Half a dozen Dalmatian pelicans fly off as we approach the Narta lagoon, a marshland near Vlora in south-west Albania. It is a majestic sight – six elegantly soaring birds, with necks tilted back and wingspans almost matching that of an albatross. “They’re juveniles,” says Taulant Bino, head of the Albanian Ornithological Society (AOS). “They might start their own family in the next years.”
Although Dalmatian pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) do not breed here, the lagoon serves as an important feeding site for the birds and many more species, including flamingos, gull-billed terns and Kentish plovers. Migratory birds use the lagoon as a stopover during their long journey between Africa and central and northern Europe. They are key Mediterranean wetlands, the type of habitat that covered much of the whole Albanian coast until Enver Hoxha’s dictatorial regime drained large swaths of it in the 1950s and 60s, in an attempt to eradicate malaria and develop the lowlands for agriculture.
The Dalmatian pelican’s range spans much of Eurasia – from the Mediterranean in the west to the Taiwan Strait in the east – but it has experienced a decline in the 20th century. A combination of land development, drainage of marshlands, human disturbance and poaching means the bird is considered “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This year, avian flu has killed an estimated 2,000 adult birds in Greece and Romania.
In Albania, the Dalmatian pelican’s survival counts as one of the country’s biggest conservation successes. Once inhabiting its entire coastal strip, the bird came close to disappearing from the area in the 1990s. When Hoxha’s totalitarian regime ended in 1991, a state of anarchy ensued. “In those days, everyone had guns, which means everyone was a potential hunter,” says Aleksandër Trajçe, head of Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA). “Even just a few trigger-happy individuals with crazy ideas could cause a lot of damage.”
By 2000, when Bino began working to save the birds, only 19 nests remained in Divjaka-Karavasta national park – the country’s only breeding colony, 25 miles north of Narta – down from 81 pairs in 1984.
According to Trajçe, legal protection proved crucial in reversing the downward trend. “Initially, only the pine forest of Divjaka was a protected area,” he says. “In 1996, the lagoon got protected status. And in 2007, the entire area, from the Shkumbin River in the north to the Seman River in the south, was declared a national park.” Vjosa-Narta became a protected landscape in 2004. A hunting moratorium in 2014, although poorly implemented, added another layer of protection; international conservation efforts also helped.
Now, from January to June each year, when pelicans breed and raise their chicks, wardens guard the nests day and night, preventing tourists, poachers and fishers from disturbing the birds. “At night, local fishermen use flashlights to catch fish, which make the pelicans sometimes abandon their nest,” says Bino. “And when we realised eggs got lost in floods, we created heightened breeding beds from sticks, branches and vegetation. The colony started bouncing back.”
In 2020, 85 pelican pairs nested in Albania, the highest number since records began.
Now, however, the pelicans are facing a fresh onslaught – this time from bulldozers. The Albanian government has approved the construction of an international airport at Vlora in an effort to boost the country’s tourism industry.
The planned airport’s location, within the protected landscape surrounding Narta lagoon, could have devastating consequences for the birds, says Trajçe. “It will reduce the birds’ ability to move around and to feed, and, as a consequence, their potential to increase in number or expand their habitat.”
The airport project will also put pressure on migration routes between Africa and northern Europe. “Albania has lagoons scattered along its coast,” says Trajçe. “Migratory birds use those to rest and feed. Building an airport right in the middle would interrupt bird movements that have been happening for thousands of years.”
A consortium of three companies won the bid to build the airport – YDA Group (a Turkish conglomerate with ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party), Mabetex and 2A Group. According to the consortium’s environmental impact study, the negative effects of the airport on surrounding wildlife can be easily mitigated – for example, by not working on construction during the breeding season and by rerouting flights during spring and autumn migration.
But more than 40 conservation organisations, including PPNEA and AOS, have questioned this. “Different species breed at different times, which would mean for construction to be stopped for a few months,” says Trajçe.
“And what about the impact during the operational phase? Are they going to stop flights during the breeding season as well? What about the migration season? It all seems highly unrealistic.”
The conservation organisations say there was a lack of public consultation and a superficial assessment of alternative sites. “It might seem more expensive to build the airport elsewhere,” says Dorian Matlija, a lawyer advising the organisations, “but only if you don’t consider the damage to the environment.”
In December 2020, authorities reviewed the network of protected areas in Albania and removed, among others, the site of the planned airport. The conservationists claim that, by redrawing the borders of protected parks, the government is infringing national laws. In its 2020 Albania report, the European Commission said the proposed airport “conflicts with other national laws and with international biodiversity protection conventions that Albania has ratified”.
Four of the conservation organisations – PPNEA, AOS, EcoAlbania and the German-based EuroNatur – now plan to go to court over the project.
“If removing land from protection goes without legal consequences, it means that the government can do that for every protected area,” says Trajçe. “What’s to stop them from building resorts in protected areas? Or a nuclear power plant? That would be the end of nature conservation.”
Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features