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At risk despite protection

Irene Banos Ruiz
June 27, 2017

Fire threatens Spain's Doñana National Park - but this is only one of numerous pressures endangering natural reserves in Europe. Poor conservation practice is making the protected label fail across the continent.

Spanien Waldbrand im Donana National Park
Image: Getty Images/AFP/C. Quicler

Protected natural sites are vital for biodiversity and wildlife, but harmful industrial activities and unsustainable management are pushing some of these wonders toward the edge of the abyss.

A devastating forest fire has drawn international attention to Spain's national park Doñana - but this is only a spark of the ongoing drama in the area. This UNESCO World Heritage site is struggling to survive other pressures, such as intensive and illegal farming.

But Doñana isn't an exception in Europe. Environmental activists have recently been stepping up campaigns to protect areas as iconic as Europe's last remaining primeval forest in Poland, or essential habitat for brown bears in Bulgaria.

Conservation progress attained in Europe over the past decades is in danger of being reversed, if required management and political will are not galvanized to prioritize long-term ecological benefits over short-term economic ones.

WWF - zu Donana als Weltkulturerbe
Image: WWF/A. Canela

Threats to Europe's natural wonders

Despite strong conservation legislation in the European Union, more than half of Europe's natural areas are not properly protected, according to a recent WWF report.

The EU's Natura 2000 is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world, and covers one-fifth of the land area in the EU. But much of this protection remains only on paper.

"The legal protection of these areas is of good quality - but it is not properly implemented by all EU members," Sabien Leemans, senior biodiversity policy officer with WWF, told DW.

Many Natura 2000 sites are under threat by unsustainable tourism, industrial activities or intensive agriculture, Leemans explained.

Although outlawed, that takes place due to a lack of law enforcement, effective management and necessary funding - both from national governments and from the European Commission.

National park Plitvice in Croatia
Unsustainable activities threaten wonders of nature like Plitvice National Park in CroatiaImage: picture alliance/PIXSELL/B. Filic

Doñana: an extreme case

The wetland complex in southern Spain is among Europe's most important areas for migratory birds, and is home to endemic species such as the imperial eagle and the endangered Iberian lynx (the world's rarest feline).

Doñana also supports the local economy - for instance, 70 percent of strawberries produced nationally come from the region.

But now, the wetland is only getting 20 percent of the natural water levels that it did three decades ago, due mainly to unsustainable irrigation for intensive farming - which is illegal, in many cases.

Wetlands in Donana National Park
Doñana marshlands are drying out quicklyImage: P. Bailón Oliván

Critically endangered birds that were once usual visitors in Doñana are now almost gone.

The devastating forest fire started this past Saturday were no surprise for environmental activists - who have been warning of the risk for a decade.

"Intensive and illegal farming and a lack of an adequate management make this area even more vulnerable to devastating fires," Juan Romero, spokesperson for the Spanish group Ecologistas en Acción (Ecologists in Action) in Doñana, told DW.

The Spanish government has not reacted to previous EU and UNESCO warnings, he added. This natural disaster might, at least, serve to get some recognition of the problem, Romero hopes.

Forest fire in Donana National Park, Spain
The forest fire in Doñana has forced evacuation of a breeding center for Iberian lynx Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/INFOCA

UNESCO's natural heritage sites at risk 

Elsewhere in Europe, the Bulgarian government this past March gave the green light to a draft plan to do 10 times more construction within Pirin National Park, home to grey wolves and the rarest woodpecker in Europe, among many other species.

WWF warns that such a decision goes against national law, as well as UNESCO recommendations.

Meanwhile, in Warsaw last Saturday, hundreds protested against a large increase of logging areas in the Bialowieza Forest. This came several days after environment minister Jan Szyszko called to strip the forest of its UNESCO natural heritage status.

Dead trees in the Bialowieza forest in Poland
Logging started in parts of Poland's oldest forest about a year agoImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Gera

The Croatian Plitvice Lakes National Park, a network of turquoise waters in a dramatic mountainous landscape, has joined also the list of endangered natural protection areas.

Mass tourism and planned construction projects are threatening the existence of this natural paradise. Its main symbol, the Great Waterfall, is running almost dry.

"The waterfall has 60 percent less water than it used to," Leemans highlighted. 

What is failing?

Polish primeval forest threatened at risk

All experts agree that there is a need for better-structured management plans, and further financial investment in natural areas.

"Large protected areas require clearer management structures, and responsibilities need to be clarified," Gabriel Schwaderer, EuroNatur network executive director, told DW.

In addition, Europe would need to increase its budget for Natura 2000 in order to cover conservation program expenses, Schwaderer said.

But above all, adequate law enforcement is crucial - and the European Commission has an important role to play.

"We have seen positive cases of countries being brought to court for non-implementation of protection measures," Leemans said.

But with other cases, she said, the decision takes too long to come - and disaster goes on, like in the case of Doñana.