves with coffee and two three honey loafs before the flight training started. The Waldis were not allowed to recharge energy because they should be unfed and have an empty stomach. Thereby the training motivation is much higher! At 9 o clock sharp it all began. Behavioral biologist and founder of the project Johannes Fritz is by the way also a pilot. And as he came from a keynote presentation project which he hold for a project partner in Italy, he arrived at trainingcamp „Heiligenberg“ yesterday. Today Johannes could launch with an (umbrella – like Marry Poppins 😉 didn’t know the correct word hahah) and hopefully also following Waldrapps for the first time. Very impressed by the great nurture, the strong connection to the foster parents and after the very well succeeded training we all toasted with some beer. Around 12 o clock a sound technician arrived suddenly who wanted to get some recordings of the cute yuvenile begging calls. Some months ago a film team from Finnland has namely shot some scenes about the special rearing at this project. However they apparently forgot to collect enough sound recordings though… (So thats why a guy from Germany came along and had the task to complete the project) The recording device was really extremely sensitive and so quite a number of trials had to be made. One time the foot stamping was disturbing and another time sadly even my by minimum 100 meter away Ukulele tinkling during my break hindered a glas clear recording…Later during the visitor time a very kind group of physically impaired people came. Happily wide eyed marveling and full with excitement the group listened to my guide around the camp and observed playing Waldrapps. As there doesn’t exist a shower in the camp and it was about time I cycled quick to the outdoor pool. After that we whiled away the evening with BBQ under glowing starlight sky.

Farewell

Bsssssssss. Daily greet the wasp animals (Groundhog Day) in my caravan and wakes me up in early morning hours! But that is a good thing too because we had to be fit early again today. So we could all listen very carefully to the morning conference for the flight training. Today it was time to say farewell. It is my last day at Waldrappteam unfortunately. The professional pilot Walter Holzmüller who participated and won at a lot of paraglide championships all around the world is ready to take off. Over the fields floated the birds and the in comparison little aerodynamic aircraft. All the way to the next located landing lawn. The Waldrapps need to be promoted more and more after every training because otherwise it gets used and boring too fast. And then they prefer for instance like Cleopatra to hang out with crows. The ground team and I followed the bird flock with the Waldrappteam van equipped with radio tracking and binoculars. Through this we could observe how they behave and if every Waldi is good following his/her parents. Another task of the ground team is in case stop cars or strollers and to plead if possible to choose another way so the Waldrapps won’t be scared by too much hustle and bustle and get a shock flight. Cleopatra is still round and about! Lastly seen at the crows – but regrettably even days after my departure still not to find… After a around 6 hour train ride I arrived very tired but with a lot of experiences and impressions back home.

Cleopatra (on the left) enjoys company with the crows

On the next day to round off my internship and also get some older adult birds in front o my eye and lens I visited one of the 3 breeding places of the project. Around 27 juveniles already hatched and are reared by their wild living bird parents. Many will follow.

individual head patterns, feathers shimmering in the sun, Not until around 3 years the Northern Bald Ibis looses his head fletching completely

Thanks to the Waldrappteam for this very exciting and inspiring time during my internship! I’ve learnt a lot and could get a unique insight into a species conservation project which has gained through the initiative idea and also the charismatic wacky bird a relatively high notoriety already. The biologists but also geographers and landscape planers of the camp are so engaged and spend their whole summer far away from civilization and home local friends for rearing these juveniles and in order to provide the once from human exterminated animals a new chance! Through public work about pouching awareness is being raised which concerns also as you probably know a lot of other species too. With research valuable discoveries are found which can open new ways for nature and species conservation. I continue to hold all my thumbs that a lot of Waldrapps make their way and withstand the still primarly human caused threats (electricity deaths due to unsecured power poles) but also the natural enemies such as for example raptors and foxes.

Published by Tobias Acksteiner

As a conservation photojournalist I try to share my observations through images, articles and storytelling. In this way I aim to fascinate people with some captured wonders of nature and move people emotionally.