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Saving Vipera ursinii rakosiensis – Layman report

Saving Vipera ursinii rakosiensis in Transylvania

LIFE05 NAT/RO/000158

Project co-financed by European Commission through financial instrument LIFE III, Nature

Romania, January 2005 – January 2010


WHY THE PROJECT

Vipera ursinii rakosienis, or meadow viper, is probably one of the rarest snakes’ subspecies in the world, and certainly one of the most endangered (to extinction) subspecies in Europe. The only countries, except Romania, hosting meadow vipers’ habitats are Hungary and France.

The evolution history shows that this subspecies was firstly reported in Romania by Hungarian herpetologist Mehely, in XIXth century. Until ‘50s in Romania a single population was known. It was located in “Fanatele Clujului” reserve, close to Cluj-Napoca city. Further, this population had disappeared. In depth researches conducted by reputable herpetologists of that time (Bogdan Stugren, Ion Fuhn), failed in their attempt to find at least one meadow viper in Cluj reserve, after ‘50s. The last viper was seen in Bontida (close to Cluj-Napoca again) in 1962. The researches conducted by experts with Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj lead also to the same result, no viper was found since 1999 until 2001. for almost 50 years Vipera ursinii rakosiensis was considered an extinct species in Romania.

However, in 2002 the members of Romanian Herpetology Society succeeded to discover a new population of meadow vipers in Transylvania, this time in Alba county (Cluj neighbor county). From far away this is the most important discovery for the herpetology in Romania, for the past 60 years. At that time Vipera ursinii rakosiensis was already listed in Habitats Directive, Bern Convention and also included on the red list of I.U.C.N. (International Union for Conservation of Nature)

It is now obvious that the purpose of the project “Saving Vipera ursinii rakosiensis in Transylvania” was to prevent a new extinction of this species through passing the habitat ownership from locals (mostly farmers) to Romanian Herpetology Society, ecologic reconstruction of habitat and ensuring legal protection of the area by designating it Natura 2000 site and also, scientific reserve.

THE WAY and THE RESULTS

By ranking actions’ priority according to the threats and availability of resources, were first stopped agriculture activities by leasing land (short-term priorities), then mid-term priorities of land acquisition and habitat preservation & monitoring were in place, while long-term actions aiming at ensuring legal protection of the area (habitats and species) were developed and concluded.

The threats for the recently re-discovered species can be recorded in three main categories: agriculture works, human activities and natural predators.

Although the area is a hilly one with abrupt slopes, not too favorable for agriculture, several works were developed by locals:

- spring and autumn ploughing, for maize and alfalfa (Lucerne); the time for these works coincide with end and start of hibernation time for vipers, resulting in both habitat destruction and vipers’ harm / killing;

- hay mowing, twice on year, is another activity with destructive potential on vipers, also recognized as general threat in “Action Plan for Conservation of Meadow Viper” developed by the specific experts’ workgroup with Council of Europe;

- grazing – as the area is located in geographic and climate environments not too favorable for agriculture, in time it was turned to pasture, existing almost 400 sheep and 50 cattle using it for this purpose; it was again a serious threat for vipers’ habitat and life, also included in the European plan of action.

It is already well-known that meadow vipers in Austria had disappeared because of a royal order for extinction, thus due to the humans’ intervene. Also in the project area has existed this threat of human intervene:

-      vipers’ killing due to the lack of information or misunderstandings on potential effect of vipers’ bite, which certainly is not deadly;

-      poaching, as it is so well-known that businesses with viper’s venom are extremely profitable, existing organized networks of poachers and merchants selling it to medicine / pharmacy industry;

The third category of threats refers to the intersection of the meadow viper and pheasant habitats, which is a vipers’ natural predator.

From analyzing all these threats a ranking of priorities was settled and consequently the project activities.

The efforts were concentrated with priority on stopping the agriculture works and allowing time for natural recovery to the habitat. This was done through land leasing, thus annual leasing contracts were concluded with owners, mostly inhabitants of Lopadea Noua rural area, for approximate 40 ha coinciding with core area of the vipers’ habitat.

For 2 consecutive years this area was taken off from the agriculture circuit and this was the first short-term action developed.

During leasing time were started discussions and consultations with land owners in the view of buying that land, aiming at ensuring mid-term protection for meadow vipers there.

Simultaneously with land acquisition activity, that proved to be a very long and complicated one, some other mid-term actions were developed, in terms of monitoring the vipers’ evolution and keeping contacts with local communities.

The data resulted from field monitoring activity supported the conclusion that stopping the agriculture works was a good decision for vipers’, as they started to have a normal activity there.  During the total of 170 monitoring days, in 2006-2009 period, 131 vipers were captured and observed, thus the Romanian Herpetology Society inventory now comprise complete data on 160 vipers (56 males and 104 females). The small number of recaptures (only 13, meaning 8.1%) in the four-years monitoring, means that they are in high number in the studied area.

The large number of gestating females (almost 90 % of the adult females) and juveniles (35%) indicates a healthy and viable population.

Data on their size and DNA tests, done by colleagues from MME BirdLife Hungary, provide sufficient evidences that Vipera ursinii rakosiensis population in the project area is in very good health condition, without any external sign of illness. Parasites and bacteria tests revealed the absence of any kind of pathogen parasite or bacteria.

From the collected data it could be estimated that more than 1,600 vipers represent now the population in the project area, representing a significant increase in comparison with situation at the project start.

But not only meadow viper seems to find a proper place for live there, but also several species of protected species of flora and fauna.

Crambe tataria

Melanargia galathea

By the end of project a total of almost 50 ha were bought by Romanian Herpetology Society, with the purpose of setting a scientific reserve for Vipera ursinii rakosiensis. This and data collected during field monitoring activity, enabled us to start activities aiming at ensuring legal protection for long-term. In this respect applications were prepared and submitted to the Ministry of Environment, the result was that an area, larger than the project area and vipers’ habitat, was designated Natura 2000 site “ROSCI 0187 – Pajistile lui Suciu”. For the vipers’ habitat was submitted to the central authorities the request for “scientific reserve” designation, representing the highest legal protection that can be offered to an area / species.


Project area / scientific reserve within Natura 2000 site ROSCI 0187 “Pajistile lui Suciu”

All these were supported by adequate information and dissemination activities, displaying relevant amount of data and information according to both category of targeted groups and status of protection activities.

For experts and scientists in-depth information was constantly offered, a specific workshop took place in Cluj, attended by both EU and Romanian experts. From a total of 36 participants, 17 had inputted the rest of community with updated information and data on herpetofauna in Romania. The international expert’s world was also informed about the project and Vipera ursinii rakosiensis status in Romania, at International Herpetology Congress in Portugal.

The same constant rhythm of dissemination and information was kept for central and local authorities, Environment Protection Agencies etc in order to ensure adequate support in providing protection to the project area. Local authorities provided also help for land acquisition and local communities’ informing.

As regard the local community, consisting of adults and children inhabitants and entrepreneurs, the strategy for communication was firstly keeping the secrecy until some legal protection was ensured (Natura 2000 site nomination), then tailored information on target groups interest was provided.

Education activities were carried in 8 schools in the project area for about 200 children. The information provided within education activities was folded in the larger package of “environment protection” and “local protected areas / species”, comprising specific information on Vipera ursinii rakosiensis, the main issue of the project.

The adults and rest of stakeholders were invited to attend a seminar, at the project final, aiming at informing them about the status of the protected area settled in Lopadea Noua / Ciuguzel. Presentations were built on topics as

-      project information

-      natural heritage of the area, consequently the need for preserving it

-      advantages and requirements of living in a protected area

-      funding opportunities for local authorities, farmers, small entrepreneurs in rural area and subsidies for farmers due to geographic disadvantaged area, location within a Nature 2000 site and location within  protected species habitats.

In designing and implementing the communication strategy attention was paid to the fact that communities should be aware about restrictions their lives will have to face but on the other hand, about the advantages the protected area will bring.

Thinking about after project time, a number of 3 rangers were trained for ensuring further surveillance of the protected area, a surveillance point was erected and agreements with local authorities and Environment Protection Agency were concluded, aiming at supporting (technical and financial) the Romanian Herpetology Society in its future scientific activity regarding Vipera ursinii rakosiensis conservation.

BENEFITS FOR NATURA 2000 SITE AND PROTECTED SPECIES

The yearly field V.u.r. monitoring revealed that the project area represents an incredible rich natural heritage in terms of protected species comprised. Thus, were observed and few data were recorded on the following:

I. FAUNA

A. Invertebrate fauna

Lepidopters

Limited studies have been performed up to now:  lepidopteran collecting outcomed a number of 338 species belonging to 27 families. Out these 45% are rare and 30.7% are rare /common.

Polyommatus icarus

Inachis io larvae

Aspects of night collectings

The area requires a much more accurate research as many other steppe elements may be accommodated here.

Amphibians and reptiles

The researches revealed that the area hosts 14 herp species, out of which 2 are not listed as protected species. Out of the above-mentioned 80% are strictly protected through Habitats Directive and 30% require designation of special protection areas.

Triturus cristatus

Bombina bombina

Lacera viridis male


Vipera ursinii female

Coronella austriaca

B. Vertebrate fauna

Ornitofauna

Despite the apparent habitat’s poverty 69 birds species were observed, out of which 58 are nesting and other 6 are possible nesting. 11 species are listed within Annex III and 14 within         annex IV in OUG 57 / 2007. For one of them (Lanius minor) special subsidies are paid under PNDR / EARDF.

Falco subbuteo juvenile

Lanius minor

Mammals

Among the 11 species observed in project area, one of them is listed within Annex III in OUG 57 / 2007, requiring designation of special protection sites, other 3 species are strictly protected at national level.

Canis lupus (photo by Cosmin Manci Retezat National Park)

II. FLORA AND PLANT

The forest vegetation comprises oak (Quercus robur) mixed with hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), durmast (Quercus petraea), elm, lime, field maple, wild cherry (Pop, 2000).

Botanical research  relieve a large floristic biodiversity (vascular plants), which is due to pedoclimatic conditions and also to modifications appeared as a result of  land use. Relief and microrelief  facilitated installation of some plant species belonging to more or less distant bioregions.In these meadows were inventoried 341 taxons of which 12 subspecies and one hybrid  (Prunella laciniata x P. vulgaris); they are comprised in 48 botanical families. Gramineous plants are dominating quantitatively, having 36 species. Qualitatively, the most important is Asteraceae family, followed by Apiaceae, Scrofulariaceae and Liliaceae (each of them with more than 10 species).Of a floristic point of view, Eurasiatic species are dominating, followed by European and Central-European ones. Exposition and inclination offer microhabitat conditions for numerous termophilous species: Mediterranean, submediterranean, pontic, pannonic, or ponto-pannonic ones. Some of them have important populations in the area (Ajuga laxmannii, Astragalus monspessulanus, Astragalus vesicarius, Cephalaria uralensis, Inula ensifolia, Inula germanica, Jurinea ledebourii, Scutellaria supina, Thymus glabrescens etc.), and ones appear only sporadically (Allium albidum subsp. albidum,  Aristolochia pallida, Carduus hamulosus, Echium russicum etc.).

13 of the discovered species are protected species according to Romanian legislation.

Iris pumila

Salvia transsilvanica

Scutellaria supina

Stipa lessingiana

III. HABITATS

1.      R1531: Ponto-panonian meadows of Festuca pseudovina and Achillea collina.

Natura 2000: 1530 Pannonic salt steppes and salt marshes.

2.R3122: Ponto-panonian blackthorn shrubs (Prunus spinosa) and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).

Natura 2000: 40A0* Subcontinental peri-Pannonic shrub

3. R3131: Ponto-panonian shrubs of dwarf almond (Amygdalus nana)

Natura 2000: 40A0* Subcontinental peri-Pannonic shrub

4. R3409: Pontic meadows of Stipa lessingiana, S. pulcherrima and S. joannisNatura 2000: 62CO* Ponto-Sarmatic steppes

5. R3414: Ponto-panonian meadows of Festuca valesiaca

Natura 2000: 6240 Subpannonic steppic grasslands

6.R4138: Dacian forest of durmast (Quercus petraea) and oak (Q. robur) with Acer tataricum.

Natura 2000: 9160 Sub-Atlantic and medio-European oak or oak-hornbeam forests of the Carpinium betuli.

On long term local authorities in Lopadea Noua should / might develop a strategic plan for sustainable development of the area, considering the marketing advantages that a natural protected area can bring for the local tourism. This is something that also local entrepreneurs aiming at running small businesses in tourism, can turn in advantage when develop business plans supporting their funding applications for developing / improving tourism services in rural areas (PNDR / EFARD in rural areas, M 313). The first effect of these investments is creating new jobs in this area, also increasing amounts’ collections to the local budget.

Subsistence agriculture and farmers, also may have benefits in terms of increasing family income level, by using subsidy payments or by setting other non-agriculture enterprises, as the environment is not too favourable for agriculture.

Incentive effects at national level refer to:

a. land tax exemptions due to location within Natura 2000 / natural protected areas (according to Art. 26 (3) & (4) in OUG 57 / 2007 and Art. 50 in OUG 195 / 2005);

b. subsidies due to location within Natura 2000 / natural protected areas, disadvantaged areas, habitat of protected species (PNDR, M212; M 213, M 214 agri-environment – location within highly valuable pastures AND/OR for location within Lanius minor habitat).

The learnt lessons, anyone carrying protected species / habitats conservation projects within rural areas briefly, are:

  • carefully plan the actions on priority levels up to the impact they (or existent threats) may generate on endangered species;
  • network with EU state experts in making decisions on species’ observation and preservation;
  • ensure state institutions support in both ensuring legal protection and sharing costs / future sustainability;
  • co-interest the local community in order to prevent damages caused by lack of knowledge or preconceptions.

This layman report was developed in the frame of LIFE Nature project LIFE05 NAT/RO/000158 “Saving Vipera ursinii rakosiensis in Transylvania”

Project partnership

Environment Initiative Center – C.R.I.M. Romanian Herpetology Society – S.R.H.
51 Calea Floresti, ap 255, RO, 400509, Cluj-Napoca 5 – 7 Clinicilor st., RO, 400006, Cluj-Napoca

Photos and scientific text provided by Dr. Ioan GHIRA, Romanian Herpetology Society – S.R.H.