Arrival of northern bald ibis chicks boosts Chester Zoo's reintroduction project
Seven critically-endangered northern bald ibis chicks have hatched at Chester Zoo before they are to be released back into the wild in the hope of reintroducing the bird.
Zoo keepers are currently celebrating the arrival of the birds - which are on the brink of extinction having undergone a long-term decline.
Experts say more than 98% of the wild population has been lost and estimate that only 115 breeding pairs remain in the wild in small populations in Morocco and Turkey.
The birds, which have been extinct for more than 300 years in northern Spain, will be returned to the country following the carefully co-ordinated breed-and-release programme at Chester Zoo.
The northern bald ibis arrived at Chester Zoo in 1986 when its wild number started to rapidly decline. The zoo is now home to 30 individuals.
The species was once found in abundance across north Africa, southern and central Europe and the Middle East, but is now critically endangered as a result of hunting, habitat loss, pesticide poisoning and an increase in construction works around their preferred nesting sites.
It was last seen in Syria in 2014.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the northern bald ibis as critically endangered on its red list of threatened species since 1994.
Mike Jordan, collections director at the zoo, said the breeding of the chicks was "a remarkable addition" to the endangered species breeding programme and a welcome boost to their global numbers.
He said: "Our team have been weighing the chicks daily and carefully monitoring how often the parents are bringing them food - as each one is absolutely vital to the future of the species.
"Sadly, the species has been extinct in Europe for more than 300 years and since joining the reintroduction programme in 2007, we've made great efforts to breed these birds so that they can eventually go on to be released back into the wild.
"We hope that by reintroducing birds back into a safe, secure and monitored site in southern Spain that they will hopefully go on to successfully breed and give the species once more a foothold in Europe."
Mr Jordan said the birth showed the importance zoos played in conserving species.
"Breeding such critically-endangered birds successfully over the years is a huge achievement and this remarkable project really shows the important role zoos can play in conserving species that face a wide range of threats, and are on the edge of extinction."
The zoo joined the reintroduction programme in 2007 and has been working closely with Jerez Zoo, the Andalusian government and other conservation institutions across Europe to re-establish the species in Europe and help prevent the birds from disappearing from the wild altogether.