A country in transition
Albania is a small and economically poor Eastern European country. For almost 50 years the country was completely isolated under the communist dictator Envar Hoxha. Private property basically didn't exist and the forestry, agricultural and nature protection sectors where top down state regulated. After the death of Hoxha and the fall of communism in the 90's the country underwent a transition towards democracy. Private landownership was installed and a Ministry for Tourism, Environment and Forestry appointed. However, as we have already seen in the Ex-Soviet Union countries, after the fall of communism illegal hunting and logging increased dramatically. Wildlife was rapidly disappearing, as the country was struggling to control the dramatic situation. Relief came in March 2014, when a nation-wide moratorium on hunting was passed in parliament and citizens were prompted to bring weapons to authorities or have them sealed.
The hunting ban is a unique and unusual measure and we were anxious to find out what kind of results were visible in the field. Would wildlife populations increase? And would it make the work for rangers safer? Plus what about an increase in Eco-tourism, where nature lovers can go bird watching or hope to get a glimpse of deer or even a bear? When we cycled to the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park we were in high hopes to get some answers.
Visiting the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park
In mid May we visited the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park, where we were warmly welcomed by the park's director, staff and the ranger team. Over two days we were introduced to the eight rangers of the park, visited the visitors center in the northern part of the park and on the second day drove deeply into the park on rough gravel roads.
It's the newest NP in Albania, declared protected (Lynx lynx balcanicus) area only in 2008 after camera traps had photographed the highly endangered Balkan Lynx. It's a sub-species of the Eurasian Lynx and considered one of the most endangered big cats in the world. Furthermore, inside the core area, where human activity is now prohibited and has always been limited due to inaccessibility, the UNESCO has certified a primeval beech forest as a monument of natural heritage. Lastly, the park is part of the European Green Belt, which runs from the Balkans to Scandinavia. Pretty good reasons to invest in its protection!
“So what are the biggest threats to the area?” I ask the team.
“Our biggest problem is the illegal logging. Dozens of villages are located around and even within the park. In the winter it gets very cold and people heavily rely on wood for heating. At the same time these people are very poor and some earn a bit more cash by selling the illegally cut wood.” the director answers.
This overuse is clearly visible as we enter the park. The trees around us look like slender toothpicks, because all of the branches have been removed. Instead of large and impressive beech and oak trees, we spot dwarf like shrubs scattered across the hills. “The further away you travel from roads and infrastructure, the older and bigger the trees get.” we are told by the forest manager. As is the case for the primeval beech forest.
As we drive to the visitors center, I spot a sign prohibiting hunting.
“Unfortunately we still experience illegal hunting, even though the moratorium has significantly improved the situation. But the hunters are mostly active at night and every year a group of Italians comes to this area. Generally, the hunters are not from the local villages.” explains the management specialist.
“We need to patrol during the night to catch these people,” adds one of the rangers, “that's when the job gets difficult and dangerous.”
Furthermore, the rangers don't have legal power to give fines or arrest and rely on the police. So on some of the patrols, police officers accompany the rangers.
Within the buffer zone, the branches on trees have been cut and signs of erosion are visible
The rangers of Shebenik-Jabllanice
Momentarily there are eight rangers in Shebenik-Jabllanice NP, not enough for the almost 34'000km2 but funds are inadequate to employ more. All of the men come from the surrounding villages and generally have an education in forestry. The older men already worked here during the communism regime and feel a strong connection with the area. Even though they miss communism times, they are happy to work as rangers. Many of the younger men on the other hand are not completely satisfied with their jobs.
“Without weapons we don't have real authority when we meet poachers in the field. And the salary is less than 300 Euro per month, not enough to support a family and save for the future.”
Another young ranger adds: “I wanted to work as a ranger, because I love nature and in this area it's a good job opportunity. We wear uniforms and are generally respected in our community. But preventing the villagers from cutting trees is not always simple. Last year we went on patrol with police officers, who were able to fine the poachers. If the rangers could also give fines, we would have more authority and could be more successful.”
The men always go on patrol in pairs, a safety measure within the 7000km2 area assigned to each team. They don't carry a GPS or radios and instead rely on their cellphones. Armed poachers host the biggest threat, while large predators, such as bears and wolves, normally flee from the men.
In the end, we always ask the rangers if they would like their children to also become rangers. The responses in this group of eight were mixed. While the older men firmly nod, the younger ones smile and shake their heads. “The salary is too low”, they almost uniformly declare.
But low salaries are a general problem in Albania. Many people we have met dream of going to an EU country to work and earn more money. It will require dedicated and passionate Albanians to protect the Albanian flora and fauna, despite of low wages. Fortunately these individuals exist and in the last couple of years, with aid from IUCN and Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, the Association of National Parks of Albania was established to support staff, especially rangers, in protected areas. They joined the international ranger federation and in order to quickly gain experience and knowledge are a twinning partner of the Swiss Rangers. The junior ranger program, an educational program for youths, was introduced in 2017 and gained national attention at a fair in the capital Tirana. Moreover the hunting moratorium was just recently extended until 2022, an important step forward to save wildlife and make the ranger job safer. It will still need time to build capacity and adequately equip rangers and staff, but Albania is heading in a good direction.
At the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park we were warmly greeted by Xhek Nezha, NP Director, Ornela Poci, Management Specialist, Julius Balla, Forest Ingenieur, and the eight headed ranger team. They patiently answered all our questions and showed us the park. Thank you so much for your help and hospitality! We wish you the best of luck for your future! We also want to especially thank Artenisa Peculaj, Project manager, who helped us contact the park staff and whose commitment to nature protection is very inspiring. Thank you!