The Spirit of the Wetlands – a story of Dalmatian pelicans, avian influenza and our place in the natural world

In the late winter and early spring of 2022, Prespa’s Dalmatian pelican colony was hit by a catastrophic outbreak of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza, part of a deeply worrying wave of viral outbreaks all over Europe this year, which have affected many species of iconic wild birds, as well as poultry farmers across the continent. In his powerful piece “The Spirit of the Wetlands“, published recently in the US online magazine EmergenceJulian Hoffman tells the story of the efforts of the Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP) to respond to Greece’s biggest ecological disaster in modern times in a nail-biting race against time to try and help the world’s largest colony of rare Dalmatian pelicans and give the few remaining birds a chance to breed and raise chicks without the threat of losing everything to the disease.

The SPP’s long-term conservation work, with the contribution of so many partners, authorities, organisations and individuals over the years brought the Dalmatian pelican colony in Prespa back from the brink in the late 1980s to be the success story it was until this year, with the Dalmatian pelican going from less than 200 breeding pairs to regularly over 1,400 pairs in recent years. This same collaborative effort sprang into action in response to the outbreak, when many different actors came together in the logistically complex operation to clear the already dead pelicans from the area as the weather warmed and more birds arrived to breed, including the area’s great white pelicans, which at that stage were already en route in their long migration from Africa. The task was daunting: the huge number of large, heavy dead birds in the middle of the lake, extremely difficult access, the risks of exposure to the disease, and the need to minimise disturbance to the few surviving nesting pelicans. The situation demanded rapid solutions that were collectively solved by all concerned bringing what they could to the operation. After seven collection days in March and April, 82% of the dead birds – almost 15tons – had been removed from Lesser Prespa Lake, substantially reducing the viral load on the colony.

After the outbreak had passed, a spark of hope emerged when it became clear that some 100 Dalmatian pelican pairs had nested, raising around 90 chicks, whilst the great white pelicans suffered no losses at all in Prespa and only a handful of birds of this species died in Greece. “The Spirit of the Wetlands” tells all of this stark but moving story in beautiful, thoughtful and illuminating prose, weaving in the different threads of the fight to respond to this deadly disease and the heartrending impact it is having across our world. As we wait to see whether further and equally devastating outbreaks will strike Prespa in the coming years and as we wonder whether a new pandemic might upend our world again, the piece also reminds us that we can no longer think of health in wild species and domestic animals or even human beings as separate things, unconnected to each other; on the contrary our fates and well-being are inherently linked with the natural world.

Read the story here.

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