President of the German Nature Conservation Trust
I was born and raised so close to the still tiny Bavarian Danube that I could observe the lime leaves in our garden, swept away into the river by the autumn wind. As an infant, I used to squat amongst the willow stalks on gravel sand and make the flat stones dance over the water. And I harkened to the mysterious conversation of the wandering stones on the riverbed, and dreamed to get some day there, where the most potent stream of Europe succumbs to the Danube Delta. In 1967, 40 years ago, this dream became reality, when I was invited by the Academy of Sciences on a visit; from the distinctly amiable professor V. Puscariu with the Nature Preservation Commission of the Romanian Academy of Sciences, I received not merely useful hints, but also a ready-made voyage route and a recommendation that secured my accommodation and guided trip. When we arrived at Murighiol, locals took us swiftly to Niculae Onofrei's home, a pygmy, thatched clay hut on the Delta bank; next to it, under the mulberry trees, stood a similar construction, where two guest rooms of the Academy of Sciences were placed at our disposal. Onofrei was, plain to see with the naked eye, an authentic 'ranger': wiry, tanned, with a leathery face and short-cropped, grey hair planted on his remarkable head. "Spare the old fellow, if you like," came the mild recommendation of professor Puscariu, "he knows no limits to his zeal. He is the best expert in matters of the Delta and its bird life." He also wanted to set off immediately to the pelicans and catch some of the fish for our dinner. Unobtrusively, the snug, flat ''barka' glided over the tapestry of water caltrops and crowfoot bushes, pondweed and floating fern towards the narrow leaf cat-tails, that gradually grew into woods of cat-tail. Onofrei paused every now and then to scant the Latin names of little egrets, squacco herons, and night herons, to point to the first cormorant wading about as often as purple herons, bitterns and little bitterns.Onofrei explained that seven or eight of the European heron species were settling their nesting colonies there, in the Delta, and that over 100,000 herons were presumably there. Onofrei, also 'familiar' with the fact that 'his Delta', as an intersecting zone of five major bird migration routes, is unique throughout Europe. Beyond any doubt, pelicans are the most interesting actors in the Delta, albeit it hosts over 300 avian species. The history of the pelican number in the Danube Delta may truly yield a classically good example as to any species saved at the last minute. Still massively present at the turn of the 19th c., the pelican population was decimated after WWI, down to a 300-400 worth of specimens. Even at that time, Romanian nature conservationists earned great merits in protecting these huge birds. After WWII, the pelican population was again endangered, but again the Romanian and international preservationists managed to save it; around 1970, the population had soared again to 3,000 specimens. In the meantime, this avian kingdom was also discovered to be a significant asset for tourism, and there is hope that this unique heritage of Europe will be secured durably in the form of a national park.However, there are new dangers that pose a constant threat to the Delta. On multiple visits at a later date, the last of which occurred in January of 2000, I was informed that the reed exploitation continued to excess and thus this Paradise by the Black Sea was being acutely endangered.A first place on the list of threats would have to be claimed by the planned river regulations for navigation, in which the European Union would like to pour great investments, although it is to be expected that, as a result of climate changes, water transport will be increasingly done in shallow water conditions. This would translate into further excavations and therefore water loss in the arms and the dry-up of the reed stock. A far better solution instead would be to adjust the vessels to the stream depth by mildly regulating measures. The nature protection community beseeches the authorities in Bucharest and Brussels to raise their awareness concerning the value of the largest bird life preservation region in Europe as a natural heritage for humankind.To come back to my first visit in 1967, in my diary, I recorded at the time: "For the next day of our stay at Murighiol, Niculae Onofrei had planned a ten-hour trip by boat to Uzlina Lake. Around noon, we reached Uzlina Lake, after crossing the Saint George Arm of the Danube. Onofrei set out 'inspecting' the baskets of the fishermen lingering about on the lake, without delay. A waller, two carps, and a dozen of small fish seem to do the trick for him. From lifeless silver willows, Onofrei breaks himself some dry firewood; swiftly he goes about improvising table and chairs, from the wooden benches of the vessel, and, in a limited set of moves, spanning the sail of his 'barka' into a tent canopy. Whereupon, the dishes get to be rinsed in the river and Danube water, added to the cauldron. Meanwhile, I myself have grown accustomed to enjoying the taste of unadulterated Delta water; in the channels, it is as clear as crystal, and filtered through billions and billions of reed straws! Onofrei has sprinkled a handful of various, wild growing spices, added onions, salt and wine vinegar to the scaled fish in the iron cauldron and promptly serves us a steaming fish borsch, that tastes better than in any hotel in this world; this is complemented by a Murfatlar wine, watered down with the essence of the Delta…"
by Hubert Weinzierl
President of the German Nature Conservation Trust