Croatia’s Critical Role in Protecting European Biodiversity

June 23, 2020
Conservation

Croatia protects more endemic species than almost any other country in Europe. Its mountainous karst region and the fragmented archipelagos of the Adriatic Sea are home to thousands of species rarely found elsewhere in Europe.

In fact, over 35% of Croatia’s territory is covered in dense forests, habitats for bears, lynx, wolves, and other endangered species. A new species of river fish was discovered as recently as 2005, suggesting Croatia’s natural areas hold much more diversity than we grasp.

There are several climatic and cultural reasons why Croatia is a European conservation darling. Croatia was only minimally affected by glaciation, perhaps enabling species to survive and breed as they died out in other areas of Europe. Furthermore, Croatia’s limestone mountains in the karst and thousands of Adriatic Islands create isolated ecosystems that are conducive to endemism. Finally, the mild Mediterranean climate makes Croatia a hospitable area to many species (and a lovely place to visit!).

As the youngest member of the EU, Croatia still maintains agricultural traditions that have protected its biodiversity through the 20th and 21st centuries. Today, this heritage is interwoven with Europe’s Natura 2000 initiatives to protect the 38,000+ species that call Croatia home. Still, many thousands of species in Croatia are considered threatened or endangered by the IUCN

Here is how Croatia sustainably manages its rich wildlife areas today.

1. Aiming to bring 50% of territory under protection.

Today, 38% of Croatia’s territory (and 15% of its sea) is under formal protection by the Croatian government and the European Union. This percentage is on the high end for Europe; for example, Germany and the UK both hover around 35%, while Italy lags at 11%.

Croatia is working with nonprofit Nature Needs Half to bring additional areas under protection, as well as signing an agreement in 2017 to improve the management of all 11 national parks under the EU’s Natura 2000 guidelines. Natura 2000 is the largest network of protected areas in the world, covering 18% of the territory of the EU!

Croatia has demonstrated remarkable commitment to this network, investing €24.4M into the project to protect 260 endangered species across 70 habitats.

2. Tourism helps fund conservation – but there’s still work to be done.

Around one-quarter of visitors to Croatia visit one of its Natura 2000 protected areas, which cover over one-third of the country’s territory. Perhaps this statistic will be unsurprising if you Google “Croatia National Parks” and glimpse a few shots of Krka National Park or islands in the Adriatic Sea.

In a nutshell, Croatia is blessed with spectacular natural beauty, which has become a strong economic asset for tourism – an argument against continued deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural expansion.

However, despite the positive economic impact of millions of tourists visiting these beautiful areas each year, Croatia is still working hard to redistribute visitors to prevent overcrowding and destruction of its natural areas. Furthermore, less popular tourist attractions do not signal lesser ecological importance; tourism today spreads income unequally between different protected areas, leaving some sites vulnerable.

Even the extremely popular and photogenic Krka National Park had its boundaries revised inward several times since it was established in 1971. Pressures from expanding populations and decreasing income from agriculture continue to threaten Croatia’s protected areas, despite public and private conservation efforts.

Note: We work at the Puljane Research Centre and Silba Island Marine Centre to spread pressures and income from ecotourism into wildlife protection projects outside of main tourism hotspots.

3. Participating in innovative funding schemes for conservation.

While Croatia is still in early stages of recognizing and taking advantage of its local biodiversity and resulting ecosystem services, the country is well-placed to lead conservation dialogue within Europe.

As one of the region’s most biodiverse countries (especially in terms of plant diversity!), Croatia the first recipient of a €15M investment from the European Investment Bank and European Commission to preserve biodiversity and improve resilience to climate change. This funding comes alongside a dedicated technical assistance program to help the Croatian Bank for Reconstruction and Development (HBOR) identify and implement natural capital projects with the greatest impact. Specifically, this funding will mostly benefit private businesses working in sustainable agriculture and tourism.

Croatia is a regional conservation leader, protecting more of its territory than almost any other country in Europe. While some of its protected areas remain vulnerable to pressures for economic development, Croatia continues to innovate and find new ways to make conservation not only financially viable, but also profitable for the country and the European Union.

To get involved directly in Croatia’s innovative conservation efforts, you can join one of our internships in the Krka Valley or on Silba Island!

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