Albania’s pelican colony was bouncing back. Now it faces the threat of a new airport | Birds
Ha dozen Dalmatian pelicans take flight as they approach the Narta Lagoon, a swamp near Vlora in southwestern Albania. It’s a majestic sight – six elegantly soaring birds, with back-tilting necks and wingspans almost equal to those of an albatross. “They are juveniles,” says Taulant Bino, director of the Albanian Ornithological Society (AOS). “They could start their own family in the next few years.”
Although the Dalmatian pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) do not breed here, the lagoon serves as an important feeding site for birds and many other 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 entire Albanian coast until the dictatorial regime of Enver Hoxha drained large swathes of them in the 1950s and 1960s, with the aim 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 declined in the 20th century. A combination of land development, marsh drainage, human disturbance and poaching means the bird is considered ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This year, bird flu has killed around 2,000 adult birds in Greece and Romania.
In Albania, the survival of the Dalmatian pelican is among the country’s greatest conservation successes. Once inhabiting its entire coastal strip, the bird nearly disappeared from the region in the 1990s. When Hoxha’s totalitarian regime ended in 1991, a state of anarchy ensued. “At that time, everyone had guns, which meant that everyone was a potential hunter,” says Aleksandër Trajçe, head of protection and preservation of the natural environment in Albania (PPNEA). “Even a few trigger-happy individuals with wild ideas could cause a lot of damage.”
In 2000, when Bino began working to save the birds, there were just 19 nests left in Divjaka-Karavasta National Park – the country’s only breeding colony, 25 miles north of Narta – compared to 81 pairs in 1984.
According to Trajçe, legal protection has proven to be crucial in reversing the downward trend. “Initially, only the Divjaka pine forest was a protected area,” he says. “In 1996, the lagoon was granted protection 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 2014 hunting moratorium, though poorly enforced, added another layer of protection; international conservation efforts have also helped.
Now, from January to June each year, when the pelicans are breeding and raising their chicks, guards guard the nests day and night, preventing tourists, poachers and fishermen from disturbing the birds. “At night, local fishermen use flashlights to catch fish, which sometimes forces pelicans to abandon their nests,” Bino says. “And when we realized that eggs had been lost in the floods, we created raised breeding beds out of sticks, branches and vegetation. The colony began to rebound.
In 2020, 85 pairs of pelicans nested in Albania, the highest number since records began.
Now, however, the Pelicans face another onslaught – this time from bulldozers. The Albanian government has approved the construction of an international airport in Vlora in a bid to boost the country’s tourism industry.
The planned location of the airport, in the protected landscape surrounding the Narta Lagoon, could have devastating consequences for birds, says Trajçe. “This will reduce the birds’ ability to move and feed, and therefore 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 them for resting and feeding. Building an airport right in the middle would interrupt the bird movements that have been happening for thousands of years.
A consortium of three companies won the tender for the construction of the airport – YDA Group (a Turkish conglomerate linked to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party), Mabetex and 2A Group. According to the consortium’s environmental impact assessment, the airport’s negative effects on surrounding wildlife can be easily mitigated – for example, by not working on construction during breeding season and diverting flights during migration spring and autumn.
But more than 40 conservation organizations, including PPNEA and AOS, have questioned that. “Different species reproduce at different times, which would mean that construction would be stopped for a few months,” Trajçe explains.
“And what about the impact during the operational phase? Will they also stop flights during breeding season? And the migration season? This all seems highly unrealistic.
Conservation organizations say there was a lack of public consultation and a superficial assessment of alternative sites. “It may seem more expensive to build the airport somewhere else,” says Dorian Matlija, a lawyer advising the organisations, “but only if you don’t take into account the damage to the environment.”
In December 2020, the authorities reviewed the network of protected areas in Albania and removed, among other things, the planned airport site. Conservationists claim that by redrawing the boundaries of protected parks, the government is breaking national laws. In its 2020 report on Albania, the European Commission said the proposed airport “is in conflict with other national laws and with international conventions for the protection of biodiversity that Albania has ratified”.
Four of the conservation organizations – PPNEA, AOS, EcoAlbania and German company EuroNatur – are now planning to go to court over the project.
“If removing land from protection is without legal consequences, it means the government can do it for each protected area,” Trajçe says. “What prevents them from building resorts in protected areas? Or a nuclear power plant? It would be the end of nature conservation.