Europe and Central Asia
11 Jan 2017

The Endangered Treasure of Ulcinj – documentary

Ulcinj Salina & Delta-Bojana, Montenegro © Gregor Subic
Ulcinj Salina & Delta-Bojana, Montenegro © Gregor Subic
By Gui-Xi Young

These man-made salt works became a bird haven, but now the threatened birds and salt workers share the same destiny. Watch the thought-provoking documentary

Seventeen long seconds pass before a single word is spoken in Gregor Subic’s thought-provoking documentary ‘The Endangered Treasure of Ulcinj’. Yet these 17 seconds speak volumes: gentle, melodious birdsong is malevolently pierced by wind eerily drumming timeworn metal roofing – the rusty relics of a once huge and thriving salt production complex on the sun kissed shores of Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. Subic is our conductor, and his orchestra is playing a solemn march for Ulcinj’s ‘endangered treasure’ – her salt pans, the Ulcinj Salina, and the people and wildlife who so greatly depend upon it…

The story is one that BirdLife is intimately acquainted with – for almost a decade, our partner in Montenegro, CZIP (the Center for Protection & Research of Birds of Montenegro), has gone head-to-head with big business and government officials in a passionate bid to protect Ulcinj Salina’s unique habitat from the threat of rampant urbanisation. This 15km2 site on the Bojana-Buna Delta (the natural border between Montenegro and Albania) is an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA). Its situation along the Adriatic flyway makes it one of the most important sites for migrating birds in Europe and it is also a major nesting, wintering and roosting spot. An impressive 250 species of birds enjoy these coastal wetlands: the rare Little Tern and the Collared Pratincole come to breed, the Stone Curlew and Eurasian Roller rest and refuel before continuing their long journey and endangered species such as the Spotted Redshanks make their nests.

And the panoply of wonders does not stop there – for what makes Ulcinj Salina particularly special is that it is man-made. The salt works were set up here in the 1920s and, in turn, ensured a good life for local workers and birds alike, the latter being particularly attracted by the salty delights of the altered ecosystem. At its zenith, the Ulcinj Salina was an inspirational example of how human activities and natural processes can indeed flourish together.

Unfortunately, this peaceful coexistence is now threatened. In 2008, the private owners of the salt works, EUROFOND, won governmental approval for its plans to drain the salt pans and convert the site into a tourist resort of hotels and golf courses. For the next four years, CZIP fought tirelessly to avert this ecological destruction, proposing a more sustainable alternative – eco-tourism. With financial support from CEPF (the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund), CZIP worked with the site management to develop its eco-infrastructure (museums, nature trails and lookouts) and promote the salt pans as a top destination for birdwatchers. A win for both business and nature seemed promising, but then, in 2013, the company went bankrupt and terminated salt production.

As Subic’s documentary astutely visualises, for both good and ill, the Salina’s birds and salt workers share the same destiny.

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When the water pumps were turned off, 80 years of tradition and symbiotic prosperity came to an abrupt standstill: over 500 workers lost their jobs and the delicate ecosystem of the salt pans fell out of balance. As the abandoned salt works themselves deteriorate, so too does the ecosystem –– the nests of threatened birds have been flooded by heavy rain every season since its closure. As former salt worker Smail Kraja sadly notes, year on year, fewer birds are coming. CZIP biologist Aleksandar Perović is more categorical: ‘without salt production, this place will die’.

Amid public outcry, the Montenegrin government promised to resume salt production but its resolve has been weakened by legal pressure from EUROFOND that wants to resume its original urban development plans. Yet another twist in the tale is the political issue of Montenegro’s future membership of the EU.  Negotiations have been ongoing since mid-2012 and the country has been lauded for its unparalleled progress in its accession preparations. However, the international attention generated by the controversy helped CZIP bring the issue to the top echelons of the European Commission where it was deemed that the protection of Ulcinj Salina would feature in the ‘Progress Report’ used by the EU in 2016 to determine whether Montenegro can accede to the Union.

Though the Ulcinj stalemate continues, Montenegro has been making increasingly positive signs in its nature conservation. During a visit this last December, the CEO of BirdLife International, Patricia Zurita, applauded Montenegro for incorporating the pillars of the EU Birds Directive into their new law on nature protection and for taking the unusual step of identifying Natura 2000 sites well in advance of formal accession – an exciting first in the history of European enlargement. However, she also voiced concern over the continued deterioration of the Ulcinj Salina site and stressed BirdLife’s intention to escalate the campaign to secure its legal status as a protected site and implement a sustainable management plan for the benefit of both wildlife and local communities.

Of course, half the battle is winning the hearts of the public and the minds of key decision makers. The French poet Rimbaud famously wrote that art has the power to change our lives (‘changer la vie’), and with ‘The Endangered Treasure of Ulcinj’, director Gregor Subic aims to do exactly that – to change the fundamentally inter-connected lives of Ulcinj’s birds and people through the poignant testimonies of locals such as Smail or shepherd Luka Donović, enriched with stunning nature footage. But don’t just take my word for it – watch it for yourself right here.

The Endangered Treasure of Ulcinj, FINAL documentary film Festival version from invida on Vimeo.

‘The Endangered Treasure of Ulcinj’ documentary, directed by Gregor Subic & produced by Kawka Production, is part of the CEPF project ‘Promotion of biodiversity conservation actions through motion’.  

For more information about Ulcinj Salina, you can contact the Centre for Protection & Research of Birds of Montenegro (CZIP). 


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.