On the forested flanks of the Snježnik massif in Risnjak National Park, it’s possible—if serendipity is on your side—to spy brown bears foraging amid the trees, to spot a lonely lynx prowling across the rocks and hear wild wolves howling.
You could be in a corner of Canada, but you’re not. This is slap bang in the centre of southern Europe, where non-human apex predators were violently vanquished centuries ago. Or so we all thought.
Welcome to Croatia: a recently reborn nation where conservation has defied conflict to defend a degree of biodiversity almost unmatched on this crowded and concrete-covered continent.
Between the warm waves of the Adriatic Sea and the snow-dusted peaks of the Dinaric Alps, an astonishing array of animal species can be found. Dolphins, loggerhead turtles and predatory sharks populate the water between the islands that bejewel Croatia’s coast, vultures and eagles patrol the skies above the peaks, fire salamanders and nose-horned vipers live in logs and between the gaps in the stones walls, and in the catacombs beneath the Devil’s Garden, the larvae of dragons dwell.
This is Europe as you’ve never see it before. And it is awesome.
This is a young nation with an old heart and a long history. Croatian culture and national identity reaches right back to medieval times, but the modern republic was created only in 1991, when it declared independence and detached from the rapidly collapsing Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the disintegration of which was ripping the region asunder. Four years of vicious warfare followed, with horrific results for humans and wildlife alike.
The borders of the crescent-shaped country that emerged from the conflict encircle a range of diverse biogeographic regions, from the hills and vineyards of the Pannonian plains, across the karst plateaus and peaks of the Dinaric Alps in the mountain belt, to the spellbinding Adriatic seaboard.
Over a thousand islands punctuate the country’s cracking coastline, which stretches from the Istrian Peninsula in the north, through the Croatian littoral and along the Dalmatian Coast, right down to Dubrovnik in the south.
The vast majority of these islands are uninhabited—by humans at least—but they are home to an incredible array of birds and marine mammals, including the highly endangered Mediterranean monk seal. The global population of this enigmatic animal, also known as the sea bear, is estimated to be as low as 700, but sightings at Gortan Bay, Kamenjak Cape and Cres Island have raised hopes that it’s staging a comeback in Croatia’s wild Adriatic aquarium.
Three species of dolphin have been recorded along this coast, with bottlenose by far the most common, especially around the island of Lošinj; sightings of striped and Risso’s dolphins are more rare, but even ocean-roaming leviathans such as fin whales are occasional visitors. A Sea Turtle Rescue Centre was opened by the Blue World Institute of Marine Research and Conservation in Mali Lošinj in 2013, primarily to look after the large loggerhead turtles that call the Adriatic home.
Snorkellers and divers soon discover that the water is alive with over 360 varieties of fish, among them various species of shark, including smooth hammerheads, blue sharks and behemoth basking sharks, which can reach eight metres. And then there’s the great white.
Shark attacks are rare in Croatian waters, but they have occurred, sometimes with fatal consequences. The last recorded shark-related death was in 1974 (a year that saw two such fatalities), but in 2008 a spearfisherman survived a munching off the island of Vis. Tooth fragments from the victim’s wounds confirmed that his assailant was a great white shark. The presence of these animals in the Adriatic and Mediterranean has long been debated, but it now seems beyond doubt that they are here, albeit in small numbers, possibly using the calm warm waters as a birthing ground and nursery.
The Shark Conservation Society conducted a series of three Adriatic expeditions between 2005 and 2009, which led to the great white shark being granted protection in Croatian waters. They also proved that blue sharks have a pupping ground in the Kornati archipelago, off Dugi Otok and Mana.
These deserted isles, also home to some 69 species of butterflies, are part of the Nacionalni Park Kornati, which encompasses 109 mostly minute and amusingly monikered islands. Seventy six of them are less than 1 hectare in size, and several have bawdy names such as Kurba Vela (Croatian for Big Prostitute) and Babina Guzica (Grandma’s Buttocks), bequeathed thanks to cheeky suggestions made by local guides who led the non Croatian–speaking Austrian surveyors who mapped and recorded the archipelago at the end of the 19th century.
The quality of the Croatian coast is well known to clued-up travellers, but behind the tourist towel there’s plenty of conservation going on too. In a region where rapacious levels of commercial fishing have severely depleted sealife, Croatia maintains many marine parks (MPAs) that strive to protect the country’s sensational subaquatic environment and its kaleidoscopic collection of smaller animals, which range from the common octopus to the spiny and short-snouted seahorse.
Besides Kornati, these MPAs include Brijuni National Park, Mljet National Park,
Lastovo Archipelago Nature Park and the stunning Telašçica Nature Park, all of which are working with the World Wildlife Fund on a project to improve the level of protection they provide for Croatia’s sea creatures.
On terra firma, the focus on conservation continues. With 444 protected areas in total, covering almost 10 per cent of the country, Croatia has eight national parks, two strict reserves and 11 natural parks, where magnificent species, long since eradicated from the rest of Europe, can still be found clinging to existence. This is, in part, thanks to terrain and topography, but the intense concentration of the human population in major towns and cities also plays a role, leaving the countryside to go about its business undisturbed.
As a result, twitchers describe Croatia as an ornithological oasis. The country’s raptors include sea eagles—which narrowly avoided oblivion last century to stage a spectacular comeback—the endangered imperial eagle (once the symbol of the Roman Empire), and even a few pairs of golden eagles, living at the southern limit of their stomping ground.
The most famous bird of prey here, though, is the griffon vulture. With a terrific wingspan of up to 2.8 metres, this mighty bird can be seen soaring through the skies and standing sentinel on the rocks of Cres, an island with over 70 breeding pairs, plus a rehabilitation centre for the threatened species.
Another iconic avian image from Croatia is formed by white storks occupying their immense nests on rooftops in Čigoć, Posavina—recently proclaimed as the First European Village of Storks—where the elegant white birds outnumber human inhabitants by 200 to 120.
The floodplains within Kopački Rit Nature Park, drenched by the Danube and Drava rivers and sometimes referred to as the European Amazon, are among the world’s biggest and most important wetlands, providing perfect feeding and nesting conditions for 260 bird species.
The immense marshes and drowned oak forest of Lonjsko Polje, along the river Sava, present another spectacular spot for birders. Close to Zagreb, the binocular brigade can enjoy endless field days on the Crna Mlaka ‘Fishponds’, identifying a further 230 species of water birds. And in Dalmatia, Lake Vransko Nature Park boasts the country’s biggest lake, an untouched natural habitat for birds, where locals include black-crowned night-herons and European bee-eaters—vividly coloured specialist hunters that carefully remove the sting from their prey before gobbling them, and who are capable of chomping 250 bees a day.
But it’s the mountains that contain the greatest surprises. Brown bears inhabit the foothills and forests of the largest range, around Velebit Mountain (currently on UNESCO’s Tentative List for possible inclusion on the World Heritage List) in the Northern Velebit and Paklenica national parks. Here the bear presides over a biosphere that boasts wolves, wild boar, lynx, roe deer, several species of eagle and the endangered and frankly freaky-looking long-fingered bat. This range is also home to a herd of severely threatened Bosnian mountain horses, a wild equine species descended from the extinct tarpan.
The Eurasian lynx—Europe’s only big cat, a formidable assassin that grows up to a metre in length, can weigh 35kg and is capable of bringing down and killing prey up to four times bigger than itself—is also found in rugged Risnjak National Park. In fact, ‘Ris’ is the Croatian word for lynx, but the eponymous feline very nearly disappeared from its own park during the 1970s, before the population recovered.
Croatia’s original protected wilderness area remains its most famous. The stunning, UNESCO World Heritage–listed Plitvice Lakes National Park centres around 16 exquisite hanging lakes, linked by iridescent and ephemeral cascades. Bears, wolves and lynx all roam wild through the beech, fir and spruce forests here, beneath a three-pronged ridge dominated by 889m Oštri Medveđak (named after the bear, which in Croatian is ‘medvjed’).
This spellbinding wonderland, once incongruously known as the Devil’s Garden (Vražji vrt), sits directly above a mysterious underworld formed by a submerged catacomb of karst caves, ruled over by a ghostly amphibian called the olm, sometimes called the ‘human fish’ by locals because of its skin colour and texture, which was once believed to be the infant form of dragons. This curious creature, a type of salamander that can live up to 50 years, is the subject of a risky cave-diving conservation project.
Plitvice is a picturesque place, but there’s great sadness here too. The first deaths during the Croatian War of Independence happened here, and Serbian forces occupied the park during the fighting, when all semblance of wildlife protection disappeared. Mines were laid, bears and other animals were hunted and dynamite was used for fishing. Many of the birds that lived here prior to the conflict have still not returned to fill the forests with their song.
When the war was over, Croatia was covered in unexploded mines and other potentially lethal ordinance. Because Plitvice was so important to the economy of the country, the national park was cleared of such dangers as a priority.
But around 1.5 million landmines were planted during the four-year conflict and an estimated 46,317 unexploded mines remain unaccounted for around the country (in signed areas), posing a massive danger to people and wildlife. One possible solution to this problem is extraordinary, revealing the levels of ingenuity our species is capable of when we’re not intent on killing one another, and when we’re open to working with more sensitive members of the animal kingdom.
Experts are currently training bees, which have a highly developed sense of smell, to sniff out TNT. Once they’ve graduated from bomb disposal school, the bees will alert teams to the location of unexplained mines. Genius. So long as the bee-eaters don’t get them first…
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