Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus


Justification of Red List Category
This species has a very large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend is not known, but the population is not believed to be decreasing sufficiently rapidly to approach the thresholds under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.

Population justification
The global population is estimated at 265,000-295,000 individuals (Wetlands International 2015). The European population is estimated at 4,900-5,600 pairs, which equates to 9,700-11,100 mature individuals (BirdLife International 2015). The population is therefore placed in the band 260,000-300,000 individuals.

Trend justification
The overall population trend is uncertain, as some populations are decreasing, while others are increasing, stable, or have unknown trends (Wetlands International 2015). The European population is estimated to be increasing (BirdLife International 2015).


Behaviour Northern populations of this species are fully migratory (del Hoyo et al. 1992) and travel via important stop-over sites (Nelson 2005). Other populations are sedentary, dispersive (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Nelson 2005) or nomadic, flying over land to seek suitable feeding locations (Nelson 2005). The species nests in large colonies (del Hoyo et al. 1992) of 200 to 40,000 pairs (Brown et al. 1982, Snow and Perrins 1998, Nelson 2005) (occasionally with other species such as Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus) (Flint et al. 1984), breeding in the spring in temperate zones, in all months of the year in Africa and from February to April in India (del Hoyo et al. 1992). It usually fishes in flocks (del Hoyo et al. 1992) of 8-12 individuals (Brown et al. 1982) (up to 123) (Johnsgard 1993) and migrates in large flocks of 50-500 individuals (Snow and Perrins 1998). The species regularly flies long distances from breeding or roosting colonies to feed (del Hoyo et al. 1992), mostly fishing in the early morning and early evening (Johnsgard 1993). Habitat The species is associated with relatively large, warm, shallow fresh, brackish, alkaline or saline lakes, lagoons (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Johnsgard 1993), marshes (del Hoyo et al. 1992), broad rivers (Johnsgard 1993), deltas (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Johnsgard 1993), estuaries and coasts of landlocked seas (Snow and Perrins 1998). The species requires secure areas (Johnsgard 1993, Snow and Perrins 1998) of extensive reedbeds (del Hoyo et al. 1992), wet swamps, mudflats and sandbanks (Nelson 2005) or gravel and rocky substrates (del Hoyo et al. 1992, Johnsgard 1993, Snow and Perrins 1998) for nesting on. Diet The species is entirely piscivorous, preferentially taking fish of between 300 and 600 g in weight (del Hoyo et al. 1992). Breeding site It nests on the ground either on a pile of sticks and vegetation (del Hoyo et al. 1992) or in a simple shallow scrape (Nelson 2005) in single- or mixed-species colonies (e.g. with Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus) (Flint et al. 1984), with a distance between neighbouring nests of c.70-80 cm (Nelson 2005). It shows a preference for nesting sites that are inaccessible to ground predators (Brown et al. 1982). Management information In the Palearctic Region the installation of floating rafts or wooden platforms as safe nesting sites, and the stabilisation of natural nesting areas by reconstructing islands or installing nylon-encased concrete revetments have been successful measures for increasing breeding success (Crivelli et al. 1991). Erecting markers on electricity powerlines or (preferably) burying the powerlines has been successful in significantly reducing deaths due to collision (Crivelli et al. 1991). Installing a series of horizontal strings spaced at intervals over aquaculture ponds is also a successful measure in preventing the species from depredating farmed fish (Crivelli et al. 1991)..


Draining of wetland sites and divergence of rivers to provide irrigation for agriculture has caused declines in populations across the Palearctic and parts of Africa. This has been shown to be responsible for declines in many colonies throughout the species's range (Crivelli et al. 1991, Johnsgard 1993, Nelson 2005, Elliott et al. 2018).

Pollution from multiple sources threaten this species; the use of DDT in large parts of Africa (especially Ethiopia) to control mosquitos carrying Malaria causes Pelican eggs to thin, leading to reduced breeding success, and potentially toxic overdoses in adults. Additionally, PCBs originating from industrial paints and machinery parts pose a threat (both at present and in the past) in the Middle East and Northern Africa in particular. The species is also affected by high levels of agricultural pollutants entering the freshwater systems which the species is reliant on during the breeding season. Pollutants accumulate in adult birds following feeding on fish laden with the pollutants. Currently this threat does not appear to be causing colonies to collapse but it is likely to have many sub-lethal effects that will prevent the species from expanding and may make it less well-equipped to adapt to future threats (Crivelli et al. 1991, Yohannes 2014, du Toit et al. 2002).

The species is targeted for food in Egypt (Elliott et al. 2018), for sport in parts of Southern and Eastern Europe, persecuted as a pest because of its (minimal) depredation of fish from fish-farms (Crivelli et al. 1991, Elliott et al. 2018) and for use in traditional medicine across Africa (Crivelli et al. 1991). The true extent and impact of this widespread threat is not accurately known, however it is thought to be significant in exacerbating declines in some colonies and may be preventing expansion in others.

Disturbance from recent increases in ornithological tourism has previously been responsible for the abandonment of some colonies and today persists as a threat to colonies in central and southern Africa. Whether this is currently also active as a threat in Palearctic colonies is less well studied (Crivelli et al. 1991).

Varying water levels caused by climatic fluctuations can pose a threat through inundation of nesting sites during high water levels and salinisation and fish mortality during low water levels (Crivelli 1994, Elliott et al. 2018). The species also suffers some mortality due to collisions with electric powerlines during migration, dispersal or on its wintering grounds and is often found drowned in fishing nets (Crivelli et al. 1991). Proliferation of wind farms could pose a further hazard (Hilgerloh et al. 2011), particularly in South Africa (Jenkins et al., 2018).

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
The species is listed under Appendix I of the Convention on Migratory Species; Appendix II of the Bern Convention; Annex I of the Birds Directive. In its European range it occurs within 43 Important Bird Areas. In the EU it is listed within 108 Special Protection Areas. 

Conservation Actions Proposed
The following information refers to the species's European range only: Monitoring and review of water management practices in key habitats. Protection of breeding and feeding sites. Enforcement and monitoring of persecution, including educational programmes to reduce this threat. Monitoring of heavy metal and pesticide levels, and improved management of water bodies to reduce contaminant loads.


Text account compilers
Clark, J.

Ashpole, J, Butchart, S., Ekstrom, J., Fjagesund, T., Malpas, L. & Martin, R.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Pelecanus onocrotalus. Downloaded from on 31/03/2023. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2023) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 31/03/2023.