A wetland gem in need of some TLC

Paralimni Lake by D. Vetsikas / Pixabay
This article was first published in the Cyprus Mail newspaper on 16 March 2022, as opinion piece written by our Director Martin Hellicar.

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Paralimni Lake is an opportunity squandered on so many levels. And that really is putting it mildly. A more candid description might be ‘national disgrace’. This is a wetland so besieged by problems of our own making that it stands out as a dark example of how not to go about protecting and managing a special, fragile site.

This dire situation can and must be put right. Everyone needs to play their part in this, from government to local community to NGOs.

The wetland that gives the town its name – Paralimni translates to ‘By-the-lake’ – sits right behind (West of) the Famagusta area tourist town of Paralimni, with the villages of Dherynia and Sotira to the North and SW of the lake, respectively. It is a small seasonal wetland increasingly surrounded and hemmed in by development.

Paralimni Lake is one of only eight remaining sizeable natural wetlands on Cyprus. (The others, just for completeness, are the Larnaka and Akrotiri salt lakes, Akrotiri Marsh, Oroklini Lake, the Famagusta coastal wetlands, the close-to-extinction Ayia Eirini wetland near Morphou and Galatia Lake, Karpasia). Paralimni Lake is not big – at around 350 hectares total area – and hardly ever holds water year-round. In fact, situated as it is in the dry SE corner of Cyprus, there are drought years where the shallow pan of Paralimni Lake hardly gathers any water at all. But it is very important for wildlife. In the Mediterranean, wetland seasonality is no real barrier for wildlife; it is rather the ‘norm’ that ecosystems have evolved to ‘work’ with.

Spur-winged Lapwing © F. Georgiades

Paralimni Lake is recognized as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) by BirdLife International. It is a key breeding site for the Spur-winged Lapwing Vanellus spinosus, a handsome black-and-white wader imaginatively christened Pellokaterina or ‘Crazy-Katherine’ in Cyprus, due to the racket it kicks up when its nesting site is encroached upon. It is also a key site for another notably noisy local, the Black Francolin Francolinus francolinus. The repetitive, trumpeting call of this prized game bird echoes across the lowlands of Cyprus with the first hint of Spring weather. Wetlands like Paralimni Lake are among favorite breeding sites for this distinctive, speckled bird. The lake is also important for two other wading birds, the elegant Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus and the diminutive and easy-to-miss Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus. The seasonality of the Lake means it is in winter and spring that it draws the biggest numbers and diversity of bird visitors, with well over 180 different species recorded to date.

This avian richness alone should be more than enough to force the proper protection of the site. And it has, on paper at least, with the site designated a Natura 2000 site for birds some 13 years back. But there is still more ecological value to be had. Apart from its importance as a habitat (and carbon sink) per se, Paralimni Lake is also the key site for the endemic sub-species of snake, the Cyprus Grass Snake Natrix natrix cypriaca. (‘Grass’ snake is a bit of a misnomer, its habits are more ‘water snake’, matching its local name: Nerophido). Again, this has led to further protection on paper: Paralimni Lake is also included in the EU-wide Natura 2000 network of protected sites for the Grass snake. (Natura 2000 sites can be designated both under the EU Birds Directive, for birds, and under the EU Habitats Directive, for habitats and non-bird species).

Cyprus Grass Snake © M. Charalambides

So Paralimni Lake is a Natura 2000 site twice-over. Despite this, on the ground, this translates to roughly diddly-squat when it comes to effective protection and sympathetic management.

Many in the local community will tell you the issue with managing the site as the nature reserve it deserves to be, hinges on the ownership claims to the middle of the Lake, which is private land that was, in the distant past, sometimes farmed. I am not convinced on this. Of course the landowners must be ‘on side’ if a successful wetland management regime is to be established, but spurious demands for compensation on the basis of fantastical evaluations of muddy, lake-bottom land cannot be allowed to hold the future of this site to ransom. Surely, no one can actually claim development rights – rights to build – within a natural wetland?

Oh but wait a minute, they have, and permits to build have actually been given. The mother of all bad precedents. The NE corner of the wetland was built on years ago (and must now be one of the most flood-prone housing developments on the island). The NW corner of the wetland was also licensed for further housing, a few years later, even if, in this case, no concrete has materialized. So I guess it is not hard to see why claims are being made by owners of land in the heart of the Lake, even if it now has Natura 2000 status. A thorny circle to try to square.

So the ownership and compensation squabble rumbles on in the background, but the lack of solution to this hardly excuses the sorry state-of-affairs in the wetland.

The list of intrusions and incompatible-with-conservation actions, both licensed and not, is long. No fewer than three go-cart tracks has been carved out in the lakebed silt, one of them still welcomes racing carts today. Building rubble and rubbish are routinely dumped in the wetland. Vehicles roam unhindered. Hunting is permitted within a large part of the wetland every winter, and the site is also a well-known poaching black-spot. There is a clay-pigeon shooting range within the lake area. It has been there for years, despite state promises (including those made to the EU) to move it elsewhere. An earth bank stands as a desultory ‘defense’ between firing range and main lake area.

All these interventions cause disturbance to wildlife and the lakebed and, in the case of shooting, spread death and pollution. The law says no to lead shot in or around wetlands. In practice this is a restriction rarely imposed, and there is growing evidence of serious lead contamination at the site (including poisoned Flamingos). The hunting that is permitted in the lake is barely legal. If standard restrictions on distances from nearest homes were properly observed, the shooting area would have to shrink to near nothing. There is also a strong ‘if you can’t stop poaching, don’t allow the shooting’ argument to be made in the case of Paralimni Lake. Even iconic species such as Flamingos have been found shot in the wetland.

Water is routinely drained from the lake, both for the needs of local farmers and to appease the mosquito-centered concerns of those who bought houses in the within-lake development. (Build your home in a wetland and you might just have to live with mosquitos; funny how that works). If the draining was done in a managed way, balancing the needs of farms and wildlife, this would probably be ok. But all-too-often, the drainage canal is opened under cover of darkness.

Meanwhile, at both a global and EU level, the conservation agenda is turning firmly towards restoration and a drive to ‘bring back’ degraded wildlife sites. Paralimni Lake would make an outstanding candidate for this, and a few miles down the road, just East of Larnaca town, there is a great example of what restoration can bring. Oroklini Lake, the smallest Natura 2000 site in Cyprus, was once also slated for development. But with the impetus provided by an EU-funded LIFE restoration project (2012-2014), and with the local community now firmly on the side of conservation, this little wetland has become a wildlife haven attracting thousands of visitors every year.

BirdLife Cyprus is part of a new, 10-year LIFE project, led by the Environment department. The project focuses on management of the Natura 2000 network across Cyprus and includes actions aimed at saving Paralimni Lake. We have to hope this ambitious project will make the difference. 

Even under the current, near-tragic state of affairs, Paralimni Lake holds amazing wildlife, which clings on despite the array of threats. Just imagine what a gem this site could be, with a bit of targeted TLC.

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