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Saving Vipera ursinii rakosiensis in Transylvania

A. General data on project

Contract No. LIFE05 NAT/RO/000158

Financial Instrument: LIFE Nature

Co-funders
The British Herpetological Society
Ministerul Mediului si Dezvoltarii Durabile

Project Background
The Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis) is amongst the rarest subspecies of snake in the world and is the most endangered reptile in Europe. The snake, which is yellow with a distinct black zigzag pattern on its back, was once common throughout the Carpathian Basin, where its natural habitat, the steppe, dominated the landscape. The snake disappeared from Austria in the 1970s and was thought to be extinct in Romania where the last known population, in the Fanatele Clujului Natural Reserve, disappeared more than 40 years ago. However, in 2002, a population of the Hungarian meadow viper was unexpectedly discovered in Transylvania, by the Romanian Herpetological Society. After preliminary studies, it is estimated that there are about 300-400 specimens in a dense population on a relatively small core area of about 30-40 ha. This constitutes about 50% of the total European population. The only other known populations in Europe to date are in Hungary where two small sites hold a few hundred specimens.
Very little is known about the Hungarian meadow viper’s requirements and habits but a prerequisite for its survival is conservation of its current habitat and protection from capture for sale on the black market. Preliminary negotiations have been conducted with 40 landowners for land purchases or lease of relevant areas in order to establish a protected area with core and buffer zones.

Project objectives
The aim of this project is to protect and enhance the only known Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis) population in Romania. It aims at the conservation and enlargement of the snake’s current range by habitat restoration such as hedge plantation and establishment of a corresponding buffer zone. The project will focus on an inventory and biological monitoring of the Romanian population. An area management plan and action plan for the Romanian population of the Hungarian meadow viper are foreseen and permanent surveillance of the protected area will be carried out by three specially trained rangers.
The project seeks to obtain land lease and purchase to secure considerate management in the newly proposed protected area and to ensure increased habitat range for the Hungarian meadow viper. In the long term, it is hoped that the project results may lead to establishment of new populations of the Hungarian meadow viper in suitable habitats in the Transylvanian Plain or elsewhere.

Project Parteners
Centrul de Initiativa pentru Mediu – CRIM / Environment Initiative Center
Societatea Romana de Herpetologie – SRH /Romanian Herpetological Society

Actions and means involved
Restoration of habitat by land lease and purchase.
Permanent surveillance of protected area by three employed and trained rangers
V. u. rakosiensis population inventory
Biological monitoring of this population by herpetologists
Microclimate study by specialists
Area management plan and action plan on V. u. rakosiensis elaboration
Hedge plantation and mantainance
Seminars and workshops
Scientific Reserve designation proposal
Natura 2000 site designation proposal
Public awareness and educational activities

Expected results
Maintenance of actual population of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis in Transylvania and hopefully increasing of this population
Inventory reports on Vipera ursinii rakosiensis targeted population
A new scientific reserve designated according to national legislation in force
A new Natura 2000  site
Posters, leaflets, bill boards

Target Community Legislative Reference
Nature protection and Biodiversity
Directive 92/43/EEC -”Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora” (21.05.92)

Project Administration
Total Budget: 651,783.00 €
Life Contribution: 488,837.00 €

B. Data on Vipera ursinii rakosiensis

Common names: meadow viper, Ursini’s viper, meadow adder.

Meadow viper, Ursini’s viper, meadow adder, Orsini’s viper, field viper, field adder. Although the following subspecies are currently invalid according to the taxonomy used here, their common names may still be encountered:

V. u. ursinii – Italian meadow viper.
V. u. macrops – karst viper, karst adder.
V. u. rakosiensis – Danubian meadow viper.
V. u. renardi – steppe viper, steppe adder, Renard’s viper.
V. u. wettsteini – French meadow viper.
Vipera ursinii is a venomous viper and a very widespread species, found from southeastern France all the way to China (Xinjiang). No subspecies are currently recognized.

This species is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with the following criteria: A1c+2c (v2.3, 1994). This indicates an observed, estimated, inferred or suspected population reduction of at least 80% over the last 10 years or three generations, whichever is the longer, based on a decline in area of occupancy, extent of occurrence and/or quality of habitat. For the same reason, a population reduction of at least 80% is projected or suspected to be met within the next 10 years or three generations, whichever is the longer. Year assessed: 1996.
In addition, this species is listed on CITES Appendix I, which means that it is threatened with extinction if trade is not halted, and is a strictly protected species (Appendix II) under the Berne Convention.

Description
Adults average 40-50 cm in length, although specimens of 63-80 cm have been reported.
The meadow viper is a small venomous snake with a beautiful and intricate zigzag pattern marking the length of its back. The basic body colour is a light grey to brown along the sides, usually with a paler band down the centre of the back, within which a dark zigzag with black edging appears. Occasionally, strongly yellow-coloured scales can occur around these markings. A dark ‘V’ shaped mark appears on the top of the head and there is a dark stripe behind the eye. The underside of the body ranges from black to dark grey or even reddish, often with grey-white speckles. Females grow larger than males, and the poisonous fangs of this species are relatively short.

Habitat
Vipera ursinii probably expanded into Western Europe from central Asia during past grassland expansions and separated from its basal viper lineage about 10 million years ago (Nilson and Andrén 2001; Nilson 2002).  The range of this species has recently contracted following post-glacial climate changes, leaving a few populations isolated in areas where both suitable habitat and climatic conditions (i.e. cold winters and warm dry summers) have persisted to modern times.
Typical meadow viper habitats in the lowlands include parts of the central European or Pannonian steppe grassland system (known as puszta in Hungary), as well as dry sandy meadows in the Danube Delta.  Again, these habitats need to be essentially open, i.e. unshaded by shrubs or trees, to be suitable for meadow vipers.  The snakes also need a physically diverse vegetation structure and a particularly essential feature appears to be the presence of grass tussocks (Corbett et al 1985; Újvári et al 2000).  Steppe grassland populations generally have two separate niche requirements:

Marshy ground, dried out ditches and low-lying damp areas (often prone to winter flooding) that provide more humid, and therefore cooler habitats, and are mainly used by snakes in the summer;
Higher areas, typically with dry, sandy substrates, are required for successful hibernation.
In the past, natural grazing levels may have controlled succession, and maintained an open, structurally diverse vegetation sward, in both mountain and lowland meadow viper habitats.  Additional factors such as winter flooding of lowland steppes and exposure at alpine sites were no doubt also important.
In recent centuries, traditional forms of management by humans, such as livestock grazing and haymaking, have also had a considerable influence on both types of habitat. Such pastoral land uses have maintained habitats rich in flowering plants, invertebrates, lizards, ground nesting birds and mammals and have obviously been highly compatible with meadow viper survival as well.  In both the mountain and lowland parts of their range, therefore, meadow vipers inhabit European landscapes that possess a significant wildlife and cultural value.
General distribution of the species at European and national level and population trends
Austria.The Hungarian meadow viper, Vipera ursinii rakosiensis, was once widespread and extraordinarily abundant in the Vienna Basin of Austria (Korsós & Újvári 1998) and was found up to maximum altitude of 600 m (Tiedemann et al 2001).  After many decades of persecution and massive habitat destruction, and despite repeated warnings about the decline of this snake (e.g. Werner 1915; Sochurek 1952; Kramer 1961; Luttenberger 1971; Sochurek 1978; Honegger 1978; 1981; Corbett et al 1985), it was feared extinct in Austria by the mid-1980s (Tiedemann 1986).  A subsequent search for relict populations of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis in southeast Lower Austria, in the vicinity of the villages of Himberg, Mitterndorf, Götzendorf and der Leitha and Enzersdorf an der Fischa, failed to locate any snakes (Kammel 1992).  Moreover, it was considered that any potential habitat remaining in the provinces of Burgenland or Lower Austria was either suboptimal or, if it did appear to be structurally suitable for vipers, that the areas concerned were now too limited in extent to support viable populations.  Therefore this taxon is now officially considered to be Extinct in Austria (Kammel 1992; Gasc et al 1997).  However, despite management that is often inappropriate for this species, some potential, albeit degraded, habitat does survive in places and at least two unconfirmed reports of the continued presence of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis in Austria were received in the 1990s (Kammel 2002).
Hungary. This subspecies was formerly widespread on the Great Hungarian Plain.  At least 30 populations were still in existence in the 1950s (Dely & Janisch 1959) but the distribution of this snake has since been reduced to 12 populations that are found in two main areas:
Hanság.  Much of this region of northwest Hungary, close to the Austrian border, has been converted to agriculture and forestry on an enormous scale.  About 6,000 ha of mainly damp, low-lying peaty habitats have been protected, but the distribution of the meadow viper within this area is now confined to a single 9 ha site (Corbett et al 1985; Újvári et al 2000).  A tiny population of less than 50 snakes remains here and exhibits many signs of severe inbreeding depression (Újvári et al 2002);
Kiskunság.  Most of the remaining populations of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis survive in this area of highly fragmented meadow-steppe (puszta) habitats in central Hungary, between the Danube and Tisza rivers (Corbett et al 1985; Újvári et al 2000).
This region contains the once extensive ‘pusztapeszerdacs’ in the north and the Kiskunság National Park to the south.  The Park, the northernmost point of which lies about 30 km south of Budapest, protects a range of lowland habitats in six separate blocks, totalling 30,628 ha, including the Bugac region occupied by Vipera ursinii rakosiensis.  Meadow vipers, which often inhabit the remnants of post-glacial sand dune systems, survive in eleven isolated populations in this area.  The sites occupied range from 100-400 ha in extent (averaging 200 ha) but only support an estimated combined total of approximately 450-950 individual snakes (Báldi et al 2001; Halpern & Péchy 2002). Regular population and habitat assessment studies carried out in the Kiskunság National Park since 1993 by BirdLife Hungary have shown rapidly decreasing population sizes and the apparent disappearance of juvenile and subadult snakes suggests a recruitment rate of close to zero at some sites (Halpern & Péchy 2002).
In an assessment of 379 Hungarian vertebrate taxa carried out by Báldi et al (2001), the meadow viper was considered to be by far the most endangered.  With a total population of only a few hundred individuals restricted to just a dozen sites, many of which show signs of terminal decline, Vipera ursinii rakosiensis clearly has an Unfavourable Conservation Status in Hungary.
Croatia.  Vipera ursinii rakosiensis is thought to have once occurred in Slavonia, in the northern lowlands of Croatia (Mertens & Wermuth 1960; Radovanovic 1964; Tomovic & Džukic 2002).  This is entirely possible as the grassland habitats in this region were once continuous with the steppe systems of adjacent Hungary.  However, nothing further is known about the persistence of this second meadow viper subspecies in Croatia, if any populations still survive or, indeed, if it ever actually occurred here at all.  Therefore this subspecies of meadow viper has an Unknown Conservation Status in Croatia.
Serbia.  There are also reports of the former occurrence of meadow vipers in the autonomous region of Vojvodina in northern Serbia, adjacent to the Hungarian and Romanian borders (Corbett et al 1985; Stumpel 1995; Tomovic & Džukic 2002).  Although these records have never been verified, the taxon concerned is very likely to have been Vipera ursinii rakosiensis.  Nothing more is known about the survival or present distribution of this subspecies in Serbia so it has an Unknown Conservation Status. While most potential habitat in Serbia has been destroyed by agricultural reclamation, grasslands supporting great bustards (Otis tarda), another characteristic member of the steppe fauna, still exist south of Novi Kneževac, near the Romanian border (Tomovic & Džukic 2002), and would be well worth investigating for the potential presence of meadow vipers.
Romania (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis and Vipera ursinii moldavica).  Two subspecies of meadow viper have been recorded in Romania – Vipera ursinii rakosiensis,on the Transylvanian Plain (in the Carpathian Basin) in the west of the country, and Vipera ursinii moldavica, in the province of Moldavia and the Danube Delta, in the east.  A single specimen of a third subspecies, the Balkan meadow viper Vipera ursinii macrops, was also reported from the Bucegi Mountains of central Romania by Bacescu (1936), although this is now considered to have been a misidentified adder, Vipera berus (Fuhn & Vancea 1961; Török 2002).
The situation of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis in Romania is even more critical than it is in Hungary.  One of the last, and certainly the best documented, Romanian populations of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis survived until the early 1960s in an isolated 1.5 ha hayfield (Fînatele Clujului) in the vicinity of Cluj-Napoca (Stugren 1955; Vancea et al 1980; 1985; Korsós & Újvári 1998; Török 2002).  A visit to Fînatele Clujului by Korsós et al (1997), however, failed to locate any snakes and the subspecies is now considered to be extinct at this location (Gasc et al 1997; Korsós & Újvári 1998).  A photograph of a meadow viper was taken in 1962 to the east of this site, between Sic and Bontida (Vancea & Borcea 1980), but surveys carried out between 1999 and 2001 by Babes-Bólyai University at Cluj-Napoca failed to locate any snakes here (Török 2002). Although several other potential (Korsós & Újvári 1998) and historical sites (Török 2002) have been investigated, no further evidence of the survival of this taxon in Transylvania has been obtained. Until recently, therefore, Vipera ursinii rakosiensis was considered to be extinct in Romania.

Biology
The meadow viper feeds upon a variety of animal species, most commonly orthopterans (grasshoppers, crickets, etc.), followed by rodents, lizards, birds, spiders and beetles. However, significant seasonal variations in the diet exist, with invertebrates predominating only between July and September, and vertebrates playing a more important role at other times of the year. One poisonous bite is usually enough to kill the prey.
Mating occurs from April to May and females give birth to four to eight (sometimes up to 12 or 15) live young from August to September. Clutch size appears to be positively correlated with female body size.

Threats
The precise threats facing the meadow viper across its range are unknown, but habitat destruction is likely to have played an important role in the species’ decline. Recent studies have been made of the Hungarian meadow viper (V. u. rakosiensis) subspecies, which has an estimated remaining population of as low as 500 individuals and is in imminent danger of extinction. The decline of this subspecies has been largely attributed to the growth in agricultural land, which has greatly reduced and fragmented the meadow viper’s habitat. Even small barriers of farmland are thought to reduce movement and outbreeding with other populations. The subspecies is also thought to have suffered from over-collection from the wild, both for the pet trade and scientific purposes. Small, isolated populations are not only more vulnerable to extinction through stochastic events such as disease epidemics, or storms, but they are also more likely to suffer from loss of genetic diversity through inbreeding, massively increasing the risk of extinction. Loss of genetic variation can result in a high percentage of stillbirths or deformities, which have been recorded for this subspecies, and low genetic diversity is currently considered the prime threat to the subspecies
Conservation
Meadow vipers appear in a number of protected areas, including the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve in Romania (V. u. moldavica) and Bjelasica Mountain National Park (V. u. macrops) in eastern Montenegro. Attempts are being made to preserve the very small Hungarian population of Vipera Ursinii Rakosiensis, located in protected areas, through a four year programme co-funded by the Ministry of Environment and Water Affairs and the EU LIFE-Nature fund, which focuses on four major tasks: habitat reconstruction, monitoring and related studies, a publicity campaign and the establishment of the Viper Conservation and Breeding Centre. This Centre started operating in 2004 with 10 adult snakes collected from different populations and, as of August 2005, 4 females had produced a total of 69 offspring, 25 the first year and 44 the second. These vipers will hopefully be released into selected habitat in the future. Should the release of these snakes into the wild prove successful, captive breeding could be a viable option for the effective conservation of the other subspecies, including V. u. moldavica. The fact that the Hungarian meadow viper appears to breed well in captivity is therefore extremely encouraging and provides new hope for the meadow viper’s future survival.
Threats
1. Ploughing of land
Every spring or autumn the land is ploughed and used for corn and lucerne culture. This activity kills hibernating Vipera ursinii rakosiensis and destroys their habitat. In the last three years we observed a tendency of farmers extending ploughed areas. This is a generally recognised threat for Vipera ursinii rakosiensis (according to “Action Plan for the Conservation of VU in Europe”, Paul Edgar, 2004.
This activity killed all hibernating Vipera ursinii rakosiensis existing in those areas and destroyed their habitat. If this activity extends more Vipera ursinii rakosiensis would be killed. Maintaining the agricultural use of the land prohibits habitat reconstruction.
2. Hay cutting
Hay is cut twice a year on the targeted land. This is a general recognised threat for Vipera ursinii rakosiensis (according to “Action Plan for the Conservation of VU in Europe”, Paul Edgar, 2004).
Vipera ursinii rakosiensis are directly killed when cutting the hay (especial through mechanical cutting) and their habitat is destroyed.
3. Grazing
Over 200 sheep are usually grazing 40% of the buffer zone and another 400 sheep regularly pass through this area. Occasionally some are grazing in the core area also. About 50 cows pass through and occasionally graze in the buffer area. This is a generally recognised threat for Vipera ursinii rakosiensis (according to “Action Plan for the Conservation of VU in Europe”, Paul Edgar, 2004).
Crushing of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis and destroying herbaceous vegetation.
4. Unsustainable management of land
Most of the former habitat of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis is now intensively used for agriculture. Actual land owners can’t or don’t want to renounce the agricultural use of their land in favour of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis habitat reconstruction.
Continued ploughing, hay cutting and grazing in this area would soon destroy the entire population of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis. The habitat can only be reconstructed if an appropriate sustainable management plan is implemented, in accordance with studies and research of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis habitat needs.
This is the main threat for Vipera ursinii rakosiensis in Transylvania.
5. Human – direct killing
Locals usually kill all snakes they encounter. This is a general recognised threat for Vipera ursinii rakosiensis (according to “Action Plan for the Conservation of VU in Europe”, Paul Edgar, 2004).
6. Human – illegal collection
This is a general recognised threat for Vipera ursinii rakosiensis (according to “Action Plan for the Conservation of Vipera ursinii in Europe”, Paul Edgar, 2004).
7. Phasianus colchicus
Phasianus colchicus was artificially introduced and spread and it occasionally eats small lizards and snakes. This is a general recognised threat for Vipera ursinii rakosiensis (according to “Action Plan for the Conservation of Vipera ursinii in Europe”, Paul Edgar, 2004).

C. VUR in Romania

Threats
In Romania Vipera ursinii rakosiensis has unfavourable conservation status. The last known population, in the natural reserve ”Fanatele Clujului”, disappeared more than 40 years ago. The last specimen occurrence was in 1962 in Bontida, close to Cluj (Vancea et al., 1980).
At this moment the new site is not known, so that no conservation effort exists from local or national structures. SRH used secrecy of location in absence of other protection possibilities.
Preliminary negotiations have been conducted for land purchase or lease, with more than 40 landowners having small land patches in core and buffer areas.
British Herpetological Society has been involved since September 2004 in Romanian Vipera  ursinii rakosiensis protection efforts.