Protected Areas without Protectors
Greece hosts a great diversity in ecosystems, from coasts to rugged mountains, marine and island ecosystems as well as vast forests and Mediterranean phrygana or macchia shrubland. Already in 1938 the highest mountain, Mount Olympos, was designated as a national park. Today there are ten national parks and many more protected areas. We visited four Natura 2000 areas, camped within or along dozens of protected areas and cycled past two national parks (NP) – the Prespa NP and the NP of the Messolonghi-Aitoliko Lagoon. It wasn't exactly what we had expected though in terms of visitor information and park management and protection. On some occasions we found an old information sign about the area and its protection, but it was never really clear where the boundaries of the area lie and what kind of activity is forbidden. We also never came across any visitor centers nor protected area staff such as rangers. I must admit we enjoyed this freedom of exploring the sites by ourselves, but we did wonder how the protection of the areas can be guaranteed and secured for future generations. It was only until reaching northern Greece, where we met Arcturos staff, that we got some answers.
A visit to the Wolf and Brown Bear Sanctuary - Arcturos
After almost three months of cycling through Greece and marveling at the countries' wonderful diversity of plant and animals species, we arrived at the Arcturos sanctuary. Arcturos is an NGO dedicated to saving wildlife in Greece, especially bears and wolves. The organization was founded in 1992, when Greeks still kept large predators as dancing bears, pets and attractions for tourists. Out of necessity, Arcturos established both a bear and a wolf sanctuary to accommodate confiscated animals. Located in the wilderness of Western Macedonia, the sanctuaries give these animals a chance to spend the rest of their lives in a natural environment. Unfortunately they can never be released into the wild, as they are too accustomed to humans, but the sanctuary is managed in accordance to international sanctuary standards and with this differs from a normal zoo. For example, the sanctuary closes each year in winter to allow the bears to hibernate.
Nowadays there are no more dancing bears in Greece, but that doesn't mean that Arcturos will soon be out of a job. In some neighboring countries, such as Albania, bear cubs are still caught and sold to restaurants, hotels or other places as tourist attractions. Furthermore, the sanctuary's excellent reputation has spread across Europe and bears even from further away, such as the Czech Republic, are sent here. And a small number of injured bears or orphans are waiting for their release in an isolated part of the sanctuary.
Besides running the sanctuaries and taking care of the animals education and sensitization of the public is one of the organizations main tasks. Each year thousands of visitors come to see the brown bears and wolves and learn about these species and the importance of large predators for the entire ecosystem. At the same time, the entrance fees, selling of souvenirs and donations significantly finance the sanctuary.
Who are Greece's nature protectors on the front line?
One of the main reasons we visited Arcturos, besides getting to see the majestic brown bears in a semi-wild environment, is due to their efforts in creating a Greek Ranger Association. Unlike in most other European countries, where rangers work in national parks and protected areas and have united in associations, rangers do not exist in Greece.
In some areas, especially privately owned forests, forest guards patrol to prevent illegal logging. The approx. 300'000 registered hunters are irregularly controlled by hunting inspectors, who are a part of and have been designated by the hunting association itself. In other cases NGO staff working in protected areas call police officers when they see something suspicious and even border patrols are now controlling for illegal logging and poaching.
Overall, there are several different groups and professionals engaging in some kind of patrolling and nature protection, but they are not coordinated and in most cases don't even wear a uniform to be identified as persons of authority. Similarly, their training and motivation to prevent wildlife crimes differ.
We have been greatly surprised by the biodiversity in Greece, where thousands of square kilometers have been put under national and international protection. But we have seen all kinds of activities within these areas that are surely detrimental in the long run, such as fishing, animal grazing, littering and even permanent settlements. Further problems, such as illegal logging, hunting above quota, hunting protected species and hunting with illegal methods (snaring and poisoning) are known to occur. Now is the time to invest in a professionalization of and unifying natures guardians, now is the time for the first Greek rangers.
At Arcturos we were warmly greeted by Vasilis Fourkiotis and George Mostakis, both nature guides and long-term staff. They patiently answered all our questions and showed us around the sanctuary on their day off. Thank you so much for your help and hospitality! We wish you the best of luck for your future and in the struggle for professionalizing the ranger profession in Greece.
More Information: Arcturos Website