Birds flock back to Doñana

Posted: 15 February 2002

In April 1998, the Doñana nature reserve in Spain suffered a disaster that shocked the world. The tailings lagoon at the Aznalcollar zinc mine, just north of the national park, burst, flooding the Guadiamar river with five million cubic metres of acidic water contaminated with heavy metals.

Land the size of 4,600 football pitches was covered in poisonous black sludge, which penetrated 63 km downstream and killed thousands of birds and fish.

Hundreds of workers - many of them voluntary - have cleaned up much of the contaminated area, but now they have embarked upon a more ambitious project: to restore the wetlands to their former glory through an excellent array of land and river engineering projects.

WWF volunteer clearing up following the 1998 disaster. Credit: WWF/Isaac VegaThere is plenty to care for. The Doñana wetlands in southwest Spain, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are one of the most important havens for hundreds of thousands of birds of all types and colours. More than 500,000 water fowl, 100,000 geese and 20,000 flamingos winter there each year.

Doñana is also home to two of the world's most endangered species, the Iberian lynx and the Spanish Imperial eagle.

The lynx lives in a transition area between the sands and clays of the coastal plain, hunting rabbits and partridges in its rare scrub and dunes. There are only 50-60 lynx remaining in Doñana, so the protection of this habitat is vital to its long-term survival.

The Imperial eagle nests in tall trees and forages in Doñana's low-lying woods, plains and marshes. There are thought to be just nine fertile pairs surviving in the region.

In 1998, WWF set up a project 'Together For Doñana', bringing together local NGOs, the regional and national governments, as well as international organizations, to make Doñana's restoration a reference model for nature conservation in Spain, Europe and beyond.

There are two major restoration programmes now underway in Doñana: the "Green Corridor" and "Doñana 2005".

The Green Corridor follows the Guadiamar river from the mine, linking the Sierra Morena national park in the north to the heart of the Doñana national park in the south. The aim of this ecological corridor, which has an average width of 1km and covers nearly 5,000 hectares, is to eliminate completely the contamination and to recover the river and its watershed, which have dried up in many places.

Doñana 2005 is a wider ecological restoration scheme that takes in all the wetlands of the 70,000 hectares of Doñana national and natural parks including the restoration of 1,000 hectares of mudflats at Sanlucar de Barrameda, the southernmost point of the national park.

Phase one of the Sanlucar project was successfully completed with the re-opening of the Bonanza marshlands and mudflats in November 2000.

Thousands of flamingos, herons, avocets, terns and gulls have already flocked back to Bonanza to winter on the restored plain, where they can now feed on plentiful supplies of crabs, water plants, insects and other creatures thriving in the marshlands.

Restoration today, though, will mean nothing without a longer-term vision of how to safeguard, through sound eco-management practices, the future of one of Europe's most important wetlands.