Albania’s Pelicans Hover on Edge of Extinction


October 27  

Feature 11 Oct 14

Only a few dozen rare Dalmatian pelicans remain in the Karavasta lagoon, down from hundreds in the 1980s, as hunting and wildcat development take their toll.

By Lindita Cela


Kristof and Regina Conrad searching for rare Pelicans

The bridge that connects that seaside village of Divjaka with the Karavasta lagoon is barely passable. The dredge that helps deepen the canal between the lagoon and the sea looks as if it has not seen much action for a long time.

For as long as anyone can remember, Dalmatian pelicans have nested here on one of the lagoon’s low-lying islands, which conservationists and locals call Pelican Islands.

Under Albania’s Communist regime, when the area was a used as labour camp for political prisoners, hundreds of pelicans nested on the island, undisturbed.

“Under the regime, armed soldiers protected the area and the ecosystem for pelicans to nest in Karavasta was excellent,” an environmental activist, Xhemal Mato, recalls.

“Not only was the lagoon itself a paradise for the pelicans, the surrounding area was, too,” he adds.

However, since the regime collapsed, illegal hunting, increased pollution and fishing activity in the lagoon have reduced the population of Dalmatian pelicans to only a few dozen.

Their steep decline raises fears that the rare species could be heading towards extinction in Albania.

The Dalmatian pelican is a large member of the pelican family with a breeding range that stretches from the southeastern corner of Europe to India and China. The birds nest in swamps and shallow lakes.

Measuring between 160 and 193cm in size and with a wingspan of more than three meters, it is one of the largest birds in the world.

Karavasta is the biggest lagoon in Albania and one of the largest in the Mediterranean, covering 43.5km square. The lagoon is separated from the Adriatic Sea by a large strip of sand.

As part of the Divjake-Karavasta National Park, the lagoon is an important ecosystem, protected by the Ramsar convention on wetlands. It is home to over 200 species of birds, including rare eagles and falcons.

Once in the lagoon, visiting the island of the pelicans is not easy, even though the interest that surrounds them is not small.

During my visit, I teamed up with Swiss a couple, Kristof and Regina Conrad, and hired a local fisherman as a guide.

The Conrads had read about the rare pelicans and had traveled all the way to Albania just to get a glimpse of them.
Our guide, who knew only a few words of English from the occasional foreign tourists who ventured into the lagoon, greeted us with the word “Goodnight” when we met him.

Soon we were off on the boat, making our way through the bush toward the island.

The deep blue sky reflected on the surface of the water. Apart from the sound of boat’s small engine nothing else made a peep.

According to Mato, around 270 pairs of pelicans nested in the Karavasta lagoon back in the 1980s, but most had disappeared within a few years of the collapse of the Communist regime.

“In the mid-Nineties, this colony came under attack from everything, from hunters, development, uncontrolled construction and all kinds of human activity, which degraded the ecosystem,” he recalled.

By the late Nineties, the species was almost extinct, Mato added, and the population was kept alive only by a number of conservation projects run by the University of Tirana and NGOs.

“Degradation of the ecosystem around the pelican reduced their numbers to a critical level,” he continued.

According to the fisherman-guide, pelicans were often hunted, embalmed and sold as decorations.

Legend has it that some people were willing to pay as much as 50,000 euro for a stuffed pelican to take home.

As the boat approached the island we could spot only four pairs of pelicans, which flew away as the boat came closer.

The low-lying island, only 0.5 meters above sea level, has been formed over the years from deposits of organic remains.

By August, the breeding season for the Dalmatian Pelican is over, but once in the island we spotted the remains of a small bird, which had never made it to adulthood.

“Looks like the hunters got their target this time,” the fisherman said, sarcastically.

He added that while about 20 pairs of pelicans still nest on the island, the colony needs to number at least 30 pairs if it is to survive.

Mato, the environmentalist, said it was tragic that people did not realize the economic value of preserving rare species such as Dalmatian pelicans.

“We can develop a tourism based on sand and sun in this country, but some people come only to see places like this lagoon – and only one species,” he observed.

“This lagoon is not only a natural treasure but also an economic asset, which we should protect,” he added.