The new wave of plant protectionists in the Balkans
At 1,700 meters above sea level, on a jagged limestone ridge often used by alpinists for training, a group of young researchers cling to tufts of grass and sharp rocks as they climb straight down the steep slope of Mount Orjen, which spans the border between Montenegro and Montenegro Bosnia and Herzegovina. What brings you here, without ropes, a misguided step from falling into danger? In a word: plants. In practice, they perform a transect, gather population, habitat and threat data, and collect vital seeds. But the reason they are here: pure passion and enthusiasm for nature conservation.
This is the new wave of plant protectors in the Mediterranean and especially in the Balkans. Stereotypically, the study of plants has been viewed as a niche domain of aging bearded botanists with an emphasis on scientific research and natural history. While such a botanist can be found on a steep mountain slope, there is a new generation of plant experts who are using research as a tool for conservation. Driven by local NGOs such as EnvPro and E-grupa on Mount Orjen, they will do everything possible to protect endangered endemic plants.
With many coming straight from university, it is not easy to start a career in conservation. BirdLife (through its role as the regional implementation team for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund’s (CEPF) * Mediterranean hotspot) has been able to provide small grants to local NGOs to employ and train such eager, talented people. In total, 14 small grants (and one large grant) have supported 15 civil society organizations in four Balkan countries since October 2018.
Plant protection is not only a new school, it is also important. Plants underpin the food chain, endemic plants support endemic insects and the biodiversity hotspot in the Mediterranean is the third richest in the world in terms of plant diversity. Some remote areas of the Balkans are not properly surveyed, and Mount Orjen is the only place where some endemic plant species can still be found, such as the beautiful Orjen Iris Iris orjenii, which only hangs in a few places in long grassy areas.
Here, EnvPro and E-grupa revealed additional spots on the iris and confirmed their presence on the Bosnian side. The data collected also enabled them to assess the species on the IUCN Red List as endangered, an endemic short-toothed sage Salvia brachyodon as critically endangered, and to record important habitat data for other endemics such as Edraianthus serpyllifolius.
Every seed counts
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Four countries, 15 projects for plants
Innovations across the border
The first wild flora seed bank in North Macedonia was collected by MASA, with 90% being from rare and endemic species. while ILIRIA (from Albania) used a drone to capture focal species growing on steep cliffs. These two scholarship holders work in a joint project in the Galicica and Prespa national parks.
Large grants for rare plants
MES (BirdLife in North Macedonia) assesses threatened plants in the Jablanica and Dojran Lake areas and sets up a monitoring system. They also support protected area managers and local organizations and work with biology students on chestnut distribution (including the use of a drone).
Ex situ ponds
The Macedonian Biological Society is also studying restricted habitat endemic plants from Galichica – including collecting seeds that they planted in newly updated facilities at Skopje Botanical Gardens (including a lake for a rare water lily). In the meantime, they are training local students and young experts and raising awareness among the local community.
* The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Japanese government and the World Bank. Additional funding was provided by the MAVA Foundation. A fundamental goal is to ensure that civil society is committed to conserving biodiversity.
CEPF is more than just a financing provider
A dedicated Regional Implementation Team (RIT) (local experts) directs funding to key areas and even the smallest organizations. Building civil society capacity, improving conservation outcomes, strengthening networks and sharing best practices. In the biodiversity hotspot of the Mediterranean basin, the RIT is entrusted to BirdLife International and its partners: LPO (BirdLife France), DOPPS (BirdLife Slovenia) and BPSSS (BirdLife Serbia).