The new wave of plant protectionists in the Balkans

Team members from EnvPro and E-grupa © Mihailo Jovićević

At 1,700 meters above sea level, on a jagged limestone ridge often used by alpinists for training, a group of young researchers cling to tufts of grass and sharp rocks as they climb straight down the steep slope of Mount Orjen, which spans the border between Montenegro and Montenegro Bosnia and Herzegovina. What brings you here, without ropes, a misguided step from falling into danger? In a word: plants. In practice, they perform a transect, gather population, habitat and threat data, and collect vital seeds. But the reason they are here: pure passion and enthusiasm for nature conservation.

This is the new wave of plant protectors in the Mediterranean and especially in the Balkans. Stereotypically, the study of plants has been viewed as a niche domain of aging bearded botanists with an emphasis on scientific research and natural history. While such a botanist can be found on a steep mountain slope, there is a new generation of plant experts who are using research as a tool for conservation. Driven by local NGOs such as EnvPro and E-grupa on Mount Orjen, they will do everything possible to protect endangered endemic plants.

With many coming straight from university, it is not easy to start a career in conservation. BirdLife (through its role as the regional implementation team for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund’s (CEPF) * Mediterranean hotspot) has been able to provide small grants to local NGOs to employ and train such eager, talented people. In total, 14 small grants (and one large grant) have supported 15 civil society organizations in four Balkan countries since October 2018.

Plant protection is not only a new school, it is also important. Plants underpin the food chain, endemic plants support endemic insects and the biodiversity hotspot in the Mediterranean is the third richest in the world in terms of plant diversity. Some remote areas of the Balkans are not properly surveyed, and Mount Orjen is the only place where some endemic plant species can still be found, such as the beautiful Orjen Iris Iris orjenii, which only hangs in a few places in long grassy areas.

Here, EnvPro and E-grupa revealed additional spots on the iris and confirmed their presence on the Bosnian side. The data collected also enabled them to assess the species on the IUCN Red List as endangered, an endemic short-toothed sage Salvia brachyodon as critically endangered, and to record important habitat data for other endemics such as Edraianthus serpyllifolius.

Every seed counts

The rare endemic Orjen Iris <br /> © Mihailo Jovićević “class =” img-round “src =” “: 100%” /></strong></p>
<p>The newly hired Marija Popovic may be inspired by the way the roots of the endemic Bosnian ‘munika’ pines set bare rock.  EnvPro collects seeds from all target species for a seed bank at the University of Primorska.  For the iris, however, this is especially important as the team is working with the Natural History Museum in Rijeka to grow seedlings (ex situ conservation) planted back in the wild.</p>
<p>Cooperation is a main theme of this movement, which aims to build a network of plant conservationists in the region, which overall leads to better conservation management.  Throughout the project, EnvPro (from Montenegro) helped build the skills and expertise of the Bosnia-based E-grupa.  These skills have already led to a great success: the plant data submitted formed the basis for a new protection area on the Bosnian side of the Orjen Mountain (declared in September 2020), which will help ensure a secure future for the plants examined there .  The Montenegrin side is already officially protected, but the EnvPro project also aims to improve the management of the Orjen Natural Park for plants.  They also worked with the local mountaineering club to redirect part of a hiking trail that went through a stretch of Iris.</p>
<p><strong>Balloons to protect the bells from fire</strong></p>
<p>This type of work is also shown in another plant project in Montenegro where the Lovćen Bell Edraianthus wettsteinii subsp.  In the case of Lovcenicus, a small perennial plant with tufts of grass and fine, blue, bell-shaped flowers, the entire range is limited to an area smaller than a soccer field.  Here on Mount Lovćen, just outside the border of the Lovćen National Park, young plant conservationists not only become effective experts, but also bring in new and creative ideas.</p>
<p>Living Green, a local NGO, has found an innovative way to protect the plant from the risk of fire: water balloons.  They installed biodegradable water bags to ensure the plants are doused immediately.  Water canisters in conjunction with workshops with the local fire department, park rangers and local landowners enable a quick response to the fire in this arid area five miles from any other water source.  There have been no fires since then and Living Green continues to work on the other aspects of their project: raising awareness of the importance of the plant and working with the national park to increase the range.</p>
<p>Albania’s red iris is threatened by mining</p>
<p>In Albania, a stunning, fiery red-yellow native species of tulip, Tulipa albanica, is restricted to an extremely small distribution area in a landscape characterized by mining activities.  The Institute for Environmental Policy (IEP) has been working to discover all the remaining plants – yes, all of them (the population is so small that you can count them all) in order to protect their habitat while promoting a new generation of skilled and professional botanists to work on protecting other endemic plants in the future.  Although the species was only discovered in the last decade, the tulip is now the official symbol of the city of Kukës – evidence of the IEP’s public relations work.  In April 2020, the municipal council approved the formal protection of the Albanian tulip at the local level.  In the meantime, the energetic team has dug their spades in scientifically selected soil to create four new terraces a few kilometers from the original site and planted tulip bulbs that give great hope for the future of one of the rarest plants in the region.</p>
<p>From Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia [see below]The new generation of crop protectionists now have expertise in data collection, fruitful cross-border and institutional collaboration, and extensive awareness-raising skills.  And above all, passion and love for plants.  Who needs ropes to support them on a remote mountainside? </p>
<p><img alt=© Dijana Muminović “class =” img-round “src =” “style =” width: 100% “/>

Four countries, 15 projects for plants

Innovations across the border

The first wild flora seed bank in North Macedonia was collected by MASA, with 90% being from rare and endemic species. while ILIRIA (from Albania) used a drone to capture focal species growing on steep cliffs. These two scholarship holders work in a joint project in the Galicica and Prespa national parks.

Large grants for rare plants

MES (BirdLife in North Macedonia) assesses threatened plants in the Jablanica and Dojran Lake areas and sets up a monitoring system. They also support protected area managers and local organizations and work with biology students on chestnut distribution (including the use of a drone).

Ex situ ponds

The Macedonian Biological Society is also studying restricted habitat endemic plants from Galichica – including collecting seeds that they planted in newly updated facilities at Skopje Botanical Gardens (including a lake for a rare water lily). In the meantime, they are training local students and young experts and raising awareness among the local community.

* The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Japanese government and the World Bank. Additional funding was provided by the MAVA Foundation. A fundamental goal is to ensure that civil society is committed to conserving biodiversity.

CEPF is more than just a financing provider

A dedicated Regional Implementation Team (RIT) (local experts) directs funding to key areas and even the smallest organizations. Building civil society capacity, improving conservation outcomes, strengthening networks and sharing best practices. In the biodiversity hotspot of the Mediterranean basin, the RIT is entrusted to BirdLife International and its partners: LPO (BirdLife France), DOPPS (BirdLife Slovenia) and BPSSS (BirdLife Serbia).