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The crane is back in Southeast Europe, its first nest is in Bulgaria

The crane is back in Southeast Europe, its first nest is in Bulgaria

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Interview and translation by: Snezhana Besarabova
Photo 1 (close-up of a gray crane): Andreas Eichler / Wikipedia
Photo 2 (a grey crane with its young in the Dragoman Marsh): Simeon Gigov / BALKANI WS
Photo 3 (Dragoman Marsh from above): BALKANI WS

To the delight of nature friends, this year the grey crane nested again in the Dragoman Marsh near Sofia, something that has not happened for 116 years. Ornithologists found and photographed the first chick on 11 June 2023. This was the prize for 25 years of efforts of the BALKANI Wildlife Society to improve the living conditions for birds in the reservoir. Over the last few years, the conservation organisation WWF-Bulgaria has joined BALKANI WS in useful cooperation to restore life in the Marsh. Both organizations work on the WaterLANDS project, funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme. This project enables wildlife conservationists from different countries on our continent to contribute their efforts benefiting the birds and animals in six wetlands across Europe, one of which is Dragoman Marsh.

32 organisations from 15 countries exchange experience and knowledge on restoring and protecting a total of 15 water bodies, such as peatlands in Italy and Estonia. It is optimistic to see that under the watchful eyes and care of nature defenders, there is a growth in the number of remarkable birds such as the black vulture, the Dalmatian pelican, and the grey crane. Though, conservationists alarm that this is not the case with a number of songbirds and animals whose numbers are declining due to intensive agriculture. However, success with the restoration of some threatened species is a testament to a growing realisation of global environmental responsibility.

In an interview for FreeVision, the Chairman of the BALKANI WS – Petko Tsvetkov tells about all the difficulties and enthusiasm they experienced while trying to return the grey crane as a breeding species in Bulgaria.


How did Wildlife Association BALKANI WS and WWF-Bulgaria help the grey cranes to nest again in Bulgaria?

Until the early 1990s, Dragoman Marsh was drained by pumping out the water to grow crops. When the pumping station was shut down in the mid-1990s, the marsh began to fill up again and life in it had a chance to recover.

There was an opportunity at the time for BALKANI WS to get financial support from international organizations such as EuroNatur and EECONET Action Fund to purchase lands from Dragoman Marsh. Since then, we have been working not only for the return of the crane but also for the improvement of nesting conditions for other marsh birds such as the great bittern, great egret, purple heron, western marsh harrier, white-eyed pochard, bearded tit, etc. Gradually we built tourist infrastructure, and the marsh became popular in Dragoman, in the capital Sofia, as well as abroad. We attracted visitors, many of them children, to observe the wildlife, local hunters stopped hunting there, and the ceased agricultural activities provided a calm environment for the birds.

Implementing the grey crane comeback strategy has taken us nearly 25 years since the first restoration activities at Dragoman Marsh. A team of ornithologists of BALKANI WS, under the leadership of Assoc. Prof. Dr. Petar Shurulinkov monitored the birds and gave their expert advice on what more should be done to attract them. Thus, in the last few years, the cranes started to spend more and more time in the wetland. The discovery happened on June 11, 2023, when the specialists found and documented the first hatchling in Dragoman Marsh, which proved the return of the grey crane to Bulgaria as a breeding species. This is very welcome news, as the elegant birds have not nested in our country since 1957, and have been absent from the Dragoman Marsh area since the beginning of the last century. The nest is built on the ground amongst masses of reeds and made of grass. The birds are very sensitive to human presence, so their return means that they have found a peaceful atmosphere to live in Dragoman Marsh!

Thanks to the conservation activities, it was included in the Natura 2000 Network for the protection of natural habitats and birds, and in 2011 the Dragoman Marsh Karst Complex was declared as a Wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. This further motivated the Balkans WS to attract wildlife supporters and visitors, and the water land became a favourite spot for local people. For example, when a young couple gets married in Dragoman town, they do not miss taking pictures on the wooden trail for visitors.


In the last few years, BALKANI WS joined efforts along with WWF-Bulgaria to restore life in the lake. We received support from Dragoman Municipality and the Inspectorate for Environment and Water – Sofia in rebuilding the wooden trail of the marsh, which has been damaged by fires. Additionally, the municipalities of Dragoman and Slivnitsa are helping us to improve conditions for birds and other living inhabitants. For example, we are currently mowing some of the reeds in the wetlands to maintain vegetation-free water mirrors needed by birds. We are also trying to create belts of trees and meadows to reduce the input of pesticides and other chemicals from farmland into the marsh. And together with Dragoman municipality, we are working to treat wastewater from the town that flows into the wetland.

Where else on the continent does the grey crane live and what is the situation with its protection?

Since the end of the intensive wetland drainage and hunting in the last century, the grey crane population in Europe is recovering, especially in the Scandinavian countries. Thus, in Germany, Poland, the Baltics, and the East, their total numbers have increased to 140-150 thousand pairs. Another reason for this growth is the better food base, because of the cultivation of maize and other crops that cranes feed on, the milder climate, as well as improved human attitudes towards these precious birds.

We are the only country in South-Eastern Europe where cranes currently nest. There have been noticed individual birds visiting Bosnia, but due to the minefields and disturbance in their wetlands, no breeding cranes have been found. They need a quiet nesting area as the chicks are very vulnerable, and if parents are disturbed and lifted into the air, predators such as a jackal or a fox can easily catch the hatchling.

There is an increase in the numbers of some birds such as the Dalmatian pelican, and the return of other species like the black vulture and the grey crane in Bulgaria. What is the state of the rest of the living world?

Only some species of birds and animals are recovering, thanks to the efforts of man. Their difficult return to living areas demonstrates that we easily destroy birds and animals, and then it takes a lot of time and effort to bring them back. While iconic species such as pelicans, vultures, and cranes are also affected by fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals, they depend heavily on the provision of nesting sites and food, and when we provide them, they return. Unfortunately, in this country and all across the continent, there has been a decline in the diversity and numbers of some species of passerines and popular birds like the turtle dove, because of the use of pesticides in farming, hunting, and other activities. Intensive agriculture is also harming a number of other animals.

Are there any observations that the war in Ukraine is affecting the wildlife in Europe?

We need more time to say whether the war is affecting wildlife. However, it should be noted that last year we caught several thousand fewer birds when ringing them in Durankulak, and this year their number has recovered. It is difficult to determine whether this sudden change in the number of mostly songbirds we are catching is directly related to the war, but it is still a significant difference.

Does Bulgaria continue to be a favourite tourist destination for wildlife watching?

For about 15 years till now, our country has been a favorite destination for mostly European nature tourism and wildlife watching. As everywhere else, visits to our country dropped sharply during the Covid crisis and, unfortunately, tourism is very slow to recover. However, we expect this positive trend to continue.

Is there a possible balance of growing our economy upward while carrying out successful wildlife conservation activities?

In theory, it is entirely feasible and there are a lot of efforts in developing environmentally friendly practices and businesses. Unfortunately, conservation arguments do not always win, and very often even nature protection legislation is not followed. The key to having both a developed economy and a protected nature lies in compliance with nature protection laws. It is also important not to set short-term goals such as developing Bulgaria’s potential for electricity production, including from renewable energy sources, in contravention of the requirements for wildlife conservation. There are many other opportunities for this to happen without harming plant and animal life.


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