Colonies of shy Albanian pelicans flourish during pandemic

DIVJAKA, Albania – The pandemic has brought a good thing to the Divjaka-Karvasta Lagoon in western Albania – the endangered mating pelican badly needs peace and quiet, and population growth as a result.

Regional environmental officials say nesting pairs have increased by one-fifth in the past two years, from 68 in 2019 to 85 this year, even as the number of human visitors has halved. They are huge birds, reaching up to six feet (about two meters) in length and 11 feet (over three meters) in wingspan.

The seaside Divjaka-Karavasta National Park covers approximately 22,000 hectares (55,000 acres), which includes a long sandy beach, a saltwater lagoon with mud flats and small islands, and a strip of pine forest. Located 90 kilometers (60 mi) southwest of the capital Tirana, it is home to about 260 bird species.

But it is best known for the “curly pelicans,” as locals call the giant Dalmatian pelicans, which have their only nesting colony in Albania—the minute pelicans on the island where they spend December through June.

Pelicans are an endangered species in Albania, where their numbers decreased to as few as 19 nesting pairs in 2001–2003, compared to 250 a century ago.

“The peace and tranquility during the pandemic has helped us greatly in the preservation of Pelican Island,” said Adrian Kosi, head of the regional agency for protected areas.

In 2014 Kosi and less than two dozen of his employees began taking care of the 150–200 square meters (1,600–2,150 sq ft) island.

Boats were banned from approaching more than 200 yards (180 m). A net kept fishing boats away. And for their safety, a 24-hour guard was put up in a small hut across the water. Small wooden fences along parts of the waterway prevent erosion.

During the January–June breeding period, the Kosi regularly checks on the island with a drone.

“We have freed the island of fishermen who harbor pelicans. We have endangered their nest by the tide,” he said. “But intensive fishing around has, nevertheless, reduced the number of fish that eat pelicans.”

Kosi, a veterinarian, also cares for other injured birds from as far away as neighboring Kosovo and Montenegro. A few years ago, the United Nations Development Program helped him start Albania’s first bird recovery centre.

A rare vulture found injured in Montenegro was treated there for two months and then released to continue traveling to Africa.

Two Dalmatian pelicans named Johnny and Vlashi have called the center home for the past three years. Johnny cannot fly because of the damaged wing. But Vlashy can, and both are resting from the arrival of tourists. The staff consider them part of their family, and often buy the fish themselves to feed them.

Since the initial UNDP funding, the center has received little financial support – from donors, a small volunteer fundraising box, even contributions from its staff.

This poses a dilemma: The site is becoming increasingly popular with visitors, not always an advantage when dealing with shy birds that require calmness to reproduce. From 1,300 in 2014, visitors rose to barely 550,000 in 2019. Last year, the number was halved due to the pandemic. Employees say overall it would be better to bring back visitors lost in the coronavirus restrictions as their donations are in dire need.

Clara Perinova, 28, left Prague to spend two weeks in Albania with her boyfriend. She praised Divjaka’s “unseen beauty”.

“We are here (because) you have a very beautiful nature, really endangered species, not the same nature that you can see in other parts of Albania,” she said.

Kosi is working hard to preserve the lagoon’s largely undisturbed environment, urging local authorities to replace the five boat engines used by tourists with electric ones or install more solar power panels.

UNDP Resident Representative Limya Altayeb said the UN organization is assisting Albania to implement “nature-based solutions” in Divjaka and elsewhere, and helping the center become self-sufficient – ​​with small state funding and Beyond personal donations.

“Tourists are welcome here, including Johnny and Vlashy,” said Ervin Allushi, one of the center’s experts. “Visitors often help (financially). Although the pelicans on the island don’t want them close by.”

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