Danube inspires dedication in WWF staff



Posted on 03 July 2012  | 
Camelia Ionesco, WWF Freshwater Officer, Romania, talks to visitors at the Fusea-Mătăsaru site, a rehabilitated Lafarge quarry.
© WWF-CanonEnlarge
Camelia Ionesco, WWF Freshwater officer, Romania
"I spent my childhood in the city of Tulcea, also known as “the gate to the Danube delta”. I clearly remember my favourite playing spots: a small hill not far from our house and the top of a mulberry tree in our backyard. From either I could observe the Danube and its delta. I was fascinated by the magnificence and mystery of the river and dreamt about discovering its secrets. It’s no wonder that I decided to study ecology.

My first job after graduating from university was as a biologist (phytoplanktonologist to be more precise). When I moved to Bucharest, I learned WWF was looking for a Freshwater officer. I knew WWF well; they had been involved in a remarkable wetland restoration project on the islands of Babina and Cernovca in the Danube delta. In my new position, I not only continued to study aquatic ecosystems, but also learned a great deal about water policy.

For the past two years, I have been involved in one of our most interesting projects from ecological point of view – the restoration of a former Lafarge gravel extraction site situated in what is now a protected area. The Fusea-Mătăsaru is a small site, but over the two years of activities, I had the chance to apply in practice much of the theory I studied at university.

Our activities included planting ecologically valuable trees, connecting two isolated lakes, creating an island to attract nesting birds, as well as frequently communicating with the local communities and authorities. I hope that our experience from this project can be replicated elsewhere!"

Ivan Hristov, WWF Freshwater expert, Bulgaria

“In high school, birds became my passion. I had no money or a car, but could travel with 50% discount on Bulgarian trains. I travelled around Bulgaria bird watching like there was no tomorrow!

I glimpsed the Danube for the first time on a trip to Russe, the biggest Bulgarian town on the river. I was not impressed. The river was big, but the surroundings were completely urban and ugly. Later I got to know the real Danube.

The Bulgarian stretch of the river could seem like the end of the earth. This area is sparsely populated, but still you see the impact of civilization – the boats, the dikes, the waste are all there. But at the same time nature is all around. The river is very much alive and strong, and it shapes its surroundings. The river is alive with its multitude of wild islands, constantly moving sandbars, dynamic bird populations – truly, birds of every colour and shape!

It’s very tough to access any of the islands. They are surrounded by weeping willows, and then there are miles of shrubs. This is a real paradise for birds. This stretch of the river is only now being properly explored and monitored. In my student days, it was terra incognita for scientists.

My job with WWF is a blessing. I get to see and protect the most wonderful wildlife there is around. My worry now is that frightening navigation projects are being proposed for this stretch of the Danube. Digging up the Danube to make way for bigger ships would completely violate the hydrological regime of the river and destroy its ecosystems. I have no doubt that the natural river would still triumph some day, but must we make expensive mistakes like that? I would always protect the river.”

Stoyan Mihov, WWF Freshwater expert, Bulgaria

“I was born and raised on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria, but my work brought me to Persina Nature Park on the banks of the Danube. I studied environmental sciences and got plenty of experience in wetland conservation with my first job, restoring the natural connectivity between the lakes of Bourgas and the Black Sea.

When I was invited to coordinate a wetland restoration project in Persina Nature Park, one of the most fascinating protected areas in Bulgaria, I could not resist. It was a huge change and a huge challenge!

Wetlands are hotspots of biodiversity and provide a myriad of benefits and services to people, like flood protection, drinking water, tourism and recreation.

Despite this, over 80% of Danube floodplains and wetlands have been lost, mostly due to diking, dredging and daming for agriculture and shipping. River ecosystems are completely different from the marine ecosystems I knew. They are also much better preserved than those on the Black Sea. Still, we have more than 70 endangered fish species in this part of the Danube, including the famous sturgeons. As a WWF conservationist, I get to observe many fish migrating from the Black Sea up the Danube, as well as the onslaught of all sorts of invasive fishes. And I get to do what I love most – bringing back to their natural state some of the most beautiful places on earth.”

Arno Mohl, WWF Freshwater expert, Austria  
When I was a little boy, I spent some wonderful days on the banks of the Drava River by Klagenfurt. Before this stretch of the river became a chain of reservoirs, I chased lizards and frogs there, learnt to swim in the river and roasted fish on the campfire with my parents. I have never lost my love for the Drava. Now it is part of my professional life as a WWF river expert.

The river paradise of my childhood still exists –– but unfortunately hardly in Austria, where most flowing water bodies fell victim to electricity production. Between environmentalists and the electricity industry, there is a bitter struggle over the few remaining pieces of intact riverine nature. If you are looking for river landscapes and floodplain forests of the kind that were typical of the whole of Central Europe in the past, you must travel a longer way: near Spielfeld in the Steiermark along the Grenzmur River begins a 700 km long, mostly untouched floodplain belt that stretches from Austria across Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia to Serbia.

A total of 800, 000 ha of river paradise with everything that belongs to it – gravel banks, steep banks, river islands, floodplain forests and old river arms…This unique landscape along the Mura, Drava and Danube rivers is home to rare species such as the White-tailed eagle, Black stork, and Sand martin in such variety and density that is almost unimaginable in Europe.

As a student I have explored these natural floodplains dozens of times by boat, and I mapped them for my thesis. It is such a privilege for me as a WWF employee to be part of a campaign for the preservation of ‘my’ dream landscape for the benefit of all European citizens. After all, the floodplains of the Mura, the Drava and the Danube are a place of leisure and nature experience for the locals. They provide clean drinking water and offer natural flood protection. But since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the pressure on river landscapes has increased steadily. River regulation and straightening, digging for gravel and sand are gradually destroying their naturalness.

After more than 20 years of work (including 10 years at the WWF) it was a real personal highlight for me when in March 2011 the environmental ministers of Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia and Serbia signed a declaration on the long-term protection of the riverine and floodplain landscapes along the Danube, the Drava and the Mura. The aim is to launch in 2013 the first 5-country UNESCO biosphere reserve. But I have been working at the WWF long enough to be aware that the designation of a protected area may be a short-term victory, and it cannot provide lasting protection against the desire for profit or other interests. Environmentalists must remain vigilant and defend nature against usage interests!
Camelia Ionesco, WWF Freshwater Officer, Romania, talks to visitors at the Fusea-Mătăsaru site, a rehabilitated Lafarge quarry.
© WWF-Canon Enlarge
WWF staff member Ivan Hristov, freshwater expert with Danube programme.
© WWF-Canon Enlarge
WWF staff member Stoyan Mihov, freshwater expert with Danube programme.
© WWF-Canon Enlarge
Arno Mohl, WWF-Austria
© A. Mohl - personal collection Enlarge

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