Saturday, June 25, 2011

Proposed Croatian Dam Threatens Underground Caves

A lake in a small cave, Bakar, Croatia, Dinaric Arc. Photo: Whitley Fund for Nature. Photo courtesy: treehugger

Caves are deep, dark, mysterious places where eyes of living beings yet to be identified peer at you from behind eerie formations. Caves are one of our least explored territories; and, a vast treasure trove of undiscovered flora and fauna.

Spiders, scorpions, millipedes, and a pale, eyeless salamander are unlikely poster animals for a conservation campaign, but plans to wash away their habitat in the Balkans risk destroying some of the richest -- and most ancient -- cave fauna in the world. Their threatened subterranean environment is so little-explored that an acclaimed biologist working in the caves has said she usually finds a new life form on each research trip below ground.

"We are now in the place with the best range of cave animals in the world. The other countries have their own rich fauna in rainforests, marine ecosystems, etc, but here in this area we have cave fauna. [It's] really important at [a] world level," biologist and caver Jana Bedek, the president of the Croatian Bio-speleological Society, told the BBC for a recent report on the endangered cave networks of Croatia.

According to the report, Croatia's pending EU membership has the country's government on a building spree, approving road, rail, and power-plant projects in a drive to develop and "modernize" -- a drive some critics say is fueled by the knowledge that such projects would run afoul of EU environmental-protection laws. One of these hydroelectric power plant projects would seal off one of the largest and most biologically rich caves in the Balkans for use as a water reservoir, drowning its rare and little-understood inhabitants.

Bedek's work in these Croatia's cave systems won her a prestigious Whitley Award in May for her efforts to "explore, study, and raise public awareness of the wildlife-rich caverns, tunnels, rivers, and lakes that lie beneath the Dinarides Mountains." Explaining the selection, Whitley Fund for Nature Director Georgina Domberger said:
In Jana's case, the judges were particularly impressed by her courageous efforts to improve our understanding of this very special; but, highly hazardous subterranean world -- a refuge for an extraordinary range of extraordinary creatures, some of them so rare they are found nowhere else on Earth.
Though the Croatian caves appear to be at the greatest immediate risk, the vast limestone system to which they belong stretches 800 kilometers from Italy to Albania, an area known as the "Dinaric Arc" that serves as Europe's largest underground river system and a major source of water, according to the Whitley Fund. Bedek and her organization have been working with scientists as well as with rural residents, tapping their local knowledge to help find and explore the area's caves before they disappear.

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