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Migration: A long-distance love story

Migration: A long-distance love story
Klepetan and Malena, Croatia © Stjepan Vokic
For the past 15 years, a lovestruck stork has faithfully returned from its South Africa wintering grounds to the same rooftop in Croatia, where he is dramatically reunited with his disabled amore. It’s a love story that has captivated a nation – but every time he departs, there are fears that he will not survive to see his beloved next spring.
You could set your clock to Klepetan. Over a million people watching via live stream already have. Every year, for the past 15 years, Klepetan, a male White Stork Ciconia ciconia returns to the same red-tiled rooftop in Brodski Varoš, a small Croatian village near the Bosnian border.
Except last year, Klepetan was late. Six days late. Normally, he returns on March 24th, give or take a day, but it was now March 30th, and his partner, Malena, was casting a lonely figure as she waited patiently for her beau to return.
But then, at 4:40pm, Klepetan dramatically swooped into view of the livefeed camera, reuniting the two lovebirds after months apart and sending the nation into rapturous joy.
But what is it about this particular pair of storks that resonates with the Croatian public above all others? Perhaps it’s because their relationship has to endure something that most lovers will be familiar with at one point or another in their lives – long distance.
Klepetan, you see, has to make the long, arduous 5,000 mile trip to South Africa alone every winter. Malena was illegally shot in 1993, and hasn’t flown properly since. Luckily for her, she was discovered at the side of the road by a school janitor, Stjepan Vokic, who treated her wounds and has looked after her ever since – building a makeshift nest on the roof of his house for her, and providing shelter for her during the cold winter months.
It was while she was enjoying the roof nest one day 15 years ago that she was spotted and wooed by Klepetan, and the pair have been inseparable since. (Most of the year, anyway.) Over the years, the lovers have reared dozens of chicks.
But come the winter, Klepetan flies south to Africa with the other storks, leaving his flightless partner behind. When the birds return in the spring, Vokic, and the hundreds of thousands of people glued to the livestream, face an anxious wait to see if Klepetan has survived his perilous journeys. Migratory birds brave numerous threats every time they embark on their epic travels – from storms to starvation, predators to power lines. But there’s one particular stretch of Klepetan’s journey that has his supporters particularly concerned – a 100 mile stretch that takes Klepetan over Lebanon.
The African-Eurasian Flyway – one of the most important migratory routes in the entire world – runs straight through Lebanon, and it is here that the journey ends for around 2.6 million birds as they are felled from the sky by irresponsible hunters.
As one of the larger migratory birds, storks are an obvious target for poachers, and this year the issue of Klepetan’s safety is particularly poignant, with the news that a male stork called Tesla – one of two Croat storks fitted with GPS trackers for research purposes – met his end in Lebanon this past April.
Vokic is so concerned about Klepetan’s welfare that he has taken the extraordinary step of writing a letter to the President of Lebanon, Michel Aoun – using a pen fashioned from one of Klepetan’s own feathers – a symbolic gesture that the feather is mightier than the sword. The heartfelt letter, which can be read in full here, was delivered to Aoun in a box containing the very same feather – which Vokic urges Aoun should use to pen a law offering stronger protection for birds during the critical migration seasons.
An excerpt from the letter says: “In my country, there is a belief that storks bring children and that they bring new life. These two storks are my whole life. You do not have to believe in stories for little children, but you can believe in the fact that in Croatia every spring, via live stream camera, over a million people await Klepetan’s return and that the moment of his return brings happiness and joy reminding many of what love means and what it means to love.“
It follows a letter by BirdLife CEO Patricia Zurita, addressed to Claudine Aoun Roukoz, the president's special advisor, thanking Aoun for his commitment and urging for closer collaboration with the BirdLife Partnership on this matter.
Fortunately, there is every chance that Vokic's emotional plea will tug at Aoun's heartstrings – just last month, the Lebanese Prime Minister himself pledged to stop the annual slaughter in his country, stating that: “There should be a peace treaty between Man and the tree as well as Man and birds, because we continue to transgress upon them".
But any action by Aoun needs to be swift and decisive and followed with action on the ground. It is only a matter of months until Klepetan will begin eyeing the long journey south once more. For the lovestruck stork who returns to his partner's nest every year like clockwork, the clock is ticking.
Text: Alex Dale, BirdLife  International
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