European Countries Protect Diverse River Ecosystem

white tailed eagle-Danube-Mura-Drava-conservationIn a historic move for habitat restoration, five countries in Eastern Europe have come together to protect one of the largest and most ecologically important intact ecosystems on the continent.  On Friday official representatives from Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Slovenia, and Serbia signed a declaration that marks the first step toward protecting a riverine are which provides habitat for migrating waterfowl, white-tailed eagles, and other vulnerable wildlife.  If the effort is successful, it will be the first time five countries have come together to create a single nature reserve that spans all of their boundaries.

The new reserve will cover an area of about 800,000 hectares (a hectare is a little less than two and a half acres).  It includes long stretches of the Danube, Mura, and Drava rivers, as well as wetlands that provide flood protection and a steady supply of drinking water for people in the surrounding area.  The region is considered a biological hotspot because of the diversity of plants and animals it supports, which include endangered species like the black stork, little tern, and sturgeon.  It is also an important breeding ground for the white-tailed eagle, a large European relative of the North American bald eagle. 

Each year over 250,000 ducks, geese, and other waterfowl use the three-river area for a feeding ground while travelling their annual migration route.  Because of large number of birds, mammals, fish, and other organisms that depend on the area for survival, conservationists have referred to it as “Europe’s Amazon.”  Healthy river shorelines and wetlands support some of the largest numbers of species of any ecosystem outside of the tropics. 

Environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are hopeful the five-country declaration will lead to permanent protections for the Danube, Mura, and Drava rivers.  The announcement follows an earlier agreement between Croatia and Hungary signed in 2009, which these two countries launched to protect river ecosystems along their shared borders.  Expanding conservation talks to include Austria, Serbia, and Slovenia is a way to build on the success of that earlier agreement, and ensure protection of a still larger area.

Like many habitats rivers, wetlands, and shoreline have been subjected to centuries of pressure from human activities, which range from damming rivers to provide power, to draining wetlands to make room for crops.  In the last several decades pollution from industry and an increase in energy demand has made the challenge of preserving freshwater habitats even greater.  Conservationists estimate 80% of the wetlands that originally lined the Danube River have already been lost to development, while fish like the beluga sturgeon find their migration routes cut off by large dams.  This history of use and abuse makes current conservation efforts all the more important.

In fact, thanks to environmental restoration work the last two decades have seen rivers like the Danube gradually start to recover.  Industrial pollution in the rivers of Eastern Europe reached its peak when these countries were controlled by the Soviet Union.  After the collapse of Soviet Communism in the late 1980s, the economic depression that followed inadvertently contributed to healthier rivers.  Though East European economies have begun to grow again since then, many new governments are much more concerned with environmental protections than was the Soviet Union. 

Along with reducing pollution, establishing protected areas along river shorelines and wetlands is a crucial step toward ensuring a future for wildlife.  It’s also a way to make sure that densely populated European countries retain access to drinkable water and that flood damage along rivers is minimized.  Friday’s conservation announcement is especially important, because it paves the way for multiple countries to work together toward restoring their shared natural ecosystems.

Photo source: Englishpointers

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