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Big birds and big plans in the Danube delta

Posted by Staffan Widstrand on 3 July 2012  -  Looking back at a fantastic week in the ”Pantanal of Europe”, where I did a photo mission for Rewilding Europe, all well organised by Rewilding Europe’s man on the ground – Cristian Mititelu. Boat trips, canoe trips, horse cart rides, hikes and ultra-light flights through or over the different habitats of this huge and to a great part still pretty wild area. And it is getting wilder...

The Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, which is a large part of the more natural areas of the delta, covers 580,000 ha of mainly wetland and sandy soils, sand dunes and open grassland, mixed with some really interesting mosaique woodlands. It is the largest wetland area in Europe and one of our continent’s greatest natural wonders. Although it has suffered pretty badly from overambitious ”management”, ”development” and ”regulations” over the last 200 years, and especially so during the 1970s and 1980s, that phase seems to a great extent have ended now. After the end of the Ceausescu dictatorship most of those ”developments” have ceased to exist, other than as decrepit, decaying concrete buildings and rusty iron structures, ruined dykes and flooded ”agricultural projects”. Slowly the huge delta marshland is moving into a more natural state again, but there is yet a lot to do in order to revive the wilder sides of it and also to increase the human benefits from such a wilder state.

The bird life here is sensational and is probably richer today than many decades back. Herons of at least 8 species line the narrow canals and waterways through the delta, kingfishers dart by, red-footed falcons, hobbies, rollers and bee-eaters sit in the trees along the waters and pelicans of two species ever so often dot the skies in big congregations, flying very stylishly overhead. Bitterns boom, little bitterns hide among the reed stalks and great reed warblers raise their impressively loud and deep voices from the reed beds.

And then there are the frogs – a massive choir of laughing big green and brown frogs from the Pool frog / Marsh frog / Edible frog (Pelophylax lessonae / esculentus / ridibundus) species complex, calling from the deeper waters, and the small Fire-bellied toads calling from the shallower wetlands with their ”half-cuckoo” sounds. Yes, and lots of cuckoos too then, fluting orioles, oop-oop-oop-ing hoopoes, purring turtle doves and the fine tunes from the penduline tits. Pygmy cormorants and great cormorants, avocets and stilts, whiskered terns, black terns, several grebe species, ferruginous ducks, coot, moorhens, mute swans, little owls, short-eared owls, marsh harriers and icterine warblers – the Danube delta is a veritable bird (and a bird-watchers’) Eldorado.

It is also a fish and a sports fisherman’s paradise, with an exceptional fish production capacity and diversity in fish species that is richer than in any other fresh water area in Europe. The home of all of Europe’s largest-sized fish species – for example three sturgeon species, the biggest of them, the Beluga sturgeon, weighing up to 900 kilos, and the catfish, which can count up to 150 kilos.

But where are all the mammals?

After an intensive field week in this optimal habitat, which has not only massive reed beds and swamplands, but also oak and ash and poplar mosaique woodlands, open steppes, grasslands, sand dune areas and long empty beaches – the total of observed wild mammals amounted to no more than two roe deer and one hare! That is less than I could see from my home kitchen window in a suburb of Stockholm, just during breakfast!

Where are the wild boars, the otters, the beavers, the red deer and the bison?

Some of these species are said to still exist here, but that must then be at almost homeopathic population levels, only a tiny, tiny fraction of what would have been natural.

That has to change, the wild mammals really need to be allowed to come back, not just for a fully functional ecosystem to be in place, but at least as much for the business side of things. Which means jobs, income and tax revenue.

Tourism is already by far the biggest business and employment/income generator in the delta. In order to attract more foreign visitors and to sell more higher-priced nature tour products, the mammals have to come back. Only then will the delta become a full wildlife watching attraction. And the place needs to be cleaned up – garbage collected and taken away, old rusty watchtowers (from a disastrously wasteful World Bank project) and ruined concrete buildings removed.

Most people in the delta realise that this could be done easily and quickly, if just the right decisions are taken. It doesn’t even have to be very costly.

Another really interesting thing was that in the delta’s drier land areas, relatively free-ranging large groups of wild horses and wild cattle already exist, which are of very old races/breeds. How closely related these are to the unfortunately extinct tarpan and aurochs remains to be investigated properly, but both the wild horses and the wild-living beef cattle here show several amazingly strong traits from their wild ancestors. Those are probably the largest groups of free-living horses in Europe and the local, sturdy and straight-backed black cattle have white muzzles and grey or brown ”capes” over their backs, very similar to the aurochs from our ancient cave paintings. Especially the ancient local beef cattle race ought to be genetically investigated immediately, something that has direct bearing to the visionary Tauros project, which is trying to restore functional aurochs.

But after discussions with many local people along our travel route, a very worrying and problematic picture arose. A picture of on the one hand a very complicated and cripplingly bureaucratic set of administration structures (with up to 9 different government agencies claiming rights to administer parts of the delta, several of them overlapping each other, often in competition or conflict with each other, and with no less than 7 of them having their own police forces or agents/rangers out there to police the terrain); and on the other hand a massive poaching of fish and wildlife (in spite of all the rangers/police and even worse, witness many, often even directly organised by/through/or with the silent and paid consent of a number of these public officers!), plus very serious corruption also at most other levels of administration, all the way from foresters and up, leading in reality to a sense of zero influence on their own lives by the local people. Everything tends to be seen as decided by someone else, by ”them”, making all honest, fair and normal business very difficult.

Rewilding Europe’s idea about helping to create a couple of large Community Wildlife Conservation areas on the huge, communally owned lands was received by all people we spoke with as a very promising suggestion and something that ought to be explored right away, without any hesitation. Trying thereby to answer the question of how to make wild nature here more valuable to the people who live in or near that nature.

I am really looking forward to see how this develops over the coming years. The Danube delta has true potential to become a world-class wildlife-watching zone.

To see more of the amazing pictures Staffan took during his photo mission, visit our Danube delta gallery.

Posted by Staffan Widstrand on 3 July 2012

Blog entries express the views and opinions of their authors, which might not always fully overlap with those of Rewilding Europe.