DUBAI // A bird species that has been around for at least 1.8 million years is teetering on the brink of extinction, but a private wildlife park in the city is holding out a lifeline that might ensure the birds' survival.
The northern bald ibis is being bred on a man-made cliff at the Sheikh Butti bin Juma Al Maktoum Wildlife Centre in Dubai.
The species was once common across the Middle East, North Africa and much of Europe, and fossils have been found that date back 1.8 million years. However numbers declined catastrophically until only two populations remained: one associated with Syria and Turkey and one in southern Morocco.
The status of the bird in Syria is unclear, with some estimates suggesting that fewer than 10 survive in the wild. The birds in Dubai are descended from that line, and the hope is that it will eventually be possible to release some of those bred here into the wild to bolster the population.
"The population in Syria and Turkey is in the biggest danger," said the centre's manager, Alan Stephenson. "At this stage it's not clear whether they're actually a separate species to the ones in Morocco or not.
"From a conservation viewpoint, if you have a little breeding nucleus here it is a big advantage. We're breeding them successfully even though they don't usually breed easily in captivity. When it becomes viable to release them back into the wild, at least we'll have some birds to put back."
The success of a number of reintroduction programmes suggests this approach could work. Birds have been released in Spain, Austria and northern Morocco, while a semi-wild breeding colony has been established in the traditional range in Turkey.
The centre has three breeding pairs that this year reared three juveniles. The birds nest on the sides of cliffs, which is why the centre had to construct a rock wall specially for them.
The northern bald ibis is just one of many types of rare bird that are being bred at the centre. Others include the Eurasian griffon vulture, the kori bustard, the nicobar pigeon and the pygmy falcon.
The centre houses hundreds of species including giraffe, kangaroo, meerkat and cheetah. Sheikh Butti pioneered the captive breeding of cheetahs in the region, and is considering starting a similar programme for a native species he fears is under threat - the spiny-tailed lizard, known locally as the dhub.
"Sheikh Butti is very conservation-conscious and he is concerned that the dhub is being affected by low rainfall and maybe overgrazing by camel and sheep and things like that," Mr Stephenson said. "So he's feeding them out in the desert. He supplements the food supply, to ensure that the population is viable."