BirdLife: The Magazine Jan-Mar 2018 - Page 25

O ne watchful, grey eye appears behind a shroud of silvery-white wing feathers that conceal a massive orange beak and leathery pouch. The pelican barely keeps its eyelids open after hours spent hunting fish on the lake, but then two play-fighting chicks clumsily step close to the edge of the floating nest platform and one’s mother rouses – barking and hissing with a seriousness that causes immediate stillness. Above them, a few metres of cabling extends from a small solar panel to a camera: the colony is also being watched. And something has been seen in the water. Far away a conservationist has seen the colony’s drama unfold on a screen. They too have sprung into action, grabbing a phone. A motorised fishing boat speeds towards the raft, nearing the exclusion zone marked by buoys around the pelican colony. The pelicans’ agitation is clearly visible, especially to someone who has spent hours watching over them, and their thumb is poised to ‘dial’ the National Park Head Ranger. Then, the boat slows and begins to pass a calm, wide berth, and the giant birds settle. You may not think a species that can rear up and look you in the eye, and weigh over 10 kg, would be so vulnerable to disturbance, but conservationists looking after Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus have every reason to be concerned: human disturbance at breeding colonies is one of the most severe threats to the species, especially at Lake Skadar—an important wetland bordering Montenegro and Albania. Worldwide, Dalmatian Pelican have also suffered from wetland alteration and destruction, shooting, pollution, eutrophication, impacts from climate change, collision with overhead powerlines, and more, causing declines that led the species to be classified as“Vulnerable” by BirdLife on the IUCN Red List. That is, until very recently. Thanks to long-term conservation work in Europe, the Dalmatian Pelican is recovering. Numbers have increased four-fold in Europe since the 1990s, thanks to the thorough implementation of a Species Action Plan, and the protection conferred by the European Union’s Birds and Habitats Directives, which Jan-Mar 2018 • birdlife Dalmatian Pelican Photo Jaime Rojo / The Living Med helped conserve key breeding sites in Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. This year, the pelicans on Lake Skadar had their most successful breeding season ever, raising 60 chicks, and in Greece, populations have increased by almost 200% in under 20 years. As a result, the species’ extinction risk has been reduced, meaning it no longer qualifies as globally threatened, as reflected in its recent downlisting to Near Threatened. This is certainly a conservation success worth celebrating, but a downlisting does not mean “saved”; the pelicans and conservationists at Skadar are prudent to keep a very watchful eye. Modern poachers stick electric probes into the water to electrify huge numbers of fish Disturbance and flooding of nesting sites since the 1970s caused an 80% decrease in Skadar’s pelican population. Conservationists observing from hillsides and behind tangled lilies were heart-wrenchingly powerless to react. Then in 2013, a collaborative project supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) provided a lifeline for the Skadar pelicans: floating nesting rafts, cordoned and monitored via live video. From 2014, the pelicans chose to nest solely on the rafts, which are now towering monuments of delicately-placed reeds so overloaded with successfully breeding pelicans that more rafts were added this year. “The live video monitoring became an early warning system,” says Bjanka Prakljačić, Project Coordinator from Noé Conservation. “We got an insight into just how vulnerable this big bird is.” This ‘pelican hotline’ quickly became ‘pelican patrol’, with special rangers assigned during the nesting season, and every year disturbance incidents have decreased. “This year we’ve had no disturbances in the day time from traditional fishermen,” says Prakljacic. “It really shows in the number of birds—a record high.” Ranger patrols are not without their danger, however. Prakljacic makes a clear distinction Dalmatian Pelican are now listed as Near Threatened Photo Andrej Vizi 4 The vigilance of the Ranger Service is crucial to the protection of the colony Photo Jaime Rojo / The Living Med 7 2 25