By Chelsea Wald of Nature magazine

Vienna, Austria—The leading bird in a European project to develop a method to save a rare species of ibis was killed last weekend by illegal hunters in Italy. Goja, a northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita), was on her way to wintering grounds in Tuscany when she was shot down.

The northern bald ibis has been extinct in the wild in Europe for nearly 400 years and is critically endangered in North Africa and the Middle East. A team led by biologist Johannes Fritz from the University of Vienna has been hand-raising the birds and teaching them how to migrate from breeding areas north of the Alps in Germany and Austria to wintering grounds in Italy. The project aims to learn more about the bird and about migration in general.

Goja initially learnt the migration route in autumn 2009 by following an ultralight aircraft. She made headlines in 2011 when she became the first of the team’s birds to fly back on her own to Germany for the summer.

Although unconventional, the team believes that its aircraft-based teaching method could eventually be used to reintroduce the bird to Europe and to aid in conservation elsewhere. The researchers have made important progress “on getting a method that looks like it's probably going to work”, says Chris Bowden, international species recovery officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Sandy, UK, and chair of the International Advisory Group for the Northern Bald Ibis.

Goja was a key element in the team’s success to date. Not only was she the first to migrate on her own, she was also the first migrator to raise chicks in the breeding area she came from, and last year she became the first to lead a juvenile, a male called Jazu, to the wintering grounds. “I think she is somehow a special personality type,” Fritz said of Goja last summer, “a successful and active type of bird.”

Goja's fate is not unique, last autumn the project lost up to 15 of 37 migrating birds to hunters in Italy. As the team shifted its focus from aiding migration to combating illegal hunting, Goja became even more important. Primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall (from whom Goja got her name) began including Goja’s story in her public lectures, where she drew attention to the problem of illegal hunting of all migrating birds.

When Goja was shot on Saturday, she was leading two juveniles; one was shot dead along with her and the other is missing, presumed shot. A fourth bird traveling alone survived a shooting but will probably not return to free flight. But the poachers have not yet managed to put an end to the migration: Jazu safely led a juvenile to the wintering grounds this year, making sure another generation will know where to go. The birds are now being kept under lock and key until the end of hunting season.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on October 18, 2012.