Restoring the Wildlife Refuge

The Wildlife Refuge of the lagoon during spring time. Left of the picture is the sea and Laguna beach.

Just 2,5 km to the south of Naxos town lays the biggest wetland of the island and the Cyclades, which has been characterized by the government as a Wildlife Refuge since 2004. Usually from July until October, when the temperatures are the highest and precipitation minimum to zero, an area more than 800 acres turns into a hostile, dry saltlake. To the north, a beach, known as Laguna beach, covered in sand dunes, tamarix trees (Tamarix hampeana), sea daffodils (Pancratium maritimum) and more becomes a feeding and nesting area for bird species like Kentish plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus) and Crested Larks (Galerida cristata) which lay their nests on the sand, while the coastal area during ebb and flood becomes a feeding area for different kinds of herons.

Left: Black winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) fledglings during summer searching for food over the dried saltlake. Right: Finding shade under their mother black-winged stilt.

In the north, a road separates the lagoon from the sea. Its wrong construction has blocked the once open access of the lagoon with the sea, which is the reason it dries up during the summer months. Only one opening exists, which is, unfortunately, incapable of keeping the lagoon underwater and, so, alive.
The lagoon south of the road that crosses the Wildlife Refuge remains a feeding and nesting habitat for numerous species of wild birds as long as there is water, like Gulls, Herons, Flamingos and many small wading birds (read more on the Wild Birds found on Naxos island here!). The thick vegetation surrounding the lagoon is the only part of the wetland where wild fauna can find shelter from the blazing sun, this is why it is suggested no humans enter and scare the wild birds.

Aerial photo taken more than 4 decades ago, shows the lagoon on the top of the picture before the road and the airport were built. The lagoon was much bigger extending to the south and east compared to the lagoon that exists today. (unknown source)

Towards the west of the lagoon, a small forest of juniper trees (Juniperus macrocarpa) is found, a species of trees that is resistant to dry conditions and high soil salinity. It can grow up to 10 meters tall and it used to cover all of the south-western coast of the island. Unfortunately, due to coastal urban development and tourism, the majority of the juniper forest and sand dunes have been destroyed.

Towards the south of the lagoon, a smaller wetland can be found, which no longer has connection with the sea.
A long time ago, all this area used to be one single lagoon, but, first, a sand dam was created in the south, cutting the lagoon in two parts and, in 1992, the airport was built in the east, separating the big wetland into smaller ones.
The existence of the road, which becomes especially loud and crowded during the summer months, and the airport makes this once oasis a demanding and hostile place for wild birds to live in.

Despite all this, the wetland remains alive and active as a Wildlife Refuge, which according to the law means that it is forbidden to hunt any kind of fauna inside the area, the capture of any kind of fauna for non-scientific reasons is against the law, as well as the destruction of vegetation and sand dunes, fishing, sand extraction, water pollution and the drainage and drying of the marsh lands.
Once rainfall begins, usually during end of October to November, small streams run from the south-east providing the lagoon with fresh water, and the increasing northern winds fill up the wetland with saltwater.
The mixture of fresh and salt water turn the lagoon into a nursery for different species of fish and invertebrates, which in their turn draw in wild birds, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals.
Anyone who has seen the wetland during the winter and spring months sees a very altered ecosystem compared to the dry summer.

The lagoon during January and July.

In autumn, the rare Rudy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), a protected species of wild bird arrives on Naxos island, which winters and breeds throughout spring, sometimes even staying in the beginning of summer before migrating.
Flocks of all species of birds arrive with the first rains, some of which remain until spring.

Until recently the wild avian fauna, most of which are endangered species according to the IUCN and protected by the Directive for Wild Birds of the E.U., was threatened by extended illegal hunting taking place inside and at the borders of the Wildlife Refuge. For years, volunteers of our association were patrolling the area, filing complaints to the authorities of all illegal cases, which included capturing wild songbirds such as European Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) with the use of limesticks, traps and nets, hunting from ambush inside the lagoon, hunting during night-time and more. Through these years, “Naxos Wildlife Protection” highlighted the problems caused by the illegal hunters and, so, mobilized the local authorities until hunting was minimized in the area.

A case of illegal net trapping of wild songbirds inside the southwestern Wildlife Refuge using live decoy birds. The poacher was arrested and placed under probation.

In the south and east of the lagoon, there are many agricultural fields and a few years ago, the southern part of the wetland had become a dumping spot for touristic businesses.
The sight was horrendous, as it is shown in the photos below, and so are the consequences on the environment.
The association of Naxos Wildlife Protection started recording and monitoring the illegal use of this special wetland in 2014, by taking photos and videos of the litter and the people responsible for this.

In 2015, our association made this known through the media.
The garbage found all over the south side of the lagoon included building debris, old mattresses, garbage bags, painting equipment, buckets of paint and stains, electrical devices, furniture, restaurant garbage, toxic liquids (e.g. freon), vehicle parts and more (see pictures above).
As the matter took great proportions over the media, the municipality of Naxos was mobilized and the operation began to clean up the wetland.

In May of 2015, loadful of trucks emptied the former dumping spot, signs were placed informing the public of the law and, once the area was clean, we planted endemic plants, mainly tamarix trees.

But, it seemed that the old habit of getting rid of useless stuff was hard to break and a year later, we came across a new dumping spot. The matter was filed to the local authorities and the illegal use of the wetland as a dumpster stopped.

It has been many years since then and a walk through the south of the lagoon reminds nothing of the past. Although, some older pieces of garbage still exist inside the lagoon half-buried in the ground, such as old tires and metallic tubes, the majority of the wetland has been cleaned up and nature has taken over, decorating every ugly detail left behind.
The tamarix trees have grown significantly and vegetation has sprouted all over. In 2019, more planting took place by volunteers of Naxos Wildlife Protection.

The south side of the wetland as it is today.

Naxos Wildlife Protection is informing at the same time residents and visitors of the island of the richness of biodiversity and the wetland’s value, how to respect it and behave in order to help it recover and remain wild.
We all need to learn that wild animals need to remain wild in order to survive, but to remain wild they need a wild home. A habitat that can provide them with the safety and the complex nutritional needs, which can only be met in the wild.

From left to right: A Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), two Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea) and a Great Egret (Ardea alba)

How can we help keep the wildlife wild…

  • Wild animals can be highly stressed by sights, sounds and smells from humans and their pets, especially in close proximity. Stress to the wild animals can cause health issues, even death.
  • Do not litter.
  • Keep pets on a leash and do not let them roam free in the Wildlife Refuge.
  • Do not approach the wild animals, observe them from a distance or use binoculars or zoom lenses respecting their privacy.
  • Enter the beach by following the dirt paths and do not step over the sand dunes and vegetation.
  • If you witness an illegal activity, such as vehicle driving inside the Wildlife Refuge, inform the Police at once.

“The only way to save a rhinoceros is to save the environment in which it lives, because there’s a mutual dependency between it and millions of other species of both animals and plants.” 

—Sir David Attenborough

Papavasiliou street
Naxos town, 84300