A blue lagoon and Roman ruins
Butrinti National Park, Albania
The area around the antique town of Butrinti in southern Albania is not only home to several globally threatened species, but also has a rich cultural history, justifying its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The wetland core of the area is Butrinti Lagoon, a tectonic lagoon surrounded by forested hills, mountains, freshwaters and brackish marshes. It is sometimes called Butrinti “Lake”, due to its large surface and high depth (max 22 m; average 14 m). The lagoon has access to the sea through the natural channel of Vivari, which is up to 100 metres wide.
The National Park comprises a high diversity of natural, semi-natural and artificial habitats, such as freshwater marshes, reed beds, Mediterranean forests and maquis, arable lands and fruit tree terraces, as well as coastal waters with rocky and sandy coast, open halophytic lands, etc. These habitats shelter a high diversity of animals and plants, including species of global and regional concern, which make the Butrinti area one of the most important areas for biodiversity in Albania.
From a historical and cultural perspective, the antique town of Butrinti (the ancient Buthrotum), a famous archaeological site and an important coastal and port centre from the Hellenistic to Ottoman periods, is remarkable. The town was found to date back to the Neolithic period and traces of its centuries-long Roman domination still remain intact.
The Butrinti area has several statuses: the town of Butrinti was first proclaimed as a Cultural Monument in 1948; in 1999 it was registered in the World Heritage list of UNESCO; in 2003 the wetland complex, including a part of the lagoon and the coastal area of Butrinti – Stillo Cape -- was proclaimed a Ramsar Site and a National Park (Category II of the IUCN Protected Area Management Categories).
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Size and location
The total surface of the protected area is 8591 hectares, of which 1600 hectares belong to the Butrinti Lagoon. The area from Butrinti to Stillo Cape represents the most southern coastal segment of Albania, close to the coastal border with Greece, approximately 285 kilometres from Tirana, the capital of Albania, and 20 kilometres south of Saranda, the closest Albanian city from Butrinti.
Flora and fauna
The Butrinti - Stillo Cape area shelters interesting animal species, some of them threatened or of biogeographical and economic value. About 33 animal species are of global conservation concern, 136 species are of European conservation concern and 109 species are of national conservation concern. Among the most important globally endangered species are the marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata), the Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni), the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), the white-tailed eagle (Haliaetus albicilla), the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni), the Mediterranean horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus euryale) and the long-fingered bat (Myotis capaccinni).
Butrinti National Park is one of the most diverse sites for mammals in Albania. Globally threatened mammals like the otter (Lutra lutra), the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) and Bechstein's Bat (Myotis bechsteinii) have been recorded in the area.
For migrating birds, the Butrinti area is an essential flyway stepping stone between the Mediterranean/Adriatic/Ionian seas and the Sahara desert. It is nationally important for at least 9 species of wintering water birds, sheltering more than 11% of the national population.
The area is equally significant for its richness in amphibian and reptile species, hosting about 67% of amphibians and 69% of reptiles of the whole Albanian territory. Species such as the Epirote frog (Rana epirotica), marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata), the sand boa (Eryx jaculus) and the Balkan wall lizard (Podarcis taurica jonica) are found in few places elsewhere in the country.
Due to the diversity of its aquatic habitats (freshwater, brackish, hypersaline and marine waters), a high diversity of fish species has been recorded in Butrinti – Stillo Cape area. The 105 species of fish known in the area, among them mugilids (Chelon labrosus and Mugil cephalus), sparids (Sparus aurata, Sparus pagrus, Sparus caeruleostictus) and the European eel (Aguilla anguilla), represent one third of all Albanian fish species.
Benthic fauna of Butrinti lagoon is poorly known. Butrinti has long been famous and continues to be a suitable habitat for the growth of the blue mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis). Mussels have been exploited since 1968, but their commercial cultivation started in 1970, with production reaching up to 5000 tons per year in 1990.
The flora of Butrinti – Stillo Cape habitats is rich and diverse, with about 900 higher plant species. About 32 species of these are listed in the Albanian Red Data Book as having an unfavorable conservation status.
The Mediterranean forest inside the Archaeological Park is composed of more than 80 species of higher plants, with the wood layer dominated by elm (Ulmus minor), ash (Fraxinus angustifolia), common oak (Quercus robur) and white poplar (Populus alba); in some areas, laurel tree (Laurus nobilis) and holm (Quercus ilex) prevail. The brushwood layer is represented by species such as Wild blackberry (Rubus ulmifolius), Common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and Silk vine (Periploc graeca).
The aquatic vegetation of the lagoon is very limited, with the bottom below 6 to 8 metres of depth being anaerobic and characterized by strong sedimentation of organisms in decomposition. In marine coastal waters, especially in the Stillo Cape area, there are well developed seagrass meadows of Posidonia oceanic, and the northern part of the Butrinti lagoon features reedbeds, dominated by Phragmites communis and Typha angustifolia. Plants that are adapted to high salt concentrations are typical for the wetland area.
It is worth stressing that pollution of domestic or industrial origin in Butrinti wetland system is very limited. There is relatively mild agricultural pollution through pesticides and fertilizers.
Ksamili, a village that gets over 25,000 summer tourists yearly, is situated on the coast, about 5 km to the north of Butrinti, but it is not included in the protected area, with only minor tourism impacts on the coastal part of the protected area.
In 1959 the deviation of the main tributary of the lagoon, Bistrica River, reduced the surface of Butrinti lagoon and its wetlands, also decreasing the freshwater input and resulting in an increase of mineralization. In 1990, a part of the Bistrica’s water was returned to the northern part of the lagoon. Nevertheless, the lack of freshwater intake into the lagoon results in mild eutrophication with release of hydrogen sulfide, which is further exacerbated by the continuous blockage of Vivari channel. During the hot summers, the hydrodynamic exchange reaches a minimum, decreasing the depth of the oxygenated layer (epilimnion) to sometimes no more than two meters.
Cultivation of the blue mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis) does not have direct impact on the lagoon, as it is done in natural conditions, without using artificial food or other chemicals. However, the mussel harvesting activity has increased human presence and boat traffic in the lagoon.
Illegal fishing and hunting occurs sporadically in the lagoon and on the marine coast, but it has been limited in recent years, compared to the uncontrolled situation during 1992 – 2005.
In the marine coastal habitats, especially in the Stillo Cape, illegal collection of mollusks occurs sporadically, such as for the date mussel (Lithophaga lithophaga), the warty Venus (Venus verrucosa), and for limpets (Patella).
Recently, a fish farm has been established in the Stillo Cape, which potentially may incite water eutrophication in that area.