Collared Pratincole – Glareola pratincola

One flew over a flamingo’s nest

As Europe plots the elements of the EU Green Deal, its specifics due out in 100 days, March 2020, and the Climate COP ends in Madrid, Off Your Map reminds our leaders that wetlands play a critical role in addressing both our biodiversity & climate crises.

Scientists and a teenage girl agree that the planet is at a tipping point. We’re facing the twin crises of climate and biodiversity that are threatening our very existence. The biodiversity crisis is the rapid loss of species and the rapid degradation of ecosystems – indeed up to 1 million species are at risk of annihilation within decades. And many of them are in wetlands which are some of the planet’s greatest homes for biodiversity. The unique environment that is wetlands, if preserved and restored, will play a key role in any effective and holistic response to the twin global emergencies we face.

The Mediterranean Basin is one of the planet’s 34 biodiversity hotspots and wetlands figure prominently here. Although they cover just 2-3% of the surface area of the Basin, they support more than 30% of its vertebrate species. But twice as many species threatened with extinction are found there than in all the other Mediterranean ecosystems, and the risk of wetland-dependent globally threatened species going extinct has greatly increased since 1990. 36% of Mediterranean wetland species are now globally-threatened with extinction. Their decline is still ongoing, their abundance having halved since 1990.

Wetland Biodiversity is in Crisis

Healthy wetlands play an essential role as a habitat for biodiversity that can help to adapt to climate change. Mediterranean wetlands are a particularly important habitat for migratory birds. 

However they are threatened under human pressure, reducing their capacity to preserve biodiversity.

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So let’s drill down to what this threatened biodiversity might mean in our popular imagination.  

For most of us wetlands are about birds and fish. Migratory birds use Mediterranean wetlands as a critical stop-over on their magnificent journey north in the spring and south in the autumn. Coastal wetlands, with their abundance of food and relative safety from predators also offer vast breeding grounds for great flocks of flapping flamingos or the less well-known but ornithologically-beloved Collared Pratincole, a wader who stops to nest in the French Camargue, after its exhausting voyage from southern Africa. With wetlands under threat, so too then are the familiar faces. Of the 1,138 waterbird populations whose trends are known, 41% are in decline.

One remarkable wetlands site is Montenegro’s Ulcinj Salina, part of the Bojana-Buna delta. It is affectionately known as a wetlands Heathrow Airport due to its importance as a hub for migratory birds. It serves as a critical resting and refuelling stop for feeding, and breeding, birds, both waders and other water birds. From hundreds of Eurasian Spoonbills and Dalmatian Pelicans to birds of prey such as Osprey, European Honey Buzzard, Lesser Kestrel, Black Kite, Western Marsh-harrier, Greater Spotted Eagle and Peregrine Falcon, in birds alone the biodiversity is magnificent. Less common visitors from far away stop over as well, from the Corn Bunting to the Wood Lark – Ulcinj is indeed an aviation crossroads of repute for our feathered friends.

Historically a commercial salt pan operation, which kept the marshes in healthy balance, the activity fell victim to local and national political machinations until just recently when it was declared a protected area by the Municipality which will save it from being paved over with concrete for tourist hotels and their attendant golf courses. Ulcinj residents knew the value of what they were losing.  A local shepherd, Luka Donovic, speaking to this, said “The Salina had great value, it gave back benefits, but they are losing it.” Another local, Mahmud Karastanovic, spoke of what has been lost as the salina was left to abandon until recently. “We used to drink water directly from the Bojana River. Now it is polluted. It is contaminated… we don’t have the capacity to clean it all.”

This protection and its eventual restoration will preserve and enhance Ulcinj Salina’s status as one of the Mediterranean’s richest biodiversity resources.

And of course because we’re talking biodiversity, we’re not just concerned about birds, but with a range of other species as well which are threatened in various proportions varying considerably between groups:

53% of the molluscs and 40% of the fish are threatened, and 11% of the dragonflies & damselflies.

The main threats to biodiversity leading to those frightening numbers are caused by the intensification of the human use of the land that has supported us for millions of years. Poor water quality due to agricultural and urban pollution, excessive coastal development which destroys the habitats, and the reduced quantity of water in wetlands because of pumping for agriculture. Healthy wetlands are like nature’s sponges, but they can only do so much. Luckily, if we preserve and restore them, they can be an effective nature-based solution to the climate crisis by acting as a buffer against extreme weather and absorbing significant quantities of carbon.