Rhodopes Mountain - opportunities for trans-border collaboration for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development
For over 50 years the border strip between Bulgaria and Greece was a forbidden area for people. This to a certain extent has contributed for preserving the nature in this particular territory. Nowadays this region is a part of the European Green Belt and gives opportunity for sustainable development of the frontier area combined with the nature conservation. The Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation has a sufficient and long-term experience in declaration and management of protected territories in the region of the Green Belt. These areas are an important precondition for ecotourism development as well as provide opportunities for trans-border collaboration and sustainable development.
A 20 km wide “belt”, which is situated along the border between Bulgaria and Greece, has been a forbidden area for people for more than 50 years. The borders between socialistic and a capitalistic country were strictly protected by minefields and barbed-wired enclosures. Furthermore, this frontier encloses the areas that are rich in biodiversity and difficult to access, which leads to slight human impact. Therefore it is not a surprise that in these border areas there are well preserved old-growth forests, as well as some of the steadiest population of species, which are vulnerable to human activities, such as the brown bear and wood-grouse Capercallie.
At the end of 1989, together with the falling of the “Iron Curtain” a gradual clearance of the borders from the barbed wires and the minefields begins. It is obvious that these regions have changed into valuable refuge for many threatened with extinction animal and plant species. In the course of almost 50 years nature resources of the border areas, which extend from Scandinavia to the Black sea and situated between the political systems of the West and the East, are hardly used by humans. This is similar to many regions which are used only by the militarizes.
With an investigation for Robert Bruner, making a research about the most important trans-border protected areas assigned by the European Council, arrives at the conclusion that the regions of the Iron Curtain are in fact of a great importance and with high conservation value. A green belt that is stretched form the Arctic Ocean to the Black sea could become an ecological spine of Europe. In the meantime the European green belt is also a symbol of the union between the East and the West - for the trans-border collaboration towards the preservation of nature and sustainable development. The European Green Belt unites the people regardless of the borders and shows that the united Europe has not only cultural but also natural heritage.
The European Green Belt is the only one of its kind ecological corridor which is 6800 km long and is located along the borders of the 22 countries from the ex Iron Curtain between East and West Europe. Therefore, one of the biggest environmental organisation in the world (IUCN) starts the initiative European Green Belt. A number of governments, nongovernmental organisations and business representatives stand behind the great idea which aims at the conservation of the valuable territories and stimulation of sustainable development in the border areas.
The Bulgarian-Swiss Biodiversity Conservation Program (BSBCP) starts in 1994 as an intergovernmental initiative for procurement and execution of the Swiss help for nature conservation in Bulgaria. Management Council included members of the Swiss Confederation, the Ministry of Environment and Water of Bulgaria, as well as Swiss and Bulgarian conservation organisations. One of the main tasks for BSBCP (nowadays Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation) was to contribute for the development of the national network of protected areas and their efficient management. Over 15 protected territories were established with our support. We also helped the elaboration of management plans for some of the most valuable protected areas (Pirin National Park, Strandja Nature Park, Durankulasko Lake Protected Site, Shablensko Lake Protected Site, Atanasovsko Lake Reserve etc.).
From the very beginning of the Foundation’s formation, the Eastern Rhodopes has been a prime work region. National Biodiversity strategy evaluates it as one of the richest in biodiversity and less studied Bulgarian territories.
In 1994 BSBCP started to finance large scale biodiversity studies in the Eastern Rhodopes.
As a result of this, by the end of 2002, 12 new protected areas were proposed and declared – most of them located in the very heart of the Rhodopes Mountains. Most of the Bulgarian populations of Griffon and Egyptian vultures, as well as Black storks inhabit this area. BSBCP supported the construction of the Nature Information and Conservation Centre Eastern Rhodopes(NICCER) of Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds in Madjarovo in order to protection of those species and providing opportunities for sustainable development of the region. Nowadays the Arda valley and its protected areas are one of most popular destinations for ecotourism in Bulgaria. More than 2000 people visited and spent the night in NICCER in Madjarovo in 2006. The incomes from the tourists represent a sizable part for the municipality’s economy.
Fifteen years ago at Bulgarian South border with Greece there were 68 minefields along 71km line. Their removal began in 1992. However, due to the lack of funds merely 10% of the mines in this region were cleared by Mart 1998. After that the clearance accelerates and all the mines are neutralised by 31st of October 1999. Thereupon, BBF initiated scientific studies in the area of the hills Myglenik and Giumiurdjinski snejnik. A year later the hill Myglenik was proposed to be included in the future Nature park East Rhodopes and to be designated a protected site in the region of the hill Giumiurdjinski snejnik.
Due to the cooperation of BBF with the local communities, the structures of National Forest Board and the MoEW the area of Guimuirdjinski snejnik was declared as a protected site in 2003. Its total area is 1926,40 ha. Its goal is to preserve the last remained mixed old-growth forests of beech, fir and mountain sycamore in East Rhodopes, as well as habitats of threatened with extinction plant and animal species. The Giumiurdjinski snejnik is the furthest eastern distribution of Rhodopian Lilly. A part of the century old mixed woods have never been used. They keep a unique tree diversity and some places with Yew (Taxus baccata) and Holly (Ilex aquifolium) . Not long ago the natural character of the region attracted brown bears, which disappeared after the construction of the wind parks close to the Greek border in the neighboring hill Myglenik.
The protected area “Giumiurdjinski snejnik” is managed and guarded by the Forestry District Kirkovo. The profound studies, the fully evaluation of the biodiversity in the century old forests and treeless zone, as well as the elaboration of a Management plan are of the most important priorities. The protected territory touches the Greek Natura 2000 place GR1130012. The BBF studies in the area were used from Balkan Wildlife Society in order to determinate the borders of the protected zone East Rhodopes BG0001032.
In that way for the period of 9 years (1994-2003), the area of the protected territories in Eastern Rhodopes increased five times and reached 8478, 26 hectares in the end of year 2003.
Fig. 1 Map of the protected areas in Eastern Rhodopes.
During the period 2005-2007 BBF organised studies in the border areas of the Middle and West Rhodopes in the region of Myglenik hill to Trigrad with the aim to propose protected zones and territories. Our team found a couple of regions with century old woods and preserved nature which are inhabited by vital populations of brown bear, capercaillies , white-backed woodpecker, Rhodopean lilyand other rare and endemic plants and animals species. As a result 5 new protected territories were proposed for declaration and our documentation was used from Balkan Wildlife Society in specifying the borders of the Bulgarian Natura 2000 areas Cigansko gradishte BG0000372 and the West Rhodopes BG0001030.
The protected site “Dolen” is proposed for preserving century old oak forest. Although the area is below 100 ha, it is a unique territory considering the fact that some of the trees are at age over 130 years. The century old wood attracts several couples black woodpeckers, which is one of the favorite bird for observation to the tourist birdwatchers. The proposed protected area is located between village of Dolen and Zlatograd and it is also really appropriate for ecotourism.
The protected site “Marzian” is proposed with the purpose of conservation of the beech forests which are suitable habitats for capercaillie and brown bear. It will protect also the watersheds which ensure the drinking waters for the municipalities of Rudozem and Madan. This is the location of the most eastward population of the capercaillie on the Balkans. This population is unique also due to the fact that it inhabits beech forests. The proposedprotected site is spread at length over 10 km along the border with Greece. It borders with the Greek National Rhodopes Park in the south. At the region of the border line there are habitats of Rhodopean lily and other rare plant species. Both capercallies and brown bears inhabit the spit of land close to the frontier line and cross the border several times a day.
The protected area “Cigansko gradishte” is proposed in order to protect an old growth beech forest, the woodless zone, the populations and habitats of brown bears and capercaillies. Couples of bears inhabit the region of the boundary line and daily cross it. In the past the adjoining Greek rock formations were inhabited by Chamois. Nowadays, they appear periodically. Unfortunately, they are quickly shot at by Greek and Bulgarian poachers. Several habitats of capercaillies have been destroyed during timber harvesting activities. Therefore, one of the main goals of the future protected area would be the conservation of the capercaillie’s population which inhabits the beech forests. The protected area borders with the Greek National Rhodopes Park and with the Natura 2000 place GR1120003 that is included in it. In the woodless zone there are peat swamps and Rhodopean lily.
A rock hill - “Kozite skali”, located10 km north from the border and close to Rudozem, was proposed as Natural Monument. In the past those rocks have been inhabited by Chamois. The Natural Monument is small (about 300 ha) but it is extremelyinteresting because it would conserve not only the rock complexes but also one of the last preserved old-growth oak and beech forests in the region. In the future it could be an appropriate location for the recovery of the Chamois. A couple of black storks is been observed and it is presumed that it nests on the rock formation.
Our last proposal is the protected area “Gerzovica” which includes the homonymous area of the region of Smolyan to the village of Kesten as well as the region of Devin. It supplements from the North the Greek National Rhodopes Park and the included in it sites from Natura 2000 - GR1140001 and GR1140007. This particular territory is proposed with the purpose of conserving the habitats of trans-border populations of capercaillies, brown bears and Chamois. In 2007 a several small peat swamps were discovered precisely at the border. They would be studied during 2008. There is a great probability for these swamps to be proved to be a new type of habitat “Active raised bogs”- unknown till now in Bulgaria.
Fig. 2 Indicative map that consists three new proposed protected areas –Tzigansko gradishte Protected site, Marzian Protected site and Kozi skali Natural Monument.
A great number of the animals that inhabits these protected areas cross the border every day. The griffon vultures which nests along the valley of Arda river, regularly fly over to the National Dadia Forest Park in Greece and the GR11300012 site of Natura 2000. The colonies from the two countries are connected together and some pairs regularly nest one year in Greece, next year in Bulgaria. The only colony of Black Vultures inhabits the National Park Dadia Forest but the birds regularly seek for food and spend the night in Bulgaria.
One of the most stable populations of the capercaillie, brown bear and the Chamois are along the border line. Unfortunately, during the last years the poaching in some areas increase. A typical example is the regular illegal hunting by Bulgarian hunters for Chamois in the Greek National Rhodopes Park. The solution of this problem and as a whole the conservation of the biodiversity in the region would be impossible without the radical improvement of the trans-border collaboration.
These territories are important for long term protection of a number of rare and endemic species both in Bulgaria and Greece. The region has a great potential for the development of ecotourism. We have already been working with the tour operators for sustainable tourism development and more precisely for observation of bears, Chamois and capercaillies. With that purpose BBF organises promotion of the alternative tourism among the local communities and works towards building connections between local ecotourism suppliers and travel agencies.
With Bulgaria’s joining to Schengen after 2 years, a great number of direct tourist tours would be made between Bulgarian and Greek protected areas.
We hope that during the future 5 years will be established several trans-border protected areas in the region. They will guarantee the conservation of the unique nature of the Green belt and would contribute to the local sustainable development on the both sides of the boundary line.
Stoichev S., A. Petrova. 2003. Protected territories in East Rhodopes and Sakar Mountain, BSPB, page 48.
Kostadinova, I., M. Gramatikov. 2007. Ornithological important areas in Bulgaria and Natura 2000. BSPB, Sofia, page 644.
Beron P., Popov A. (eds). Biodiversity of Bulgaria. 2. Biodiversity of Eastern Rhodopes (Bulgaria and Greece). Pensoft & Nat. Mus. Natur. Hist., Sofia, 951 p.
Beron P. (ed) Biodiversity of Bulgaria. 3. Biodiversity of Western Rhodopes (Bulgaria and Greece) I. Pensoft & Nat. Mus. Natur. Hist., Sofia, 974 p.
Fig. 3 Map of the Bulgarian and Greek Natura 2000 sites