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The Special Species Under Threat in the Balkans

By Gege Li on September 22, 2020   duration 9 min read

Softmouth Trout (Photo by A. Hodalič)
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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

Many of the Balkans’ unique residents could be lost forever if hydropower dams persist in the area

Spanning more than 180,000 square miles across southeast Europe lies the Balkans, a region brimming with natural splendor. Some 80 percent of the crystal clear rivers in the Balkans are naturally preserved and relatively untouched by humans, earning it the nickname the ‘Blue Heart of Europe.’

“The rivers of the Balkans are completely unique within Europe and are of high international value,” says Ulrich Eichelmann, a conservationist and ecologist and CEO of river protection society RiverWatch. “It’s not only that the rivers have a good status but that the diversity of different types of rivers and streams there is unbelievable.”

Unfortunately, that’s also what makes the Balkans an extremely attractive spot for companies looking to capitalize on one thing: hydropower. Small hydropower dams are appearing on rivers at an unprecedented rate. The growing demand for renewable energy has driven the construction of thousands of hydro projects across the world each year—from the Balkans to Southeast Asia, South America to Africa—with many more in the pipeline. Part of the reason for their rapid development is the lack of required legislation for building small-scale diversion dams, which work by directing water away from rivers, running the risk of draining sections of river dry. In fact, the combined effect of several of these dams can be more damaging than a single, large one. In the Balkans alone, more than 3,000 dams (more than 90 percent of which are the small-scale diversion types) are either planned for construction or under construction.

But it isn’t just the rivers themselves that are under threat from the rise of small hydropower. Despite their seemingly green credentials, these power stations contribute to climate change, massively damage nearby ecosystems, and harm the species and communities that depend on the Balkan rivers for survival.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Freshwater Biodiversity Unit is currently reviewing proposals for 11 freshwater Key Biodiversity Areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone, with the potential for more, underscoring that these sites are globally important for the health of the planet and for the persistence of biodiversity.

Here are some of the animals that inhabit the unique Balkan waters and forest surroundings. Some are already teetering on the edge of extinction, and their situation will only become more dire so long as hydropower dams continue to be permitted.

Balkan Lynx

Balkan Lynx (Photo by Eigenes Werk via Creative Commons)

Regarded as a national symbol in Macedonia, the Balkan Lynx is one of the region’s most prized yet elusive species. Though most of the population is concentrated in the mountainous forests of Albania and Macedonia, it’s possible there are also individuals living in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo.

The main problem with building dams in Balkan Lynx territory is the disturbance caused by roads. This puts the Critically Endangered lynx—an incredibly shy and rarely seen species—more at risk of poaching and drastically shrinks their habitat. Worse still, so little is known about them that most people are oblivious to their plight, hampering effective conservation efforts. With only a handful of individuals left (estimated at no more than 70), the Balkan Lynx is one of the most threatened big cats in the world.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Lesser Spotted Eagle (Photo by Wolbrum avner via Creative Commons)

This bird of prey can be found along the floodplains of the Sava River, which runs through central Europe. While it makes its nest in the forests, the Lesser Spotted Eagle opts to hunt in meadows and grasslands, where it ‘hikes’ across the ground to catch small mammals, reptiles and insects, before migrating to Africa for the winter. The open landscape that the river’s floodplains provide are key to the eagle’s hunting success.

The Balkan population makes up a significant proportion of the total number of Lesser Spotted Eagles in Europe, now classified as an endangered species. If their habitat in Sava is compromised by new dam projects, it would spell bad news: already faced with other threats such as deforestation, it would be unlikely that the species would fully recover.

Balkan Zingel

Balkan Zingel featured on a stamp (Image by Македонская почта)

Among those most affected by damming are fish. Almost 70 fish species are endemic to the Balkans, making it one of the largest collections of such species in the world.

The Balkan Zingel, a type of bottom-dwelling fish, is one unique resident to Macedonia. While its cousin the Common Zingel is widespread across Europe, the story for the Balkan species is quite different. Sightings were once so rare that it was considered extinct, until it was spotted again in North Macedonia in 2014. Though the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists the species as Data Deficient, research suggests that the Balkan Zingel is actually Critically Endangered given its narrow range and presumed susceptibility to habitat change.

If hydropower dams continue to proliferate in the Balkans, the Balkan Zingel could disappear altogether. It is one of 11 endemic fish species in the region that have the potential to go globally extinct because of dams.

Egyptian Vulture

Egyptian Vulture (Photo by 'Tambako the Jaguar' via Creative Commons)

At only 70 centimeters in size, the Egyptian Vulture is the smallest of all vultures. Despite being associated with uncleanness thanks to their scavenging nature, vultures actually serve an important role in minimizing the spread of disease by devouring carcasses before they can rot and attract insects.

Already considered an endangered species, the Egyptian Vulture’s numbers are plummeting in the Balkans with 80 percent of the population here lost in just 30 years. The entire remaining population in Albania is isolated to the valleys of the Vjosa River, one of the Blue Heart of Europe’s last wild rivers. But the Vjosa’s large size—winding almost 170 miles through the heart of the Balkans—has begun to attract attention for its hydroelectric potential. If dams are set up there, they would no doubt drive the vultures out of their nesting and hunting grounds.

White-clawed Crayfish

White-clawed Crayfish (Photo by David Gerke, via Creative Commons)

This crustacean is originally native to Britain and lives in shallow water, foraging in rock crevices for invertebrates, carrion and plants. The clear freshwater of the Balkan rivers makes it an ideal home for the White-clawed Crayfish, which can be easily distinguished by the pale underside of its claws.

Softmouth Trout

Softmouth Trout (Photo by Jaz pa pojdem)

Another fish species exclusive to the Balkans is the Softmouth Trout, which gets its name from its distinctive fleshy mouth. Trout rely on the fast flow of freshwater rivers and so are particularly affected by diversion dams. The Balkans may be home to the most types of trout in the world, potentially hosting up to 21 distinct species, though this isn’t yet confirmed.

Softmouth Trout mainly dwell in the Neretva River that runs through Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia, and in stark comparison to widespread European types like the Brown Trout, they face an uncertain future. A combination of habitat loss and illegal fishing has dwindled numbers to the point that the species is now listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The biggest threat to the species are hydropower plants. If plans for hydropower plants move forward as planned in the trout’s territory, especially on Neretva River and also Moraca River, this species will be seriously threatened.

Huchen Salmon

Huchen Salmon. (Photo by Erhard Kraus)

Measuring well over a meter in length and clocking in at up to 50 kilos, these freshwater giants are the largest salmon in Europe. They are so big they have been known to eat small mammals and birds outside of their main diet of fish.

Also known as Danube Salmon, this fish is found in the valleys of Slovenia and especially Bosnia-Herzegovina. The species is already on the brink of collapse in Europe, having been exploited extensively for food, and their specific habitat requirements make conserving them a tricky ordeal. In order to release their eggs, for example, there is a very narrow window for the right water temperature of between 6 and 9°C. Dam construction in particular obstructs the Huchen Salmon’s vital upstream journey to breed and spawn. Hydropower plants are also the biggest threat to the Huchen. The Balkan rivers are the last “oasis” for this species in the world. However, 90 dams are planned in their current territory. Scientists predict that the remaining population would decline by 70% or more if these dams are built.

Albanian Water Frog

Albanian Water Frog (Photo by Benny Trapp)

Damming the Balkan rivers will have a huge impact on another of the region’s exclusive residents, the Albanian Water Frog, which has been classified as an Endangered species since 2004. The small amphibian’s choice of home—the swamps and marshes of rivers in Albania and Montenegro—puts it in danger of extinction if these wetlands are drained by diversion dams. They also face other pressing threats, including pollution from fertilizer runoff and collection for food or the pet trade. Since it’s currently unclear how well the species could adapt to these pressures, the Albanian Water Frog’s chances of survival look increasingly slim.

Little Tern

Little Tern (Photo by Agustín Povedano)

This small seabird is extremely rare in Europe and numbers are steadily on the decline. Breeding pairs of Little Terns in the Vjosë-Nartë Protected Landscape in Albania, for example, totalled 230 to 280 this year—a mere 1 percent of the species population in Europe. Compare that to 2015, where up to 400 breeding pairs frequented the area.

In the Balkans, Little Terns only nest on the islands of three rivers: Drina in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Sava and Drava rivers in Croatia. Introducing dams effectively destroys these islands with immediate effect while depleting the tern’s food provisions, which consists of fish, shrimp and small invertebrates.

Vjosa Stonefly

Vijosa Stonefly (Photo by Wolfram Graf)

Damming doesn’t just have huge consequences for conserving current wildlife. Disrupting the Balkan rivers also thwarts efforts to find new species that may never have been documented before. The Vjosa Stonefly is one example of a species previously unknown to science that has recently been discovered in the Vjosa River, Albania.

These insects spend most of their life in rivers as nymphs, before emerging from the water solely to mate and lay eggs. Because of their intolerance to water pollution, stoneflies are a good indicator of the water quality of rivers and streams.

In the past five years, several completely novel insect species have been discovered within the Balkans. Many more are still out there waiting to be found. To lose these species without even having known they existed—as well as ones we already know of—would be tragic.

About the author

Gege Li

Gege Li is a freelance science writer based in London, UK and was previously an intern at both New Scientist and Chemistry World magazine. Though her background is in biochemistry, she is also passionate about writing about wildlife, the environment, health and technology, to communicate important scientific research and ideas to the public.

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