Maintaining Bulgaria’s Nature and Culture against the Pressure of Economic Growth
Community engagement and environmental education
Sustainable tourism: visitor centres and interpretation
Protection of biodiversity: designated sites & work of the ranger
Bulgarian bat ecology and conservation
The team are extremely grateful to Erasmus+ and to ARCH (Archnetwork) for providing us with this unique opportunity to learn about Bulgaria’s nature and culture. We wish to thank the Devetaki Plateau Association for hosting this study visit and to Rossen Vassilev, Martina Koleva, Yordanka Dineva, Peter Todorov and Elitsa Ivanova of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation for their hospitality and insight into their work and the pressures faced by Bulgaria’s wildlife and habitats.
We are also thankful to Rayko Raykov of Teteven Forestry School, Stoyan Hristov at Ribaritsa Department of Central Balkan National Park, Vladimir Vinev of Lovech Municipality, Stela Bozkinova of Persina Nature Park Visitors Centre and to the staff at Cherni Osam Mountain Guides School.
Our visit to Bulgaria was made especially comfortable by Velichka and Encho Gankovski of the EcoArt Guesthouse and by our hosts, and their family, at the Herbalist Guesthouse.
Special thanks go to our driver, Eftim, for taking such good care of us and for his supply of tasty treats. Last, but by no means least, we are so grateful to our guide, Velis Chilingirova for her continuous enthusiasm, knowledge and friendship while introducing us to her remarkable country.
On September 26th – October 3rd 2015 we took part in a structured training programme in Bulgaria, organised through ArchNetwork, a Scottish Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) which promotes learning and development in natural and cultural heritage between Scotland and other European countries. The programme was funded through Erasmus+ which is managed in the UK by the British Council and Ecorys UK.
Our group consisted of four ladies working in nature related sectors in Scotland, all with a passion for biodiversity. We were very excited about learning about the nature and management in Bulgaria, particularly since none of us had visited before, and were grateful for the opportunity to take part in the programme.
Our group from left to right:
Nik Turner, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Natural Networks Trainee Community Networks Officer
Emma Castle-Smith, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Montrose Basin Visitor Centre Manager
Marina Swanson, Highland Council, Countryside Ranger, East Caithness
Rebecca Brassey, Scottish Natural Heritage, Bat Caseworker Coordinator
The Bulgarian NET study visit was hosted by the Devetaki Plateau Association with the help of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation. The objective was to develop our understanding of biodiversity, designated sites, state environmental policies, environmental education and habitat/species management.
We were very fortunate to bond very quickly as a group and due to similar interests and personalities, got on very well. Our guide Velis Chilingirova was the icing on the cake as she was a great inspiration to us all. Her enthusiasm, knowledge, helpfulness and endless contact list made our trip a wonderful experience that we will all cherish for years to come.
Community engagement and environmental education
The depth and breadth of activities in Bulgaria aiming to increase the knowledge of biodiversity issues is amazing, though not without its challenges. Whilst on our whirlwind tour around the country, we were introduced to a variety of organisations working toward increasing interest in nature, through a range of formal education and informal community engagement methods. However, the economic climate is causing conflict in local people between a desire to protect natural assets and in finding a quick fix to attract more business to their area. So, despite having extremely passionate and informed people leading these campaigns there is still a long way to go; this chapter looks at the successes and problems so far and considers how these can inform Scottish community engagement and education.
In the face of an economic recession, Bulgaria is turning to nature to provide the means to develop their tourism industry. Ecotourism has huge potential and is a rapidly expanding business but unfortunately some quick fixes are becoming more attractive at the detriment of nature. Rossen Vassilev of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation (BBF) gave us depressing examples of the development of natural and often protected areas: insensitive cable car placement leading to overflowing capacity of the Seven Lakes in Rila National Park and ski resorts expanding beyond their agreed limits. The BBF quickly realised the need to engage with local people to convince them of the value of nature, and have developed a programme of campaigns and PR initiatives to encourage people to support their work in protecting biodiversity for the future. This work reflects much of the campaign work conservation charities within Scotland do, as we too rely upon the support of the general public to be successful in our work.
There is a growing change in the way people are informed about management plans of these protected sites, which goes further toward educating community members. Stoyan Hristov, senior ranger of the Ribaritsa department of the Central Balkan National Park, discussed the new management plan being written.
He explained that whilst the plans are written by a body of experts and reviewed by the park rangers, a new and important element of their production comes in holding community charrettes where local people can voice their views. Whilst they often raise objections, having these opportunities to communicate how nature is protected and how local people can assist this is another vital step in encouraging local people to take ownership of nature.
Perhaps going one step further in community participation was our host organisation, the Devetaki Plateau Association (DPA). In 2008, a local group of people also identified the need to bring new development into their villages and so banded together in an attempt to bring investment to local sites. A completely bottom up organisation, the DPA is a capacity building civic group which supports local people to develop their own ideas to protect, enhance and publicise their natural assets to tourists. The DPA has proved the power of civic involvement in sustainable ecotourism, showing that passionate locals can grow their own businesses without damaging the environment. However, as with many small organisations, the DPA has no core funding and continues to seek sources of income to support their community engagement work; again something which mirrors the state of environmental engagement in many Scottish charities too.
Alongside the campaigning work they do, the BBF also support environmental education. They are developing a children’s nature academy to give children experiences of the outdoors, host free lectures given by ecological experts every week, support university students financially and by providing field work experiences on summer camps. These more formal types of education are essential alongside the community engagement techniques. Later in the week we met with Stela Bozhinova, working within the visitor centre at the Pernisa nature park by the Danube. She explained that due to economic factors, rural towns such as the one surrounding the visitor centre were in decline, with a rapid migration of young people into bigger cities for jobs. As a result, the visitor centre was struggling to attract local people, as they placed low value on the surrounding environment given the troubles that they were having in supporting themselves and their families. She discussed with us the incentives they had to attract school groups in: giving free entrance to all and even going so far as to provide free picnic lunches to the children. It is becoming commonly accepted in the UK that when a child has positive outdoors experiences, they are more likely to value the environment and continue to enjoy going into nature when they are adults. As such, the visitor centre’s attempts at encouraging local children in enjoying the outdoors is extremely valuable; particularly given the average wage for ecological experts is around €250 a month, it is essential for young people to develop a love for the environment as it seems they are not going to be attracted into the jobs on a purely monetary basis!
Of course, there were lots of other really great examples which we saw too. We were lucky to visit two exemplary secondary schools: the forestry school in Teteven and the Cherni Osam mountain guides school. Unlike in Scotland, children can choose at the age of 14 whether they would like to go to a standard high school or to a specialist school. The specialist schools provide the students with vocational training for 60% of their time in classes, focussing on subjects which will give them the skills needed to go directly into employment. The forestry school in Teteven was established as there had traditionally been timber production and wood carving in that area, reflecting the relationship the town’s ancestors had with the natural environment. We met Rayko Raykov, a teacher of woodcarving who previously graduated from the school himself. Rayko clearly had great love for his art, proudly showing work of his own and of his pupils’. Educating children in these traditional professions shows a real respect for their heritage and also offers a way of potentially supporting themselves in a sustainable and environmentally responsive manner.
Teteven Forestry School. © Rebecca Brassey
The Cherni Osam mountain guides school followed the same template, but their classes are in mountaineering, ecology and tourism. Established in 2000, the school aims to meet the demand for qualified guides who are able to support the growing ecotourism industry in an educated and responsible way. The pupils are encouraged to spend lots of time in contact with nature through sports and other activities and again the passion the teachers had for their subjects was clear to see. Hopefully when the pupils leave school and start their jobs, they will be able to use the skills they have learnt to develop their practice in both an ecologically and economically sound manner.
The lasting impression I have of Bulgaria is a beautiful country, filled with passionate and educated people struggling against the same economic pressures you see the world over. There is clear pride in their natural heritage and the desire to protect it and by using a variety of methods to communicate, educate and enthuse both locals and tourists alike the organisations we met have all the tools needed to make a realistic and lasting change. However, just like the UK and those of us working in environmental education and community engagement in Scotland, it is a long and slow process which needs constant work and investment. After this trip, my drive to continue this vital work in Scotland has been renewed and I will continue passing on the lessons learnt in Bulgaria to my colleagues and the communities in which I work.
Nik is a Conservation Volunteers Natural Network trainee, placed with the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Based in the Cumbernauld Living Landscape, Nik acts as a community engagement officer, talking to local people about wildlife and greenspaces in their area. Her aim is to get more people connected with nature: going outside and enjoying it more but also taking ownership of it too.
Sustainable tourism: visitor centres and interpretation
Sustainable tourism is an important economic tool and is fast becoming a very valuable resource all over the world. In Scotland, sustainable tourism generates around £4billion for the economy every year. Of which, nature based tourism contributes £1.4billion a year. This is something that the Devetaki Plateau Association (DPA) is at the forefront of, by promoting the culture and wildlife in their area. The Devetaki Plateau Association works across a large area in the North of Bulgaria, which the association is named after.
Bulgaria has a lot to offer tourists; it has the Black sea coastline in the east, the mountains in the south, the Plateau and the Danube to the north. With such a wide range of habitats Bulgaria has a rich diversity of bird and insect life. It is also fortunate enough to have many large mammals such as wolves, brown bear, wildcats, wild boar and red deer. So how is Bulgaria promoting its wild areas and its wildlife to the general public?
The area that the association covers has a wide range of interesting tourist attractions. The Krushuna waterfalls are located in the Lovech area of the plateau, and are a very popular tourist attraction in the summer. The DPA have worked hard to give visitors information about the area and give them a level of understanding about the levels of protection for the area.
The largest cave in the area is named the Devetashka cave and has three information boards levitra prices. Visited by thousands of people every year the information boards have also been translated into English, to improve the flow of important information about the caves. It also has a very informative and interesting interpretation board about some of the different species of bats that live there, provided by the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation. It is clear the DPA have made a concerted effort to make their interpretation available in more than one language at the sites they manage. Some of the boards are in need of upgrading but as with many projects, funding is an ongoing issue.
The Central Balkan National Park (CBNP) has some very well thought out and descriptive information boards. These three boards, located at the end of Ribaritsa village. Inform the public about the layout of the national park and clearly states in English, as well as Bulgarian where hiking trails lead and which parts are offered the highest protection and are therefore not permitted to visitors. The boards are protected with these pitched wooden roofs and plastic windows, and should therefore be protected well from the weather.
The guest houses in the area also have interpretation about the CBNP. By bringing the information about the national parks, trails and wildlife into the accommodation, guesthouse visitors are not only encouraged to enter the National Park but they are also informed how to do so safely and thoughtfully. The EcoArt Guesthouse by Drashkova polyana is one of the guesthouses that have this interpretation board. It is also part of an organisation named Green Lodge, a Bulgarian association of alternative tourism. It promotes ecotourism through responsible practices such as growing their own food, using solar energy and recycling.
Established in 1992, Rila National Park in the south is the largest national park in Bulgaria. The first visitor centre, Panichishte was built in 1997 with a European Union (EU) grant. The visitor centre was created to inform tourists about the national park, offer general assistance and prevent violations of the approved rules of the park. They have many types of interpretation at their disposal, but without doubt the most useful must be the incredible 3D model of the mountain range, that staff can use to inform visitors about the parks many lakes, trails and of course mountain peaks.
It also has some interactive displays for the children to use and learn with. The most interesting of which, was a telephone and a telephone book where pre-recorded sounds are allocated a number so you can ‘call’ a woodland animal. For example, as shown in the photo, the Capercaillie is number 17. If you dial 17, you can hear the call of the Capercaillie. This innovative yet simple idea allows visitors to experience and learn different animal calls before they venture out into the woods.
Persina Nature Park Visitor Centre is situated in Belene, a small village on the river valley of the Danube. A RAMSAR site (Wetland of international importance), the park covers 21,762.2 hectares of river, wetlands and islands.
Home to more than 200 species of bird, it could be considered by many as a birders paradise. The park is has undergone several projects to restore wetlands and is part of a larger programme for the management of the entire river.
However, Belene is undoubtedly, the most underdeveloped of the four areas discussed. It is suffering from a lack of investment by the government into its infrastructure and local economy, resulting in many people leaving the area due to unemployment. As a result the visitor centre has less than 3,000 visitors a year and has not been able to maximise its potential as a spectacular tourist destination. Despite this, they recently secured funding from the EU to refurbish their visitor centre. Many novel and interesting pieces of interpretation have been commissioned for the centre. They have produced wallpaper that depicts the underwater environment of the Danube, giving visitors a unique and unusual view of the river.
They have also giant jigsaw blocks that can also be used as seating for school groups, life size lily pad statues and flight silhouettes of the most common migrant birds. The last of which would be very useful in identification of the birds when out on the reserve.
Outside the centre, they have some very interesting interpretation about the centres past projects. These are all really informative and give the visitor an insight into the parks work and the species present. All together the centre has a very exciting buzz about the place and should be valued more as the incredibly valuable tool that it is, in Bulgaria’s attempt to promote sustainable tourism.
Emma began working for the Scottish Wildlife Trust in 2014 as a visitor centre assistant at Loch of Lowes. Since then she has gained a promotion to visitor centre assistant manager at Montrose Basin; a well-known and unique reserve for migratory species.
Protection of biodiversity: designated sites & work of the ranger
Bulgaria has a variety of habitats including high mountains, vast forests, fertile farmland, freshwater rivers, lakes and the most amazing caves. The associated biodiversity is incredibly rich and much more diverse than Scotland. We need to go back in Scottish time to the days of wolves, bears and boars but in Bulgaria, these animals freely roam the landscape alongside many other amazing species. Bulgaria is home to an astounding 94 mammals, 405 birds, 35 reptiles, 16 amphibians, 207 fish, 27000 invertebrates and 3900 plants. So with such important nature, how does Bulgaria strive to protect their biodiversity?
Like much of Europe, Bulgaria has a system of designated sites. Rossen Vassilev from the Bulgaria Biodiversity Foundation explained the hierarchy of the protected sites:
National parks: Central Highest protection
Balkan, Rila & Pirin (3) (dependent management plans & state owned)
Nature parks (11) Some restrictions (open mines/clear fell etc., mixed ownership)
Nature Reserves (54) Can be managed e.g. salt marshes
Protected sites (402) Small areas
National landmarks (352) Lowest protection (e.g. geology site)
Management plans are a vital tool to help stakeholders work towards agreed goals of the designated areas. Many of the plans are specific for protected species such as the capercaille, tortoise, chamois and brown bear. These plans aim to help manage threats such as ski developments, timber cutting, wind farms, golf courses, mass tourism and invasive species.
On paper this seems like a robust system but of course there are exceptions and failings when certain projects are permitted despite the ‘level of protection’ and content of the management plans. Poorly planned development examples include mass tourism on the Black Sea coast, ski developments in the Central Balkan National Park & film making in the Devetashka cave.
Work of the BBF explained some innovative thinking towards designated sites. After removal of the Iron curtain, the area along the fence was turned into a ‘Green Belt’. Not a method of managing urban sprawl but a project to create 5 designated areas for scientific research. Furthermore the route is now promoted as a green ecofriendly tourist cycling trail.
Our first introduction to designated areas on the ground was a visit to Rila Mountain in Rila National Park. Rila National Park is the largest of the 3 National Parks in Bulgaria and covers 81,046 ha. This park was designated in 1992 to conserve and maintain the biological diversity and protect wildlife, while providing opportunities for scientific research and environmental education. National Park status offers the highest level of protection for habitats and species. With such a massive land mass, how is work within the park coordinated?
The park is split into 4 smaller reserves: Parangalitsa, Skakavista, Ibar and Central Rila. As a management tool, visitors are educated by the interpretation at the visitor centres. These centres are state owned as are all the buildings within the park boundary. By raising awareness of the importance of the biodiversity, visitors can learn to appreciate and respect nature as they take access in the park. Did you know 1400 plants have been recorded within Rila NP including endemic species such as Primula deorum and Rheum rhaponticum – picking is strictly forbidden!
So who ensures these rules are followed? Stroyan Hristov, senior ranger at Ribaritsa Department of the Central Balkan National Park explained his role as a park ranger. Covering 12 000ha with 5 colleagues, Stroyan said the park is divided into 7 areas which have different levels of restrictions on human activity. Some of the areas are strictly protected reserves while other areas are designated as tourist zones and so trails and chalets are permitted. The ranger role is similar to mine in many ways; monitoring biodiversity, production of leaflets/information boards, maintenance work, but he does much more work on the ground. He is responsible for maintaining trails, issuing permits, managing illegal use of the national park with regard to poaching, cutting trees, wild camping and motorbikes.
He offers information to visitors on the ground but does not offer guided walks/events and only some contact with the local schools. Environmental education is a higher priority in my job but perhaps his job can be compared more to our ranger/wardens who work on specific sites. The management plan is very important and he works towards the aims on this 10 year plan. He also has use of a riffle which reflects the vast difference in the habitat in which he works – dealing with poachers and bears. He is responsible for recording biodiversity in the park and keeps a note book on his findings. Records of bear, wolves, chamois, boar, golden eagle are submitted each month and data used in the management plan. The ranger’s role is vital as day to day protector of the species and habitats of the National Park.
Moving down a level of protection, the Persina Nature Park by the River Danube was established in 2000. This area is a RAMSAR site and the largest in Bulgaria. The project has restored wetland habitat and is important for the island habitats, birdlife and endemic sturgeon fish.
Despite the sites importance, the visitor centre attracts low numbers each year and biodiversity project work is subject to grants aid. With such lower numbers, visitor management is not yet an issue. This was reflected by the butterflies we stumbled upon using an area of shrub land adjacent to the River Danube. The variety and amounts of species was overwhelming but it did not seem that the land was specifically managed for butterflies. The land was simply not developed and not promoted and so disturbance was minimal. If this area was developed for mass tourism, it is unlikely the butterflies would thrive.
Wildlife tourism is of course a means to assist the struggling economies of the rural areas. The Devetashka cave and Krushuna waterfalls on the Devetaki Plateau are promoted for tourism due to their natural beauty and are designated as Protected Sites. Special rules are in place to protect the wildlife and habitat but much depends on responsible behaviour from access takers. The Devetashka cave is home to all 33 species of bats found in Bulgaria and therefore of extreme importance. In order to protect the bats, many of the chambers are closed off to members of the public with signs and barriers.
With beautiful cascading pools and impressive waterfall, it is easy to see why the Krushuna waterfall is a popular destination. The Protected Site offers information boards and infrastructure to welcome responsible visitors. Depending on the individual, the rules are often ignored and damage can occur as a direct result of inappropriate access such as rock climbing on a protected geological zone or swimming in the protected pools.
Bulgaria has incredibly rich and varied biodiversity and has a well organised system for conservation designations implemented through the Ministry of Environment and Water. The National Parks and other designations work towards shared management plan goals and the rangers are a key tool to ensure rules and regulations are applied to protect the important biodiversity. Scotland of course shares many of the same conflicts and pressures and it is about finding a balance between conservation and a healthy economic community which is never an easy task.
Wildlife tourism is just beginning in Bulgaria and in many ways is similar to Caithness. Infrastructure needs to be developed and sites promoted to attract more visitors but not at the expense of losing key species. At present, much of the Bulgarian countryside is underdeveloped and the current traditional way of life is beneficial to the biodiversity. The Bulgarian hay stacks, shepherds, horses and carts, take one back to the days before the intensification of agriculture in Scotland and remind me of the small crofting townships of the Highlands of Scotland where pockets of biodiversity still thrive today.
As the fabric of rural life changes over time, new designated sites and more rangers will be required to protect and safeguard the rich nature & ensure it is preserved for future generations. In the meantime, environmental education to raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity needs to be reinforced at every opportunity to visitors and locals alike, and most important of all, our children.
“Biodiversity is Life, biodiversity is our life”
Marina works as a countryside ranger for Highland Council in Caithness. Her job covers a wide remit including environmental education with local schools and community groups; managing properties; organising events and guided works; biodiversity projects and access.
Bulgarian bat ecology and conservation
The attraction of a visit to Bulgaria was not only through a personal desire to explore a country I previously knew very little about but the lure of learning about bat conservation overseas and how this differs to that of Scotland and the rest of the UK.
Bulgaria hosts a uniquely high diversity of bats. Of the 53 species found across Europe (UNEP/Eurobats, 2015), 33 species are confirmed to inhabit the country. The species richness and abundance of bats can be attributed to the broad range of habitats, the huge diversity of insect prey and the presence of over 5,400 caves.
Saeva Dupka Cave
The first of three caves visited was that of the Saeva Dupka cave situated within the village of Brestnitsa in the Lovech region. The name of the cave is taken from two brothers, Seyu and Sae, who are believed to have used it as a hiding place during the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria.
Five separate galleries exist within the cave; Kupena (haystack), Srutishteto (the ruins), Harmanat, Beliat Zamak (the white castle) and Kosmosat (the space), each displaying an impressive diversity of rock formations throughout the caves’ three million year existence.
Many of the natural formations of the rock present recognizable shapes of fauna:
Amidst the impressive formations of rock, Horseshoe bats can be found using the cave for shelter and as a suitable place to hibernate throughout the winter months. Even with the introduction of artificial lighting to this visitor attraction, Horseshoe bats were seen characteristically hanging from the ceiling amongst the stalactites. Their return to the cave two weeks prior to our visit was not only lucky for our group of bat enthusiasts but coincides with a major seasonal decline in the number of tourists visiting the cave and hence a corresponding reduction in anthropomorphic disturbance.
Saeva Dupka Cave is considered an important roost for the conservation of bat populations within the area by serving as a roost, at different seasons of the year, for a total of 8 species of bat including Greater horseshoe (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum), Lesser horseshoe (Rhinolophus hipposideros), Mediterranean horseshoe (Rhinolophus eutyale), Greater mouse-eared (Myotis myotis), Bechstein’s (Myotis bechsteinii), Geoffroy’s (Myotis emarginatus), Natterer’s (Myotis natteri) and Daubenton’s (Myotis daubentonii) bats.
An important part of the work of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation (BBF), an NGO based in Sofia, is the preservation of natural resources through public awareness. One of their projects has been the production of a bat-shaped information board, the size of which is the exact wing span of the world’s largest bat, the Giant golden-crowned flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus). This board invites visitors to ten touristic caves across Bulgaria, including Saeva Dupka, which are inhabited by species of bats that have international conservation status. Each text box on the information board is centred round the comparative phrase “What do bats have in common with……” which compares bats with well-known species, such as the polar bear, to enable members of the public to relate to them and learn more about their ecology and conservation. The objective of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation is:
“We would like you to learn more about these mysterious small mammals so that you choose to vote FOR bats! Because when we know, we care!”
Bat information board produced by the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation. © Rebecca Brassey
Arguably the most impressive of Bulgaria’s caves, Devetashka is the biggest cave hall on the Balkan Peninsula, located on the Osum River between the villages of Doirentsi and Devetaki. Discovered in 1921, this limestone cave was closed to the public for a long time while it was used for the storage of petroleum by the army. Initially state owned, the cave was then given to the Municipality of Lovech who now manage it. In 1996 the cave was declared a monument of culture and a protected natural landmark of national and international significance.
Devetashka is protected for two main reasons; its archaeological significance and bat colony. The earliest traces of human presence date back to the middle of the Early Stone Age, around 70,000 years ago. Archaeological findings have included anthropic idols made from bone and a section of a plate decorated with the earliest known form of the Swastika symbol.
The cave is a habitat of international importance for the conservation of European populations of bats. It is utilised all year round for shelter, breeding and hibernation by c. 30,000 individuals, the majority of which are Schreiber’s bats (Miniopterus schreibersii).
Access to the cave is via a large concrete bridge which was constructed for the filming of the action adventure film ‘The Expendables 2’ in 2011. Surveys undertaken by the Bat Research and Conservation Centre (BRCC) at the National Museum of Natural History, demonstrated that the bat population had significantly diminished after filming, with only a third of the original number of hibernating bats remaining. Despite this disturbance, a survey undertaken in the winter of 2012 indicated that the site had recovered its status as one of the most important underground refuges for hibernating bats in Bulgaria and Europe. However, the Supreme Administrative Court of Bulgaria declared this filming was a breach of environmental regulations and the film was heavily fined.
Large open roofs provide natural light to the interior and access to the cave for bats, birds, and humans, all year round. The cave has two main galleries; one dry gallery and one wet gallery which harbours an underground river 1.5km in length.
So how are the bats protected in such a popular natural tourist attraction? Firstly, the entire cave is closed to the public throughout the months of June and July so as not to interrupt their maternity season; a critical season for bats where disturbance of any kind could have devastating effects on the population. Secondly, access to the wet gallery, an area where the majority of breeding and hibernating bats are located is completely restricted to the public throughout the year and highlighted by fencing and signage.
Protection of breeding and hibernating bats within the cave. © Rebecca Brassey
Devetashka cave is the first of its kind to have a dedicated management plan. The plan was drawn up by Ecologichen Tsentar EOOD and one of Bulgaria’s main bat conservation organisations, the Green Balkans with input from various fields including the National Museum of Natural History – BAS. The purpose of the plan is to synchronize the development of the site as a tourist destination, with its significance as a natural phenomena, habitat of rare species and endemic cave-dwelling invertebrates, and monument of cultural heritage. The Municipality of Lovech plans the construction of a visitors’ section and an information centre focused on the protected territory. Part of this development includes the installation of monitors to enable the public to see the bats without causing disturbance. This could be a powerful educational tool to make people aware of bats and the importance of protecting them and their habitats.
With a predicted increase in tourist flow, the plan also includes on-going monitoring of the bat population to ensure their long-term preservation.
As well as bats, the cave is home to a diversity of other species including rock doves, rock creepers, swallows, white egrets, slow worms, and Hermann’s tortoises, several species of lizards, tree frogs and salamanders. Apart from the odd pigeon, no other species were seen as all eyes in the group were focused upwards in the hope of glimpsing bats. To our delight, one bat was seen flying from one section of the rock to the other, probably to find a roosting site of more preferable temperature. However, with the use of a heterodyne bat detector and an anabat, we were able to detect a euphony of bats within this stunning natural structure.
Big Garvanitsa Cave
Golyama Garvanitsa “Big Garvanitsa” is one of the largest abyss caves in Bulgaria, located near the village of Gorsko Slivovo in the Lovech region.
Access to the cave is via a succession of very inclined metal stairwells which are certainly not for the faint hearted.
During intense rainfall and when snow melts, the cave accepts large quantities of water that drain into the ground and enters underground rivers. It is not clear whether any bat species occupy this cave but it is likely in those tunnels which are not prone to flooding during heavy rains.
My brief insight into the bats of Bulgaria and their conservation has highlighted some interesting differences and similarities with my work as a Bat Casework Coordinator. Bulgaria has an enviable richness in bat diversity in comparison to the UK, especially Scotland. However, Bulgaria has a distinct lack in the number of wildlife experts and specialists and no such profession as a Wildlife Crime Officer (WCO). With this lack of law enforcement and workforce able to accurately identify species, proving that a wildlife crime has occurred is often not possible.
Much of my work centres on talking to the public about bat life cycles and ecology and often focuses on dissolving the many myths which surround this group of mammals. In the same way, Bulgarian conservation organisations, such as the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation, are working on public awareness and public understanding of the problems faced by bats in order to better protect and conserve local populations. In addition, BBF have identified that wildlife legislation is omitted from the university curriculum and now provide free weekly educational lectures on topics such as this to keep students and interested members of the public up to date with what is happening on the ground in the real world. Due to the lack of expertise and motivation within the field of biodiversity, there is a corresponding gap in research. BBF strive to fill these gaps through supporting research projects undertaken by BSc, MSc and PhD students because after all, as one member of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation stated, “If you don’t have scientific proof, you’re just a hippy”.
Even with the pressures for economic growth, it is comforting to know that there are such passionate and inspiring scientists in Bulgaria using limited resources to make huge differences in terms of bat conservation and encouraging others to do so by spreading the word of how amazing and precious these creatures really are.
We’ll be back!