Tug of War in Albania: Dalmatian Pelicans vs Vlora Airport
The construction of the Vlora airport in Albania threatens the Dalmatian Pelican's survival and the Divjaka-Karavasta National Park
Divjaka-Karavasta National Park is considered the last wild wetland in Europe. This area is located in southwest Albania and is a key habitat for many endangered birds. More than 200 species of birds live there, both migratory and stationary, but the most iconic and important lagoon resident is the Dalmatian Pelican. This rare bird is the world's largest freshwater bird and the lagoon is its only breeding site in the country, and one of the biggest in Europe. Despite the small surface of only 42 km², Divjaka-Karavasta National Park accounts for a significant percentage of the global population of this bird.
Dalmatian pelicans in Albania were almost driven to extinction in the sixties during Hoxha’s regime, dictator of Albania since the end of the Second World War. In an attempt to develop lowlands for agriculture, the dictator drained all the country's wetlands, leaving only the Divjaka-Karavasta as a suitable habitat for pelicans. The situation for these birds got even worse after the end of Hoxha’s regime in 1991. During that period Albania was in a state of anarchy, and almost every civilian was armed. Anyone was a potential hunter, and the Dalmatian pelican’s population reached its lowest number of only 19 pairs.
And then, one of the biggest conservation successes ever happened. With the establishment of Divjaka-Karavasta National Park in 2007, the population of Dalmatian pelicans slowly started to increase, reaching 85 nesting pairs. Unfortunately, now the Dalmatian pelican population is on the edge once again.
The Albanian government just approved the construction of an international airport at Vlora, a few kilometers away from the national park. According to Albania’s government, the investment of 104 million euros for the new airport will intensify tourism and trade activities, as well as provide a base for the new national airline, Air Albania.
The two already present airports in Albania, Tira, and Kukës, raised questions about whether the airport is really needed; since to this day, they are not running at full capacity and the one in the capital is only an hour and a half away.
The new airport would be a serious threat to the Dalmatian Pelicans and the other birds of the park. Due to water and noise pollution, the birds would move away from the Park and ultimately end up in an unprotected area where people would be free to hunt them. Moreover, the Park is a corridor for thousands of migratory birds, and the proximity to the airport would also be a danger to flight safety since it would make collisions between planes and birds likely to happen.
The residents around the lagoon believe that the construction of the airport would damage not only the environment but also affect tourism, which was the government’s original goal for the construction of the airport. Vjosa-Narta wetland is a popular destination for birdwatchers, and the disappearance of the Dalmatian Pelicans and other birds would ultimately affect the number of tourists.
Furthermore, the most controversial topic is the boundary changes of the Albanian protected areas. A few months after the announcement of the construction of the airport, the government redrew the borders of protected areas of the country and removed, among others, the nature reserve where the airport will be built.
Environmentalists' response was not long in coming, claiming that they violate international laws and national biodiversity protection conventions. More than 40 conservation organizations got together, asking the government to reconsider moving the project of the airport somewhere else.
The government ensured that the presence of the airport wouldn’t affect wildlife, since the same site was regularly used by planes for military purposes, and an environmental impact study already proved no impact of such use on the area. What hasn’t been considered is the significant difference between a few small military planes and a large international airport. The disturbance of the latter on wildlife would have a massive impact.
As a last attempt, in September 2022 the coalitions of the 40 conservation organizations reached out directly to the European Commission, underlining the violation of international laws. Nevertheless, the Commission didn’t intervene.
To this day, there is no effective opposition to the construction of the airport, which is ongoing.
The pelicans' survival is, once again, on thin ice.