Great White Pelicans tagged with SMS tracker | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 11.05.2013
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Great White Pelicans tagged with SMS tracker

Increased desertification and dwindling food resources on their migratory routes means pelicans are struggling to survive. Israeli scientists are using SMS technology to help make the birds' bi-annual migration safer.

Each year some 50,000 white pelicans migrate between the marshlands of Sudan to south-eastern Europe and Asia. This is a process that has been occurring for thousands of years.

Now, the birds have got some 21st century technology to help them keep in touch on their journey. Last autumn, electronic tracking devices were attached to the bodies of eighteen of the pelicans during their bi-annual stopover in northern Israel. The device sends scheduled SMS messages via satellite transmitters, allowing researchers to pinpoint the birds' exact location, their flight patterns and their general health. 

With an average body weight of six to eight kilograms, and a wing span of about three metres, these pelicans are one of the world's largest migratory birds, and hardly notice the extra 100 gram tracking device strapped to their bodies.

Keeping in touch

It's all part of a project by Israel's Hebrew University which allows researchers to properly understand for the first time the birds' migration pattern and how they meet their nutritional needs.

A route tracker hangs around a pelican's neck in Israel. Copyright: Yaniv Levy***via Saroja Coelho

The birds are so large that they barely notice the tracking device

Now, the pelicans are returning to Israel in huge flocks from the south, making their distinctive honking call. For Yoav Bartan, a Hebrew University scientist involved collecting the research, their migration can't come soon enough.

"This project is very significant," Yoav said. "People have asked these questions many times and we could answer these questions only by very anecdotal data and very indirect data. Now we can answer them better."

There was some previous GPS data on the migration of pelicans, but the resolution was too low to be useful. Now, Yoav Bartan can open his GPS tracking screen on his laptop, select a pelican, and identify exactly where it is located. The data has already identified a previously unknown nesting habitat for the travelling pelicans in Lake Eber, in Turkey.

Eager for the data from their journey, Bartan jokes that he might send them an SMS to hurry them up.  "Well, they do have a transmitter, so maybe we could call them as well," he said.

Problem for local fisheries

But this project is not just research for research sake. The pelicans' impact in Israel is becoming more of an issue. Not everyone in Israel is as happy as Yoav Bartan about the pelicans' arrival.

Increased desertification and dwindling food resources on their traditional route means the pelicans often arrive in Israel starving hungry. In addition, Israel's traditional food sources for the pelicans are drying up: Lake Tiberias in the north has been over-fished and the Hula Valley swamplands drained. So, the pelicans instead head for commercial fish ponds.

Israel Nature and Parks Authority bird tracker Ohad Hatzofe in die Nähe von seinem Krankenhaus für Vögel, 03/12/2012 (Nord-Israel); Copyright: Vanessa O’Brien***via Saroja Coelho

Israel Nature and Parks Authority bird tracker Ohad Hatzofe is trying to help the birds and fish farmers

Commercial fish breeders can easily lose thousands of euros worth of fish each day when large flocks of hungry pelicans descend on their ponds eating one to two kilograms of fish each. That's a problem that avian ecologist Ohad Hatzofe is trying to rectify.

He heads up a team of five full time staff from Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature, who work around the clock during the pelicans' migration seasons, moving from location to location tracking arrivals, departures and feeding locations.

A possible solution?

The Israel Parks and Nature Authority is also currently partnering with commercial fisheries to buy under-size and under-weight fish and transfer them to reservoirs where the pelicans can safely feed without affecting commercial fisheries nearby.

"Only if we create an alternative to them, will it reduce the damage or the dependency of those pelicans on the commercial fish stock," Hatzofe told DW.

The new tracking system is currently helping researchers to work out whether or not the alternative feeding programme is working.

Pelicans are protected by law in Israel, which is a member of the United Nations Environment Programme and a signatory of the African-Eurasian Water Bird Agreement. So, while it's currently illegal for fish farmers in Israel to shoot the birds, they use a combination of fireworks, netting, and guards to scare them away.

A pelican takes off in Iran.

During their migration, pelicans now have access to less food

A local zoological hospital in Tel Aviv is home to several pelicans that have been injured during their migration. Some have been shot at on their way to Israel, others have flown into electrical lines or gotten caught in the fish farmers' nets.

Some fish farmers believe that by providing the pelicans with low quality fish, Ohad Hatzofe's team is just encouraging them to stay. Hatzofe argues that if they don't feed the pelicans, the pelicans would either die or have to spend the winter in Israel. Providing them with an alternative is the only choice, he says, and he believes it's working.

Final details about the information gathered from the pelican monitoring project will be collated after the pelicans finish their migration north this spring.

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