Hungary, Croatia Protect Shared Rivers as a Biosphere Reserve
BARCS, Hungary, September 18, 2009 (ENS) - Croatia and Hungary have pledged to establish a Transboundary UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that will protect their shared biodiversity hotspot along the Mura, Drava and Danube Rivers - one of the world's biologically richest and most threatened ecosystems.

The declaration setting the area aside for conservation and sustainable use was signed Thursday by Croatian Minister of Culture Bozo Biskupic and Hungarian Minister for Environment and Water Imre Szabo at a ceremony in the border city of Barcs, Hungary.

The Drava River at Barcs, Hungary (Photo by Hodav)

The Prime Minister of Croatia Jadranka Kosor, and the Prime Minister of Hungary Gordon Bajnai, traveled to Barcs to witness the signing of the declaration.

The protected area, which was declared with help of the global conservation organization WWF and partner organizations the Drava League, Green Action and Euronatur, is awaiting UNESCO approval to become a Biosphere Reserve in 2010.

To mark the global significance of this agreement, WWF has honored the leading role of the governments of Croatia and Hungary with a Leaders for a Living Planet award.

"This cross-border agreement to protect an area of great natural importance will foster regional cooperation, international understanding and peace keeping 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain," said James Leape, director general of WWF International.

"It is not only a significant advance for the region but can serve as an example of how nature conservation visions can bring countries together," he said.

The conservation groups view the signing of this declaration as the first step in creating Europe’s largest river protection area linking Austria and Slovenia in the north, with Croatia and Hungary in the center, and Serbia in the south.

Oxbow lake in the Danube floodplain (Photo by M. Romulic courtesy WWF)

"We encourage Austria, Slovenia and Serbia to join the proposed Biosphere Reserve with Croatia and Hungary to complete this green belt protecting the heart of Europe," WWF said in its statement of support for the reserve.

Over the past 15 years, each of the five countries has protected its portion of the river system in either as a national park, a nature or regional park or with Natura 2000 sites.

If Austria, Slovenia and Serbia join the Mura-Drava-Danube Trans-Boundary Biosphere Reserve, it would create the world’s first such reserve commonly shared by five countries.

Hungary is a member state within the European Union and Croatia is a candidate state, a relationship that conservationists say will be strengthened by the new biosphere reserve.

"This cross-border undertaking between a current and a future EU member is a potent symbol of the proposed unification of Croatia with the European Union," said Andreas Beckmann, director of WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme.

Wetland forest along the Drava River in Croatia (Photo by Stefancek)

With rare large floodplain forests, river islands, gravel banks and oxbows, the newly protected area covers a 500 kilometer (300 mile) long section of the three rivers and about 630,000 hectares (2,432 square miles) of unique natural and cultural landscapes.

"WWF greatly welcomes this step of the governments of Croatia and Hungary as a very important milestone for the conservation of Europe’s natural treasures," said Gabor Magyar, chief executive of WWF Hungary.

WWF says the biosphere reserve will lead to an improved standard of management in a number of existing protected areas of about 240,000 hectares (926 square miles) in the core and buffer zones and will establish and support sustainable management of the natural resources in another 390,000 hectares (1,505 square miles) in transition zones.

The area is inhabited by the highest density of white-tailed eagle breeding pairs in Europe and also holds endangered species such as the little tern, black stork, otters and sturgeons.

The wetlands are an important stopping place for more than 250,000 migratory waterfowls every year. The conservation benefits of establishing a biosphere reserve will include cooperative action to protect these endangered habitats and species.

"The diversity of species in this region is one of Europe’s richest. Such areas can only be topped by the tropical rainforests," says project leader Arno Mohl from WWF Austria.

The socio-economic wellbeing of the trans-boundary region depends on protecting this river ecosystem as a major source of clean drinking water, for natural flood protection, sustainable forestry, agriculture and fisheries, WWF said. The newly protected area can serve to promote ecotourism and raise public awareness of the importance of conservation.

The UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve Programme was established in 1977 to promote an interdisciplinary approach to research, training and communications in ecosystem conservation and rational use of natural resources.

To date, 553 biosphere reserves in 107 countries are part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. Benefits of being part of the network include the integration of conservation, development and scientific research concerns to sustainably manage the ecosystems.

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.