Ground squirrels may stop play in Prague's pitch for Olympic games

Ground squirrel

Later this year the Czech capital Prague will launch a bid to host the Summer Games in 2016. However, there are a number of obstacles on the route to becoming an official candidate. These include calls for a referendum, property disputes about sites for Olympic buildings, questions over the budget - and ground squirrels. Ground squirrels?

The Letnany district on the outskirts of Prague could one day be the centre of a future Olympic Games. Under City Hall plans, it would house a ceremonial stadium, Olympic village and media village. However, a large grassy area in Letnany is already inhabited - by a unique colony of ground squirrels.

Pavel Marhoul is from the Agency for Nature Conservation and Landscape Protection of the Czech Republic.

"The colony of ground squirrels in Letnany is exceptional because it is constituted by roughly 600 individuals. Ground squirrels are a critically endangered species, and there are only about 29 colonies known in the Czech Republic. Most colonies, however, are much smaller, with only 30 to 40 individuals, and they are completely isolated, which gives them less chance of survival. The 600 at Letnany represent up to one quarter of all ground squirrels living in the Czech Republic."

Ground squirrel
Ground squirrels are protected by Czech law, as well as at the European level, where the Habitats Directive controls the creation of new nature reserve areas. Moreover, the colony in Letnany is a Czech national nature monument. But even still, there has been talk of moving the colony to make way for the Olympic. The Agency for Nature Conservation strongly opposes this suggestion.

"We know of five experiments to move much smaller colonies, consisting of several dozen ground squirrels. Four out of these attempts were complete fiascos, and the results of the fifth one are not known yet, but it doesn't look very optimistic, either. Therefore we rule out any possibility of moving such large number of ground squirrels, and we consider this proposal impossible."

The Agency for Nature Conservation and Landscape Protection has already developed a special programme together with Ministry of the Environment. Pavel Marhoul again.

"Besides monitoring activities, which have already been taking place for some time, we would like to map the historical habitats where ground squirrels lived until recently. Finally, we will seek new possible locations for them. Our Slovak colleagues have succeeded in attempting to establish a new colony, but their experience shows that it is necessary to repeatedly place up to two hundred ground squirrels. Since there are only about 2000 of them living in the Czech Republic all together, we won't manage without semi-natural breeding at the zoos."