Pelican Conservation

International Pelican Research and Conservation Programme

Systematic work on pelicans and their wetland habitat in Prespa started in the early 1980s. The “International Pelican Research and Conservation Programme” achieved its primary task over the ensuing decades, resulting in a tremendous increase in numbers of Dalmatian pelicans, which is an impressive outcome of the longest effort ever made in Greece for a single bird species. Nesting pairs of Dalmatian pelicans rose from ca. 200 in 1991 to over 1,400 in 2010-2016, while nesting pairs of great white pelicans rose from ca. 50 in 1991 to over 700 in 2010-2016. The Prespa population of Dalmatian pelicans has played the role of a ‘source’ population in the context of the South-Eastern (SE) European meta-population, thus the overall population number of Dalmatian pelicans in SE Europe and Turkey has been on the rise during the last decade, and new colonies have been established in areas outside Prespa.

However, it should be noted that this project was never a species-oriented one but was rather focused on ecosystem functioning, and that this approach has proven very effective and valuable for conservation. The protection of pelicans was certainly one important target, but the protection and management of the wetland were also equally important targets. Thus, this long-term project has been characterised by its integrated, holistic approach to wider wetland issues. A strong scientific component was merged with local traditional ecological knowledge on wetland management, while concrete conservation actions in the field secured bird nesting and feeding sites. Policy and lobbying actions resulted in commitments being made by public authorities, while wardening was strengthened, eliminating disturbance. Wetland management techniques were merged with existing primary sector activities, thus ensuring the continuity and sustainability of project results. Institutional measures ensured the long-term participation and engagement of stakeholders, promoting transboundary and international collaboration, and new local governance schemes for integrated wetland management were also established.

Due to these long-term conservation efforts, breeding populations of both species of pelicans have shown an impressive upward trend in the last 30 years, with Lesser Prespa Lake hosting the largest single breeding colony of the Dalmatian pelican on Earth until very recently, with 20% of the global population. This has been due to interventions that have increased the availability of proper and sufficient nesting grounds that are free of human disturbance and high mortality pressures. However, in 2021 the Dalmatian pelican colony was first hit by an outbreak of highly-pathogenic avian influenza, which struck again in 2022 to cause the greatest wildlife disaster ever seen in Greece, with the loss of 1,734 Dalmatian pelicans, corresponding to ca 58%-67% of the colony (the number of apparently occupied nests has varied over recent years at around 1,300-1,500). Great white pelicans and other species were unaffected, while a further 550 Dalmatian pelicans were lost at other wetlands in Greece.

During the outbreak, multi-level work was put in place by the Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP) to accurately document the mortality rate at Prespa and other Greek wetlands, to mobilise authorities in vital carcass removal operations in order to reduce the viral load for surviving and newly arriving pelicans, and to alert local, regional and international partners. Consultations with researchers in avian infectious diseases were extremely helpful, similarly those with conservationists from other countries which had recently experienced comparable wildlife disasters, such as Israel. The collection and management of the carcasses at Lesser Prespa Lake was co-ordinated by the regional authorities in collaboration with the local veterinary services and other local bodies, under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Environment. The huge number of large, heavy carcasses in the middle of the lake, difficult access, the risks of personnel exposure, and the need to minimise disturbance to the surviving nesting pelicans all made for a very challenging task. Nonetheless, after seven collection days, 82% of the carcasses – almost 15 tons – were removed from Lesser Prespa Lake, substantially reducing the viral load on the colony.

During their stay in Prespa both species feed mostly in the basin, though sometimes also partly outside of it, for reasons not clearly understood but thought to be related to the limited availability, or accessibility, of their food resources, namely fish. From data collected from transmitters fitted by the SPP, we can trace clear movement corridors across northern Greece. An emerging threat for pelicans has been the uncontrolled or poorly licensed proliferation of planned wind parks along these movement corridors. In addition, changes over the last ten years in the feeding regimes, movements and foraging-related behaviour of pelicans are not yet clearly understood, creating uncertainty about the future of their populations, especially in the light of the avian influenza outbreak. The SPP has embarked on new research programmes to increase our knowledge of these new distribution patterns and the establishment of synergies and co-operation with local management units in these new areas are important for the conservation of the species, likewise the SPP carries out intensive advocacy work to reduce the threat of ill-conceived wind park installations along pelican movement corridors.

The SPP has also taken part in larger LIFE projects, such as LIFE EuroSAP, co-ordinated by BirdLife, in which it produced a detailed Species Action Plan for the Dalmatian pelican, and Pelican Way of LIFE, led by Rewilding Europe with support from the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS) in Greece, in which the SPP has trained the personnel of management authorities of protected areas hosting pelicans in Greece in pelican monitoring, as well as HOS personnel in tagging and fitting transmitters. As part of its work HOS also carries out the SE Europe pelican census each spring, continuing an initiative began by the SPP to assess the overall population size and the number of non-breeders.

At present the goals of this project are to: carry on the monitoring and conservation work in Prespa, further investigate the impact of avian influenza on Dalmatian pelicans, carry out policy work to protect pelican movement corridors from the threat of wind parks, provide technical support to partners doing monitoring work in other breeding colonies of the species in Greece and the Balkans and promote networking and collaboration between those working for pelicans, primarily in SE Europe as well as across the global range of the species.



Pelican population trends in Prespa

Prespa Statement on Pelican Conservation



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