On the ground in the Danube Delta

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The Danube delta, of Romania and the Ukraine, is home to the largest colony of pelicans outside Africa and is a peaceful haven for 300 other species of birds.
The Danube delta, of Romania and the Ukraine, is home to the largest colony of pelicans outside Africa and provides a peaceful haven for 300 other species of birds.

2,500 breeding pairs of pelicans arrive every spring in the Danube delta. They are attracted to this isolated 5,000km2 region because it is a wildlife haven and boasts the largest reed bed in the world.

500,000 wild geese winter here, including nearly all the world's red-breasted geese. Another 300 species of birds - including spoonbills and glossy ibis - spend half their lives here, too.

Giant beluga

And it is not just the birds: 75 species of freshwater fish, half of the European total, roam the waters, including the giant beluga sturgeon, which can grow to the size of a small bus.

It is a preciously peaceful place. There are no roads into the delta; all traffic is by boat. Access is limited, so wild creatures are cushioned from the destructive pressures of the modern world. But it would be wrong to portray this huge, rugged region as a wilderness - people have lived here for centuries.

The majority of the inhabitants are Lipovani, descendants of an ancient religious sect who left Russia over 200 years ago to avoid persecution. The Lipovanis are expert fishermen. One is Fiodor Butilichin, now 79, who explained that the delta is full of enormous catfish and attempting to catch them can be a terrifying experience.

The catfish grow to over 200kg and are capable of swallowing ducks and geese whole. "At night, in my hut on the bank, the noise of them gulping down their prey keeps me awake," said Butilichin. The catfish are up to 4m long and often live for well over 100 years.

This haven attracts another visitor, the otter. Because otters are still hunted in the delta, they are perhaps its shyest and most elusive creatures. Male otters need a territory of at least 15km of undisturbed riverbank, so rely on the natural wilderness of the delta for their survival. riverbank.

In winter, the temperatures in Romania and the Ukraine plummet to -20°C or lower and the lakes freeze over. The departure of geese and the arrival of storks heralds spring and a rise in water temperature.

Spring brings the most incredible surge of life to the delta. The amphibian chorus is deafening. Wild carp spawn in an orgiastic frenzy in the shallowest of water. The pelicans arrive, clown-like, parading their bizarre and comical courtship.

Pelicans are also the ultimate fishers, each eating over 1,000 fish during their 6-month stay. Pelicans were once the scourge of Danube fishermen who killed them for stealing the catch. Now, however, the pelicans are protected as part of the delta's status as a World Biosphere Reserve. This reserve is supported by WWF and has areas that are strictly out of bounds to fishermen.

Europe's most ambitious wetland project

The delta, under the care of the biosphere reserve, and with the help of WWF and other conservation organisations, is a major European wetland that must be preserved.

The most important initiative that will help the delta retain its status is the Lower Danube Green Corridor, started by the Romanian, Ukrainian, Moldovan and Bulgarian environmental ministries, and supported by WWF. This is the largest cross-border restoration and protection wetland initiative in Europe, affecting the whole of the Lower Danube floodplains, and local people and ecosystems on the Danube River and Black Sea.

The floodplains are rich in animal and plant life, which helps clean and regulate local freshwater supply. Their outstanding biodiversity has seen them chosen as one of WWF's Global 200 priority areas for protection.

A WWF study showed that over 80% of the Danube's wetlands and floodplains have been destroyed since the beginning of the 20th century.

The pressure from development, dam-building, irrigation and drainage, canalisation, artificial flood protection schemes, and pollution from spills and war, all continue to threaten the integrity of the ecosystem. Cut off from the network, the floodplains are losing their capacity to perform their natural functions and are becoming a hazardous environment for all wildlife, including birds.

The floodplains that remain are often just mere islands of green. The idea of the Green Corridor is to reconnect them. Initially, about a million hectares of new habitats and areas are to come under the corridor's protection.

A pilot project in the Romanian part of the Danube delta, on the islands of Babina and Cernovca, has demonstrated the restoration potential of the damaged wetlands, returning floodplains unsuccessfully drained for agriculture back to their natural states. As a result, local communities have benefited from increased fish stocks and livelihood.

In the Ukrainian part of the delta, WWF's Partners for Wetlands project, with EU-funded activities, is working to stop further man-made damage and to use the restoration activities as the basis for sustainable economic development in the region.

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