Ecological connectivity is 'the degree to which the landscape facilitates or impedes daily wildlife's movements among resource patches'. Landscapes are the setting for all human and wildlife activities, providing the basis of human welfare and the resources necessary for all the other life forms.
As humans need to move freely to assure continuation of their activities, also wildlife needs connected landscape structures for continuous exchange of genetic resources. Landscapes change constantly. In recent decades humans have often shaped them with little thoughts to the cumulative impacts and at a pace that is unprecedented. Decision making on transport infrastructure and urban development has not taken much in consideration the value of landscapes. Biodiversity and landscape quality are often marginalized.
The Carpathian countries are on the way to modernize their transport infrastructures since the end of Communism. 1,700 km of new motorways are planned in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. This fast modernization increases the risk of landscape fragmentation, limits dispersal and the genetic exchange of wildlife species.
Ecological connectivity between large natural and protected areas is essential for species, which require large habitats or have low densities of occurrence and react sensitively to landscape fragmentation. Road infrastructures or the extension of settlements endanger wildlife populations by fragmenting their habitats in small and unconnected patches. These artificial and often insurmountable barriers along traditional dispersal paths raise the risk of collisions with cars. That run-to-development demanded the attention of scientific organizations and NGOs dealing with ecological connectivity. These organized workshops in the Carpathians (i.e. Romania, Czech Republic) with international experts to discuss the best mitigation structures along the foreseen motorways.
Ecological corridors can provide a solution to fragmentation, since they are "landscape elements which serve as a linkage between historically connected habitat areas". Regional ecological networks enable dispersal between spatially separated populations, countering biological processes that lead to species extinction. Ecological connectivity isn't only fostering the welfare of wildlife populations, but represents also an indispensable value for human society and the economy, as it plays a central role in ecosystem functioning.
When connectivity between habitats is lost, they gradually degrade and their biodiversity levels and associated ecosystem service decline. Fostering connectivity and attaining its maintenance, the feeling of co-existence and sharing of natural resources may stimulate society, as the continuous provision of services from the landscape attracts human welfare.
Ecological connectivity focuses on conserving areas that facilitate dispersal and on awareness-raising concerning the human-wildlife co-existence. Nevertheless connectivity can be interrupted by areas of human facilities that impede movement. Many techniques are available to restore pristine ecological connectivity by removing fences or installing highway underpasses for wildlife etc.
From an ecological context, barriers are inverse to ecological corridors. They are distinguished in impermeable features and those partially hindering dispersal. The impermeable once are mostly human-made like roads, fences, or urban areas. Only sometimes natural features as rivers, canyons or huge agricultural fields also become impermeable. In contrast there are land cover types or facilities partially hindering dispersal relative to ideal conditions but not disabling connectivity totally. Following traditional connectivity concepts, the impact each barrier has differ among species and should be evaluated considering how it reduces connectivity through behavioural inhibition, increased mortality, or other means.
Within the frame of the BioREGIO Carpathians project connectivity was analysed that is based on a GIS model completed by site visits in pilot areas. The visits aimed to validate the identified corridors and barriers blocking movements crucial for ecological and evolutionary processes. The species requiring large habitats are more affected from barriers concerning transportation infrastructures (current or foreseen), illegal urban sprawl, road kills due to the absence of fences or lacking mitigation structures on motorways and from low ecological awareness among authorities and local people. Additional barriers, with different effects in different countries have been identified in habitat transformations, the shifting from extensive to intensive agriculture, poaching and hunting and in intensive forestry practices. Detecting barriers to movement would complement traditional connectivity analyses and could bring to the identification of removable barriers and to detect those corridors that are not good enough to realistically support movements. A cost-benefit analysis would be necessary to integrate connectivity restoration into systematic conservation planning analyses aimed at optimizing conservation investments. Knowing where barriers have the greatest impact would help practitioners decide where and how to invest scarce conservation resources to conserve and enhance connectivity.
Lacking legal coherence across national borders, legal acts proposed and never enforced or if anchored in legal frameworks they are sometimes not administrated. Legal gaps dealing with these problems indicated here should reveal the necessity to design applicable solutions to safeguard biodiversity and the large carnivores and herbivores in the Carpathians. Some legal instruments already adopted can be considered as stepping-stones for being transferred and further developed in favour of ecological coherence. The awareness for the need of ecological continuity and connectivity, to design trans-boundary solutions, to solve the inconsistency among the administrative units within the countries and to sustain biodiversity, have already been considered in some policies and legal instruments . Despite the effort to intervene on various legal levels, significant progress is still lacking, yet.
Table 1. Legal impacts enabling and impeding ecological connectivity.
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The expansion and the limitation of ecological connectivity is not only a matter of physical barriers. Besides, economic and social aspects have a significant impact too. This is particularly true for the Carpathian countries, which are currently experiencing quick social and economic transformation processes. Additionally, the attitude and awareness of local population towards protected areas and wildlife presence enhances significantly the effective implementation of connectivity measures. These aspects are underestimated in research and in the development of concrete connectivity initiatives as well: Due to this reason, an analysis on socio – economic potentials and barriers has been carried out, besides the legal and physical barriers analysis. Therefore an "on-field" approach has been chosen, combining interviews with researchers and professionals working Carpathian-wide. They were interviewed during a series of site visits at selected hot spots identified by the ecological corridor model applied for particular umbrella species in the Carpathians. The analysis highlighted that various economic sectors affect ecological connectivity. The identified sectors in Figure 1 are public, private or mixed and are composed of different stakeholders with different priorities concerning connectivity.
Figure 2. Involved stakeholders and economic sectors.
Main objectives in order to intervene for the reduction of social and economic barriers are, on the one hand, the development of actions for promotion of ecological connectivity and, on the other, the prevention and avoiding of human – wildlife conflicts. Mostly this is the result of lack of planning and monitoring for coordinating the co-existence between human activities and wildlife.
Maramures ecological corridors
Ecological corridors were identified in the cross-border region Maramures (Romania, Ukraine) within the project “Open borders for bears between Romanian and Ukrainian Carpathians” led by WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme and supported through the Hungary-Slovakia-Romania-Ukraine Cross-border Cooperation Programme (ENPI) 2007-2013 between May 2012 and April 2014. The project aimed at preserving natural habitats in Maramures as critical stepping stones for connectivity in the Carpathian Mountains by reducing the risks of habitat fragmentation, restoring ecological corridors for bears as an umbrella species and by securing responsible use of natural resources.
Last updated: June 2014