Subterranean conservation of the lost cave systems of the Dinaric Arc, Croatia

Jana Bedek is the President of the Croatian Biospeleogical Society (CBSS), an organisation dedicated to the research and protection of the subterranean karst habitats of the Dinaric Arc – an 800km long region pitted with vast networks of underground caves, lakes and rivers. Stretching from Trieste in Italy in the North and passing through Croatia down to Albania in the south, the karst also spreads into Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia.

The Dinaric Arc covers some 100,000km2 yet remains largely unexplored. Surprisingly, the region is also highly biodiverse, and its caves are the richest for subterranean fauna in the world.  Many species are endemic, strictly tied to their specific habitat, and are often known from only a small number of localities – even just a single cave.

Despite the unique life here, the underground habitats of the Dinaric Arc are under increasing pressure.  Threatened by pollution, water extraction, quarrying and hydroelectric dams, there is a risk that many species may be lost to extinction, some before they are even known to science.  Also, as Europe’s largest underground river system and a major source of water, the effective conservation of subterranean ecosystems is vital to people as well as wildlife.

Since 2000, the CBSS has worked to study and conserve these overlooked karst habitats at the national level in Croatia, and now aim to scale up to cover the entire Dinaric Arc eco-region.  Through the establishment of an active scientific network, Jana is building capacity and establishing much-needed channels for sharing knowledge among organisations and experts across all the countries involved.  Collected data will be used to increase awareness of the importance and value of underground karst habitats, and will be presented to stakeholders and government authorities to help guide planning and management.

The team’s work underground can be dangerous, but there are also many challenges above ground.  An essential part of the project is the capturing of local knowledge to help locate cave mouths. Jana worries about this, “One of my fears is that we will not be able to locate some of the very important caves that were mentioned in ancient literature. Since there are today very few people remaining in some rural places we are losing social memory and have failed to find some caves, even with their help”

By identifying specific karstic features, known as Cave type localities, key sites can be legally protected as shelters for highly endemic and endangered fauna, helping in turn to establish long term protection for entire underground landscapes.

Jana Bedek speech at the Whitley Awards 2011

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