Slovakia is a source area for migrating lynx, bears, and wolves, but they risk life and limb negotiating the maze of roads and railways. From Dennik N.
In many parts of Slovakia, migrating prey animals go in danger of their lives.
We have put highways, railways, and fences in their paths. Experts have identified critical spots in animal migration routes as part of the international project ConnectGreen, which looks at border areas in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
Slovakia’s biggest problem is that it currently only has three functional “ecoducts,” or animal migration pathways crossing over roads.
Protected Areas Become Islands of Isolation
Protecting animal migration routes is not just about improving the living conditions of large beasts but about their very survival. The environmental organization WWF Slovakia says the total length of highways in the country has increased four times since 1995, while the built-up area has doubled. Almost half of Slovakia’s territory is now covered by built-up and agricultural areas.
Even though Slovakia is considered a source area for prey animals, which then spread out into Hungary, Czechia, and Poland, only three functional wildlife migration crossings exist in Slovakia: two in the Tatra Mountains and one over the D2 motorway in Moravsky Svaty Jan, near the Czech border. Two more are being built, one in the Kysuce region and another over the R2 motorway in Tomasovce, near the border with Hungary.
“Protected areas are turning into isolated islands. Animals are finding it very hard to move from one place to another,” says WWF’s Andrea Hajduchova.
Experts with the ConnectGreen project have mapped 160 critical spots on migration paths in the border areas of Slovakia, Hungary, and Czechia, including the protected areas of the Beskydy mountains in Czechia, Kysuce and Cerova Vrchovina in Slovakia, and Hungary’s Bukk National Park.
From Banska Bystrica in central Slovakia we headed south to Lucenec in order to take a closer look at how wildlife crossings work. We didn’t find a single one along the section of the R2 motorway between Zvolen and Detva. The road through the countryside is lined with a fence on one side and noise barriers on the other. All around there is open country with nowhere for animals to hide. Their chance of successfully crossing the road is virtually non-existent.
North and South
What do migration routes in Slovakia look like? The north and the south of the country face different problems. The north is very built up, leaving animals with only a few biodiversity corridors. The south is less urbanized, with settlements not concentrated in valleys but rather spread out over the lowlands. However, more and more fencing is being built in the south, especially around farmland.
Lukas Zahorec from State Nature Protection, an agency of the Ministry of the Environment, says the situation in the northern region of Kysuce is “horrific.”
The most important wildlife crossings in the border areas with Czechia and Poland traverse two collision spots – one in Svrcinovec, one in Skalite.
“The Kysuca river valley between Zilina and the border with Poland contains a river, a railroad, a busy road, a highway under construction, and an area that is pretty much continually built up. Prey animals enter the Kysuce region from the Mala Fatra National Park, which is surrounded by roads and railroads,” Hajduchova says.
Neighboring Czechia is a unique positive example in Europe. Its legislation says town plans must take biodiversity corridors into consideration.
Railroads Are Animal Traps
Last year, the State Nature Protection agency published statistics on the mortality of animals on roads and railways. In 2018 and 2019, almost 1,700 animal-train collisions were reported on railroads alone.
Zahorec says railways are like traps for animals, even though trains now feature ultrasound whistle devices. Roads have a lot of car traffic, meaning traffic frequency is higher than on railroads, allowing animals to pass on information about threats.
“If it’s a busy road with cars passing by all the time, the animal stands there and observes. If it’s a railroad, the animal can stand there for half an hour and nothing happens, other than the fact that it smells funny. So the animal decides to cross and that’s when it gets hit by the train. If it’s at night, the animal is also blinded by train lights and is often frozen in shock,” Zahorec explains.
Police statistics on road collisions do not show the whole picture, as only those resulting in significant damage tend to get reported. Two years ago only 76 such collisions were reported to the police, but a single insurance company recorded almost 2,900 animal collisions on the road in the same period.
Michal Kalas from Mala Fatra National Park says collisions make up 43 percent of all known causes of animal mortality.
Animals Are Forced to Inbreed
If it seems that the biggest problem with the lack of wildlife crossings is the number of animals killed as they try to traverse busy roads and railways, that is not the case. Even worse is the fact that isolated animal populations prevented from migrating cannot exchange genetic material.
Lukas Zahorec gives the specific example of an isolated lynx forced to mate first with its offspring, and then its offspring’s offspring.
Csaba Balazs, a zoologist at the Cerova Vrchovina protected landscape area with 20 years of experience, says connectivity is not just a Slovak problem, but a global one.
“The most important thing is for the individual animal populations to be interconnected, so that they can spread their genetic material. If that does not happen and populations are isolated, they degrade, get sick and could become extinct in the future,” he said on his way to Tomasovce, where construction workers are building a section of the R2 motorway.
Pointing to the construction work on the R2 motorway in the south of the country, the zoologist says that without ecoducts and wildlife crossings, motorways that cross biodiversity corridors become barriers that will separate Slovakia’s animal population from the population in Hungary, given that technical standards require fencing around the motorway. He is, however, cautiously optimistic about a proposed system of overpasses that will allow animals to migrate from Slovakia into Hungary.
“There will be less traffic on the current first-class road and animals will be able to cross beneath the overpass,” he says.
A few kilometers down the road, Balazs stops the car and indicates elevated banks covered with grass, which will serve as the base of a new biodiversity corridor above the motorway.
“The R2 motorway will go between those banks and the ecoduct will be above them,” he says.
Fences Are Also Obstacles
Outside Tomasovce, Balazs points out another physical barrier to animal migration: Fields surrounded by fences, so as to protect them from animals. We are looking at a small section of woodland next to a fenced field, separated from the nearby forest by a busy road, as well as more fenced fields.
Lukas Zahorec explains that every animal behaves differently, but if they come across a fence, they will generally try to go around it.
“The animal will walk along the fence for a little while. But when it sees a giant area with nowhere to hide, it will go back into the forest. Animals know their territory, they have their favorite paths with few obstacles. The problem is with young animals, such as those pushed out by dominant males. They have to look for a corridor, because they cannot go back. They can walk for as much as a thousand kilometers, using trial and error. This was the case of the well-known bear Iwo, who went from Poland to Hungary, then into the Tatras and into Romania, and is currently back in the Tatras, to the best of my knowledge,” he says.
Daniel Vrazda is a founding editor of Dennik N, a Slovak online and print newspaper started in 2014 by journalists who left their previous paper after a local oligarch connected with corruption scandals gained a significant share of the company. More English-language articles can be found here. Reprinted by permission.
Translated by Matus Nemeth.