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The Carpathians are one of the strongholds of biodiversity in Europe

The variety of habitats offered by the Carpathians is matched by the diversity of the plant and animal life. It comes as little surprise, then, to discover that this region is a treasure trove of biodiversity.

It is a landscape from another time. It could be the setting for ancient fairy tales, stories full of picturesque mountain vistas and mysterious forests. The Carpathian Mountains provide just the right atmosphere, with peaks of over 2500 metres soaring into the sky and pine trees clinging to steep slopes. Flower-strewn alpine meadows and grazing flocks of sheep are part of the scenery, as are wide expanses of largely unspoilt beech and mixed forest.

The variety of habitats offered by the Carpathians is matched by the diversity of the plant and animal life. It comes as little surprise, then, to discover that this region is a treasure trove of biodiversity. About one-third of all European vascular plants grow here, representing 4000 species alone. Indeed, some of these are only found here. This is because, in evolutionary terms, mountains are akin to islands: all species living there have little contact with their relatives in other regions. And this isolation encourages the formation of unique new species. Biologists have found large numbers of such so-called endemics in the Carpathians. These range from the Tatra vole to the Carpathian newt, and from the dwarf monkshood to the Polish primrose.
However, the stars of the region have four legs and roam through the vast forests. The tracks of very real fairy-tale characters can be found under the canopy: a wolf track that crosses the forest path. Or a pile of faeces full of beechnut shells which are evidence of a bear's meal. "The Carpathians are one of the few regions in Europe where there are still viable populations of brown bears, wolves and lynxes," says Michael Brombacher, head of the Europe section at the FZS and responsible for the Carpathian programme. There is also plenty of room for large herbivores such as the mighty bison.
But it is not only the vastness of the forest which is impressive. Anyone who is accustomed to the well-kept forests of central Europe will be enchanted by the unspoilt nature of the forest. There is a green twilight beneath the canopy of the mighty trees, with untamed streams coursing between them. The tree trunks are covered by thick pads of moss, while mushrooms sprout from bizarre tree stumps. And everywhere there are dying and dead tree trunks in various stages of decay. The proportion of such dead wood is often ten to twenty times greater in a virgin forest than in a cultivated one. This benefits the many insects and fungi that live on dead wood. And birds, bats and small mammals which sleep or raise their young in tree hollows also make use of the habitat. It is not only typical old-forest mushrooms such as bear's head or dryodon fragilis fungus which exist in the Carpathian Mountains. All ten European species of woodpeckers also hammer out their dwellings in the trees here.
The region represents an exciting outdoor laboratory for scientists. Here they have the rare opportunity to observe how a European forest functions when left to its own devices. How do the trees rejuvenate themselves and how fast do they grow? What types prevail among the competition? When do the trunks die and how long does it take for them to rot? And how do the stocks react to interference? These are all aspects which researchers are very much interested in gaining a better understanding of. They hope to obtain new insights for the establishment of greener forestry management, for example. Or into the future of the European forests in times of climate change. Scarcely any other region lends itself as well to examining all these aspects as the Carpathians. Scattered remnants of primeval forest may well persist in other regions of Europe. Many of them, however, are not even a square kilometre in size. By contrast, the Ukrainian Uholka Shyrokyi Luh reserve alone offers more than 80 square kilometres of pure beech forest - a unique opportunity.

It is therefore little wonder that the Carpathian wilderness now carries an international seal of approval: in July 2007, the UNESCO declared over 290 square kilometres of virgin beech forest in the Slovak Republic and Ukraine a World Natural Heritage Site. There are now numerous protected areas in the Carpathians devoted to preserving these treasures. The spectrum ranges from biosphere reserves that combine conservation with sustainable use through to national parks where nature reigns supreme. In theory.
"On the Romanian side of the mountains nearly a half million hectares of this unique forest have disappeared in recent years, mostly through illegal logging," says Olga Yaremchenko, project manager of the Frankfurt Zoological Society for the Ukrainian Carpathians. "This scenario is also threatening to be repeated in our country, in Ukraine. The large sawmills, operated predominantly by Austrian corporations, are keen to get their hands on cheap Ukrainian wood."
But also in the so-called "Wolf Mountains" - an area of untamed rivers and lofty mountains, fertile valleys and old forests located in the Eastern Carpathians on the border between Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine - prospects are not good for the forests. There are six large, interconnected conservation areas there, including three national parks. But that doesn't mean that there is wilderness everywhere. In the Poloniny National Park in Slovakia, measuring nearly 300 square kilometres, only seven percent of the area is protected from human impact. The rest continues to be exploited.
However, even in regions where wilderness is officially protected, there is often a large discrepancy between the claim and the reality. After all, simply producing legislation does not necessarily mean that it is enforced. Especially not if the national parks are as under-funded as those in the Ukraine. "The state budget is often only sufficient to cover the salaries of the rangers and park staff," Olga Yaremchenko reports. "There is nothing left then for vehicles or petrol." Scarcely favourable conditions for the future of the wild forests. Because they need tangible support if they are to be protected from over-exploitation.

Text Kerstin Viering, Photos Daniel Rosengren