WILD LIFE | 04.09.19

Below the Bill

One of the world’s largest birds has long been persecuted for both its outsized bill and its eating habits, but an ambitious cross-border plan is helping this threatened pelican bounce back.

Photograph by Bence Máté

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By any standards, the Dalmatian pelican (

Pelecanus crispus

) is a big bird. Measuring up to 1.8 meters (6 feet) in length, with a wingspan of up to 3.5 meters (11 feet, 6 inches) and a bill that extends some 45 centimeters (18 inches) from base to tip, the supersized avian has been awarded a long list of superlatives. It is indisputably the largest of the pelicans and the heaviest bird in Europe, and is arguably the world’s heaviest flying bird. Its massive bill is second in length only to that of the Australian pelican (

Pelecanus conspicillatus

). Photographer Bence Máté kept his distance when documenting this behemoth in Lake Kerkini, Greece. From the safety of a boat several dozen meters away, he secured his camera, clad in underwater housing, to the top of a homemade, catamaran-inspired vessel. Remotely piloting the contraption, he eventually captured this below-the-bill perspective of the Dalmatian pelican’s giant pouch as it swallowed a fish.

Despite its heft and imposing bill—or in some cases because of them—the species has struggled to fend off the myriad threats it faces across its range. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Dalmatian pelican populations suffered precipitous declines due to human activities. Development and livestock destroyed their wetland breeding grounds, proliferating powerlines laced their airways with hazards, and overfishing depleted their food sources. Hunting also took a heavy toll. In Mongolia, where the population currently totals fewer than 130 birds, the pelicans’ bills have long been prized as tools for grooming horses. Although the species is now protected, poaching remains a significant threat, partly because a single bill can command the staggering price of 10 horses and 30 sheep. Elsewhere, especially in communities where fishing is a primary industry, the pelicans have been targeted to reduce competition for depleted fish stocks. On the whole, the species is currently listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but this status varies dramatically from one region to the next.

While the Mongolian population of Dalmatian pelicans continues to decline, conservation efforts across Europe have led to a four-fold increase in the continent’s pelican population since the 1990s. In addition to marking or dismantling power lines and establishing water-quality, fishery, and hunting regulations, the cross-border Species Action Plan led by BirdLife International includes a focus on protecting the birds’ most important breeding grounds. In places where these sites have been trampled, flooded, or otherwise disturbed, the construction of raised breeding platforms has proven to be a highly successful strategy for reducing mortality and improving breeding success, particularly when coupled with a monitoring program. At Lake Skadar in Montenegro, for instance, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) recently supported the construction of a series of floating nesting rafts, which are monitored by solar-powered video feeds and enforced by a dedicated group of game wardens affectionately referred to as The Pelican Patrol. The year after the rafts were installed, the pelicans—which nested exclusively on these new platforms, often in dense clusters—had their most prolific breeding season on record, successfully raising 60 new chicks. This colony, and others that are rebounding across Europe, are increasingly attracting tourists and photographers like Máté, bringing new income to the communities charged with protecting the birds and offering another lesson in the value of intact ecosystems.

Lake Kerkini, Greece

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ABOUT THE Photographer

Bence Máté became a photographer in 1999 at the age of 13, after using his savings to buy his first camera—a Russian-made Zenith. Máté’s hobby quickly morphed into an obsession, and he often skipped school in favor of being outside photographing wild creatures. He has been a professional photographer since 2004, and regularly leads wildlife photography tours. Máté specializes in capturing the behavior birds in natural settings. His work has won many international awards, including the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year honor in 2010.

Bence Máté Bence Mate

Bence Máté

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