Blue Danube, Black Sea: a portrait of the Danube Delta



Posted on 22 May 2001  | 
Bucharest, Romania: Nature's role call is impressive. As many as 500,000 wild geese, including all the world's 60,000 or so red-breasted geese, the greatest congregation of pelicans outside of Africa, spoonbills, glossy ibis, and another 300 species of birds. They all live in and depend on this special place. And it's not just birds: 75 species of freshwater fish, over half the total for Europe, are concentrated in this one area. The largest freshwater fish and the most valuable both inhabit the waters. What and where is this extraordinary place?

The delta of the River Danube remains one of Europe's best-kept secrets. This is Europe untamed, a wild place that has defied the hand of man for over a century. It lies mostly in Romania, but with its northern margins in the Ukraine. Covering 5,640 square kilometres, the delta is the largest area of reeds in the world.

Whilst the delta is still largely wild, it would be wrong to portray it as a wilderness, for people have lived here for centuries. The majority of the inhabitants are Lipovani, people who left Russia over 200 years ago to avoid religious persecution. The men are expert fishermen, and it is through the thoughts and words of one such fisherman, Fiodor Butilchin, that the history of the delta is told. Fiodor is 79, and he has seen many changes in his life.

The remote nature of the vast interior of the delta must have appealed to Fiodor's ancestors when they fled Russia so that they could live their own brand of Orthodox Christianity. That same isolation has made the delta a haven for wildlife. There are no roads into the delta; all traffic is by boat, and so access is limited and wild creatures are protected from the pressures of the modern world.

In winter, the temperatures plummet to –20 Celsius or lower and the lakes freeze over. In the past, when Fiodor was a young man, the channels also froze, as the current wasn't as strong. The work of dredgers, deepening and straightening the channels, has changed the nature of the delta.

Fiodor and his friends used to catch many species of fish, but now his catch is dominated by crucian carp. This is an unfortunate result of the work of the dredgers. Their canals have caused dirty river water to enter the clear lakes. Fish that require clean water have been driven away. The hardy crucian carp was uncommon, but many escaped from the fish farms built in the delta by the communist regime. The fish farms are now closed, but the carp proliferate in the murky waters.

Spring brings a surge of life to the delta. The amphibian chorus becomes deafening. Pelicans, the majestic symbol of the delta arrive and start their bizarre courtship. There are 2,500 pairs of breeding pelican, which makes the delta the most important place for these birds outside of Africa. That number of pelicans can consume over 1,000 tons of fish in a season. No surprise that they were persecuted by the fishermen.

Nowadays the pelicans and other wildlife are protected as part of a Biosphere Reserve. The reserve is supported by the conservation organization WWF, and has areas, like the pelican colony, that are strictly guarded and other areas where traditional fishing can be practiced.

Fiodor sells his surplus catch of fish and frogs. While catching frogs may be bizarre, catching catfish is scary. The Catfish can grow to over 200kg, and are capable of swallowing ducks whole. At night, settled in his hut on the bank, Fiodor can hear these grotesque fish as they suck down their prey.

There is one fish larger than the catfish: sturgeon. The biggest is the beluga, famed for its eggs, or caviar. Nowadays sturgeon are rare, but this is not due to the fishermen, it is a consequence of the many dams and sources of pollution further up the Danube.

So how is this little known part of Europe faring? Fiodor is optimistic, despite seeing the destruction of parts of the delta during his lifetime. The delta, under the care of the Biosphere Reserve, is improving. WWF has funded the removal of some of the artificial banks, letting water reflood the delta. Many of the dredgers are retired. While other parts of Europe suffer degradation, this most secret corner has its own success story. The future is bright for fishermen and pelicans alike.
 
Production details: The 49-minute film with English soundtrack was shot over three years by cameraman Mike Potts and directed by Paul Reddish. The crew made over 10 trips and spent more than six months in the field.
 
Broadcasters who wish to buy the production, please contact Walter Koehler, ORF Natural History Unit, Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, Würzburggasse 30, A-1136 Vienna, Tel: +43 1 878 78 14129. Fax: +43 1 878 78 14884. E-mail: nhu@orf.at
 
WWF contact: Claire Thilo, Communications Coordinator, WWF Danube Carpathian Programme. Tel: +43 1 488 17 271. E-mail: claire.thilo@wwf.at
White pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) landing on the Danube Delta.
© WWF-Canon / Anton Vorauer Enlarge
Fishing boats, Danube Delta.
© WWF-Canon / Klaus-Henning Groth Enlarge

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