Environmental activists and zoologists in Armenia have been raising concerns after dozens of white storks drenched in some greasy substance and unable to fly have been spotted walking around several rural communities in the Ararat valley.
Residents of the village of Hovtashen in Armenia’s Ararat province have told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) that at first they thought the birds had covered themselves in dust in order to protect themselves from summer heat. “But it turned out it wasn’t dust, but that some oil had stuck to them,” says Khachik Sharoyan, a middle-aged resident of the village located some 15 kilometers to the south of capital Yerevan.
The oily substance has harmed the birds’ feathers and now they cannot get off the ground even to reach their nests that are some eight meters above the ground.
“The birds can’t fly. They can’t get their food and feed their young. These birds are going to die,” says head of the Center of Bird Lovers NGO Silva Adamian.
Since the environmental alarm over the non-flying white storks was first sounded in Armenia nearly two weeks ago volunteers have visited the place to wash the birds and have actually managed to get some of them flying again albeit still low to the ground and at short distances.
Volunteers are raising donations and in the coming days plan more trips to Hovtashen and other villages affected by the problem.
Meanwhile, two oil-soaked white storks have been taken to a Zoological Institute laboratory in Yerevan where specialists have established that the substance in question is of vegetable or animal origin.
The contamination may come from the Hrazdan River that flows through the rural communities where white storks have been affected.
Experts suspect that the river may have been polluted with oily substance by one of the many fish farms situated in the area. No particular entity has yet been named as the source of pollution.
Environmental Inspectorate officials say they will refer the case to law-enforcement agencies. But while environmentalists insist that a criminal investigation should be launched in connection with the harm caused to white storks, under Armenia’s legislation, criminal liability is envisaged only for mass extermination of storks, while harming or even killing one stork will entail a fine of only an equivalent of $1 and $2, respectively.
“This is an omission in the law, as till today it did not occur to anyone that storks can be harmed in Armenia,” says Environmental Inspectorate representative Artur Beglarian. “For example, we have a Caucasian heath-cock which is in the Red Book and harming it will entail a fine of an equivalent of over $600.”
Zoology Institute worker Lyuba Balian says that cleaning white storks off the greasy substance is not an easy job. She says they have tried different solutions to achieve best results. They also monitor the behavior of the storks they clean to see if it changes. “In cleaning the bird one has to be very careful not to damage the feathers with the water flow,” Balian says.
Meanwhile, Towards Sustainable Systems NGO head Karen Aghababian along with volunteers continue to wash the white storks on the spot, trying to clean their feathers and put them back on the wing. “We continue to monitor the situation to make sure that the birds can have at least a short flight so that they do not become prey and can go to places where they can find food,” he says.
Many residents of Hovtashen, where there are some 30 stork nests with three or four birds in each, also participate in the monitoring activities. “People are very caring because it is their storks,” Hovtashen mayor Suren Mkrtchian says.
But Mamikon Ghasabian, head of the Vertebrates Laboratory at the Zoology and Hydro-Ecology Scientific Center, warns that specialists, volunteers and villagers have only until this fall to help the migratory birds get back on the wing or else they may not survive Armenia’s harsh winter.
“Can they reach Africa this way? Isn’t it a disaster? We cannot say how many of them will die on the way [to Africa] and what will happen to them. Their fate is uncertain,” says Ghasabian.