1 Feb 2019

Thousands of birds at risk as wetland is threatened by overexploitation

Doñana National Park, in Spain, is a crucial stopover point for thousands of migrating birds. However, over-intensive irrigation is threatening these valuable wetlands.

Flamingos at Doñana National Park © RameyLauren
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

During the migration season, hundreds of thousands of birds descend upon Doñana National Park in Andalusia, Spain.

These thousands of European and African birds all flock to Doñana —an area of low-lying marshes, shallow streams, and rolling sand dunes— to rest, to refuel and to breed. Throughout the course of the year, more than 300 different species of birds can be seen in the park, including the White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala, the Spanish Imperial Eagle Aquila adalberti and Little Bustard Tetrax tetrax. The largest nature reserve in Europe, Doñana has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, a Ramsar site, and is part of the Guadalquivir marshes Important Bird/Biodiversity Area, considered an IBA in Danger, and currently identified by BirdLife as one of the most threatened IBAs around the world.

Unfortunately, numerous dangers currently threaten the wetlands, and the birds that inhabit them, according to a recent report by SEO/BirdLife (BirdLife Partner in Spain). The principle of these threats is over-intensive irrigation. Groundwater under Doñana is tapped both for wells and to irrigate surrounding farms. However, illegal exploitation of these aquifers to irrigate out-of-season strawberries and blueberries is causing unsustainable water usage that threatens the marshes. The situation is so extreme that half the systemically monitored threatened birds in Doñana are showing a downward trend, and some species, like the Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris, are running a serious risk of extinction, while others, such as the Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca, can already be classified as locally extinct.

In response, SEO/BirdLife (BirdLife in Spain) is urging the Government of Spain (the State Party to the World Heritage Convention) to declare Doñana’s aquifers globally overexploited, to shut down all illegal water tapping, and to ensure that a program is in place to stop the illegal abstraction of ground water.

However, even if these changes are made, there are still unresolved threats to Doñana, which are also linked to local uses. While grazing livestock is part of the park’s sociocultural heritage, overgrazing of livestock threatens the park through trampling on nests and birds, as well as vegetation damage. Additionally, the uncontrolled growth of Wild Boar populations has been harming the birds of Doñana especially, as the boar eat both the eggs and chicks of dozens of species that nest on or near ground level. In 2017 alone, nearly 800 nests of Purple Heron Ardea purpurea were predated, and practically the totality of the of Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida breeding colonies.

If these problems are not addressed, Doñana will continue to lose biodiversity at an alarming rate, and the pristine expanse of natural beauty that is Doñana National Park will be under the very real threat of permanent collapse. This can seriously affect the status of Doñana as a World Heritage Site, National Park and EU Special Protection Area/Special Area for Conservation.