New Albania airport threatens flamingo refuge, conservationists say

VJOSE-NARTE, Albania, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Plans to build Albania's biggest airport could destroy one of Europe's most spectacular sanctuaries for giant birds, where the noise of trucks and excavators is already scaring away pelicans and flamingos, ornithologists say.

The picturesque Vjose-Narte lagoon in the shadow of Albania's Thunderbolt Mountains on the Adriatic Sea, is a crucial stop for flocks of birds on their annual migration between Europe and Africa. It was declared a protected nesting and migration area in 2004, and is home to 200 bird species.

The government says a new airport on the lagoon will boost tourism along Albania's pristine Adriatic coast, and complies with environmental rules.

"We have respected every step, every timeline and every procedure of the Albanian law, whether that is for the public consultations or how it will impact the environment," said Tourism and Environment Minister Mirela Kumbaro.

Birdwatchers describe this part of Albania as one of the best places in Europe to see flocks of giant pink flamingos take flight.

Mirjan Topi, an ornithologist from the group Birds of Albania, said the lagoon is home on any given day to around 1.5% of the entire global population of majestic Dalmatian pelicans, one of the world's largest flying birds, which are in danger of extinction.

"If the airport is built, this beauty will be gone."

He also said that the safety of the aircraft would be a concern, due to the danger of collisions with birds.

The airport's builders say planes won't be in the flight path of the birds. The airport's "flight plan, predicted take-off and landing, does not affect the birds' pathway", Valon Lluka, who runs the project for Mabetex, the Swiss-based firm leading its construction, told Reuters in an email.

The runway is around 3.5 km (2.17 miles) from the bird shelter and 5 km (3.11 miles) away from the main bird migration routes along the coast, Lluka said.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism accounted for 18 percent of Albania's economic output and generated one in every 10 jobs. But if the aim is to boost tourism, Arsen Lambro, 28, who runs a fish restaurant near the lagoon, says it would be a mistake to destroy the local grandeur for an airport.

"What will the tourists find here? It is not only the food but it is the area that will bring more tourists."

Reporting by Florion Goga Writing by Fatos Bytyci Editing by Aleksandar Vasovic, Peter Graff and Sandra Maler

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