Alarm call of the wild - could Natura 2000 have saved the Great Bustard?

Great Bustard

The European Commission this July estimated it will cost 6.1 billion euros each year to finance Natura 2000, a cross-border project that seeks to protect Europe's finest wildlife sites. The goal is to coordinate the preservation of the natural habitats of endangered birds, wild animals and plant species throughout the European Union. Czech conservationists say that had Natura 2000 been in place a few decades ago, the call of the 'Great Bustard,' for one, could still be heard in Czech fields today.

Great Bustard
That odd guttural sound you've just heard is the alarm call of the largest flying bird native to Europe, known in Latin as the Otis Tarda, and in English as the Great Bustard. The bird, which can grow to over 20 kilos, or 45 pounds, once thrived in the former Czechoslovakia.

But the great bird's alarm call — that short, almost nasal sound similar to a dog's bark — for decades fell on deaf ears, and the Great Bustard has disappeared from the Czech lands.

On Wednesday, a group of Czech environmentalists and conservationists made public their concerns over the Czech participation in the Natura 2000 project. The most immediate problem is that this country missed the May 1st deadline set by the EU — the date of Czech accession to the union — to map out those species and habitats most under threat.

Vlastimil Karlik, the head of the nature protection program of the Czech environmental group Arnika, explains:

"The problem in the Czech Republic is, firstly, that we are late in the preparation of the Natura 2000 network; the second problem is that many of the areas which were proposed are endangered by different industrial activities and many ministries are trying to delete them from the list [of protected areas]. And the third problem is that especially the list of areas, the sites of community interest, are, in our opinion, too few. "

The lists of Czech habitats to be considered for protection under the Natura 2000 project were prepared by the government and will be submitted to the European Commission this autumn. Non-governmental organisations like Arnika were able to offer their input to the list and NGOs will have a chance to meet with the European Commission after the Czech government submits its list, and perhaps help amend it.

For this reason, Mr Karlik is enthusiastic about the Natura 2000 project in general, despite the Czechs' failure to meet the EU deadline.

"I would like to say generally that I think the European Union is the first international community institution that decided to stop the decline of biodiversity; Natura 2000 is the main tool how to do that. And I'm quite proud that I'm now a member of the European Union, which made that decision, and I would like to work to put this decision into practice."

The Czech Society for Ornithology cooperates on international projects aimed at the conservation of bird populations and their habitats and often helps prepare and amend relevant national legislation.

David Lacina, a programme director for the ornithological society, says that it is often a combination of the construction of highway and industrial projects that pose the greatest threat to wildlife.

I asked him what natural area and which species were under the greatest immediate threat, here in the Czech Republic.

Marsh Harrier, photo: Subramanya CK, Creative Commons 3.0
"What we consider the most threatening thing is the D-47 [highway] in Hermansky Stav. But it is not the highway itself; it is a combination of the highway with the proposed industrial zone.

And what bird would be affected there?

"It would be the Marsh Harrier because where the industrial zone is planned, it's where the fields where the Marsh Harrier feeds."

I asked Mr Lacina to elaborate on what Natura 2000 could mean for the Czech Republic — aside from protecting the home of the Marsh Harrier, whose song you've just now heard.

"Natura 2000 consists of two parts; the special protection areas [SPAs], which are meant for the protection of birds and the areas that are meant for habitats and other animal and plant species."

"I would say that what's the most interesting thing for the Czech Republic is that it's probably the first time where the concept of working together with local people for protecting nature is involved in it."

"The purpose of Natura 2000 is not to protect something behind fences. It is to work together and include all of the activities that happen in the [protected] areas and perhaps even to make compromises that work for the birds and other species that are living there."

It was from Mr Lacina that I first heard of the plight of the Great Bustard.

Is there any species of bird that this country has lost, let's say in the last two or three decades, that might have been protected had [Natura 2000] been in place?

"Yes, there is the Great Bustard; it's the largest [heaviest] flying bird. And there is still a population in Austria and in Hungary. There are efforts underway to reinstate habitats in southern Moravia to lure the bird back to the Czech Republic."

How do you call it in Czech?

"Drop velky."

What kind of bird is it? Can you describe it?

"It's a white and yellowish, with a strong beak and strong feet. You wouldn't mistake it if you saw it in a field."