Threats to the Natural Environment
Threats to the Carpathian Ecoregion, especially in terms of infrastructure and transport development, illegal and unsustainable logging, intensification of agriculture and habitat degradation and fragmentation have an unprecedented potential to exacerbate biodiversity loss over the next few years if conservation efforts cannot be proven to successfully provide protection to the natural ecosystems already intact. An analysis of the major threats is included below.
Unsustainable logging: The Carpathian forests, particularly the old-growth forests and the forest in the lowlands such as floodplain forest, are being cleared at an alarming rate. In order to get a short-term gain from the forest, exacerbated by the ongoing processes of land restitution, many forest owners or illegal loggers are reducing the quantity and quality of the forest in the Carpathians. Illegal logging has become a profitable business and is common in the Carpathians partly due to very poor forest governance systems. The new European Union Timber Regulation helps to stem illegal logging, as only timber with clearly tracked-back origin can be placed on the European market.
Species loss: Many game species including Brown Bear are over-hunted. Science-based management is rare in the Carpathians and as such hunting quotas are often too high leading to rapid reductions in the population. Human-wildlife conflicts are often the cause of a loss of species, such as the bear, wolf and lynx. Illegal hunting in addition to poorly managed legal hunting and habitat fragmentation will eventually lead to the extirpation of the large carnivores in the Carpathians.
Major threats include habitat loss, connected with development encroaching up the mountain valleys, and forestry practices which involve clear-cuts and the planting of spruce monocultures. Habitat fragmentation, due to increasing density and development of the road and railway system, seems to be the main obstacle to gene exchange between populations; locally, poaching is also a problem for many species.
Threats to Carpathian bird species come mainly from habitat destruction and forest management practices, which have a particular impact on species sensitive to disturbances such as Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and some eagles or species dependent on old growth forests such as the White-backed woodpecker. ‘Bird crime’, including nest robbery by falconers is also very significant in some areas for birds of prey. Data available on nest robbery since 1965 in the Slovak Republic show that almost 1,000 chicks were stolen from nests by falconers during this period. However, measures can be implemented to counteract this, guarding of nests by volunteers since 1990 resulted in decrease of stolen chicks and eggs by 70%. Top predators, such as birds of prey, are especially vulnerable to the effects of pollution as certain pollutants are accumulated and passed through the food chain. Larger bird species are also threatened by electricity poles, which annually result in the death of thousands of birds.
The most important and urgent requirement for the protection and sustainable management of endangered species is the introduction of an information exchange and monitoring system for all the countries of the region, which could provide the basis of a joint conservation action plan. Amongst other effects, this would harmonize the legal status of particular species (currently often subject to completely different legislation in neighbouring countries), and impose a united approach to their protection and management over the whole home range of a population, irrespective of administrative borders.
Habitat destruction from changing land use: The Carpathians are rich in a diverse set of habitats based on the limited population pressure and the less intensive natural resource management systems such as agriculture. The persistence of low intensity, traditional agricultural practices in the Carpathians makes the region the last bastion of many semi-natural grasslands that have vanished from most of Europe. With increasing intensification of agriculture and land abandonment in many of the remote, rural villages, these nature-rich systems are not being maintained and severe levels of biodiversity loss are underway.
Whilst the extensive pastoral culture which supports these semi-natural grassland habitats is still a vital part of life in Ukraine and Romania, changing lifestyles pose a threat to their future in the Western Carpathians. A reduction in agricultural subsidies, increasing economic costs and the transfer to a market economy has caused the abandonment of less productive or barely accessible grasslands. As a result, a trend towards forest communities is occurring and the majority of this unique ecosystem is being degraded. A lack of local interest in managing the land and additional intense pressure from the state forestry administration for large-scale afforestation of meadows means that the open landscapes of the Western Carpathians are quickly disappearing.
Habitat fragmentation and destruction from infrastructure development: Attempts to promote rapid economic development has led to poorly planned and inappropriate infrastructure development such as roads and ski developments in and through protected areas. Habitats are being torn up and fragmented by rapid growth in infrastructure development across the Carpathians. After many years of economic neglect, investment has been welcomed, but the relevant planning authorities and decision-makers lack the awareness and understanding as well as relevant skills and tools to seek sustainable solutions to infrastructure development and nature and resource conservation.
Destruction of freshwater habitats from river regulation and flood control: The Carpathian region is remarkably rich in relatively intact river systems, brimming with life and providing drinking water to millions of people in southeast Europe. However, with the destruction of natural habitats and the growth of housing development in appropriate areas rivers have become the focus of the regulation and control work. This is ongoing and rampant throughout the region despite a growing understanding of the role of natural ecosystems in the provision of drinking water, flood control, recreation and waste water treatment.
The root causes of threats to the Carpathians Ecoregion are mainly related to socio-economic changes in the region and are as follows:
Inappropriate rural development: The region contains one of the biggest areas of highly diverse semi-natural habitat and high-nature value farming systems in Europe, which is associated with more traditional, less intensive forms of production. These sustainable economic practices are threatened by abandonment in the highlands and intensification in the lowlands, which could mean the loss of an irreparable cultural heritage and lifestyle.
Lack of financial and technical support: Forest protection measures are often inadequate because of weak legislative frameworks and/or enforcement of existing legislation in the region. The lack of financial resources for the enforcement of existing legislation leads to corruption, illegal logging and the inability to tackle cultural issues. In many cases, the state forest governance should be significantly improved.
Land restitution and privatization: Land privatization and restitution are also resulting in activities that maximize short-term gain above all else – for example, the increased cropping of unstable slopes that exacerbates erosion, or the clearing of small privately owned forests. Forest restitution also brings new actors to the scene of forestry – owners and administrators – who need to learn and implement sustainable forest management practices. Unsustainable tourism represents both a significant challenge to the biodiversity of the Carpathians, as well as an important opportunity for rural development for the region. Increased sustainable tourism in mountain areas is now considered as presenting significant potential for benefits to both rural environments and economies in the future. However, if not properly planned and developed, tourism will continue to represent a real threat through over-development of certain areas, and by opening up access to natural areas that should be preserved for nature.
Short-term economic gain: The poverty suffered in the region and the opportunities of the capital and market opportunities has led to a rush for short-term economic gain through inappropriate development, emigration and rapid exploitation of the natural resources of the region. Corruption and poor governance have greatly facilitated and accelerated this process. Longer-term economic and social strategies are struggling to survive and predominate in this environment. As a result, protected areas have suffered throughout the Carpathians.