In the Croatian alps, declining human populations have gone hand in hand with expansions of protected lands and resurgent wildlife populations. Large predators are finding their way back to the region now that the anthropogenic pressures have lightened, and rewilding efforts have ensured the comeback of both mountain-dwelling herbivores and large grazers on the adjacent plains.
By Pernilla Hansson
Since the 1990s, Croatia has experienced a decline in population numbers. The immediate decline started with the Croatian War of Independence which lasted from 1991 to 1995, but even after it ended the population continued to decrease as a consequence of their low fertility rate (1.42 in 20171). There is also a considerable ageing of the population, with the percentage of people over 65 being one of the highest in Europe.2 This decline in population, combined with urbanisation, has left much marginal agricultural land abandoned, not least in Lika-Senj county. Already in the 19th century people began emigrating from the county to regions or other countries with larger urban areas. Since then, the population in the region has continued to decrease, as a result of inadequate infrastructure and the difficulties in feeding the population on the region’s poor mountainous soil. Between the years of 1857 and 2011, the population of Lika-Senj county shrank by 72%.3 Lately, much of the emigration goes to the coast, as coastal tourism is very popular and generates jobs.4
But beyond the coastline lies the Velebit Nature Park, located mainly in Lika-Senj county, which is the largest protected area (at around 2000 km2) in Croatia with a very high species richness. The nature park includes several hunting concessions and two national parks (the Northern Velebit and Paklenica National Parks) covering a part of the Dinaric Alps and a range of habitats at different altitudes, such as Mediterranean coastal landscape, beech forests, and alpine grasslands. This mainly mountainous terrain has experienced much land abandonment, and is therefore the focus area of rewilding efforts from the group Rewilding Europe.4
One charismatic species in the mountains is the chamois, which is a caprine (informally called a goat-antelope) found in mountain ranges from Spain through the Caucasus.4 In Croatia it has historically been an important source of food for families living in mountainous regions,5 but due to hunting, poaching, and habitat loss it disappeared from the mountain range at the beginning of the 20th century.4 The first two attempts at reintroduction failed, but towards the end of 1974 the successful reintroduction of 10 individuals was carried out in smaller nature reserves in the area. Three years later an additional 5 individuals were successfully released into the wild, and in 2008 the number of chamois estimated to live in the Northern Velebit National Park and neighbouring state hunting grounds was around 400 individuals. While this reintroduction can certainly be seen as a success, there seems to be much greater opportunity for rewilding more areas with this species, as there are large areas of suitable land in the mountain range.5 The chamois is well adapted to the meagre mountain lands that humans have struggled to effectively farm, perhaps an indication that those lands are better suited as wilderness than ineffectively tamed by humans.
The region also holds large carnivores that have experienced varying degrees of persecution. Bears experienced lower extinction pressure than other large predators, and now generally exhibit relatively high densities in Croatia, especially in comparison to Slovenia in the north, where bears are not as protected.6 Wolves, on the other hand, a species humans have often had conflicts with, were almost fully wiped out from the country in the 20th century through hunting and eradication programmes. But they gained full protection status in 1995 and have started to recover. The Croatian government implemented a program at the beginning of the current millennium to mitigate the damage that wolves caused to livestock in the region. The government supplied electric fencing and livestock guarding dogs, and provided lectures and seminars to increase local understanding of the species.7 This will hopefully help wolf recolonization of the area as human pressures are relaxed.
Another large carnivore that has experienced setbacks is the Eurasian lynx. Intense persecution, as well as habitat loss and depletion of its prey, drove them to local extinction at the beginning of the 20th century. Reintroduction of the species began in neighbouring Slovenia in 1973, as an attempt to revive lynx trophy hunting. The habitat was highly favourable and at this point their prey had grown to abundance, leading to the quick expansion of the lynx population. Already the following year they had appeared in Croatia, though illegal poaching is still a problem.8
Most carnivores in Croatia have not needed active rewilding measures, either already experiencing relatively strong numbers or recolonizing naturally from nearby populations. However, another important group of animals that shape the habitat around them has been a big focus of Rewilding Europe: the large herbivores. This group is one that Rewilding Europe is trying to revive on the landscape to take on the role that our domestic animals once had. Past grazing of agricultural animals created a rich mosaic landscapes which, after rural abandonment, are at risk of bush encroachment, or alternatively from intense farming in some areas.9 In the Lika plains, which lie at the foot of the Velebit mountains, Rewilding Europe and local partners have released semi-wild horses and Tauros, a breed of cattle aimed at replacing the extinct wild auroch. The rewilding area for these animals covers 1000 hectares, and as of 2017 there was a total of 158 big grazers on the Lika plains that survive without any direct human management. In spring 2016, the impact of the project was notable in that the rewilding area saw the blooming of flowers that had not been seen for decades.4 Natural grazing currently cannot compete against large-scale farming, due to misguided EU subsidy systems, despite its benefits for biodiversity and carbon storage.9 In this light the declining human population is a very good thing; fewer people will compete less with other species for lands for growing food.
While open lands are valuable for biodiversity, another valuable but endangered habitat is old-growth forests. Old-growth forests are forests that have had a continuous natural development without any large influence from humans,4 resulting among other things in a lot of dead wood that is important for insects.10 The Velebit mountain and Lika area has several old-growth forests. Among them is the Ramino Korito beech forest, an area of high natural value as it houses trees of all ages and sizes.11 Rewilding Europe is working with the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Zagreb to get it designated as a special woodland reserve, and two other primeval beech forests in the rewilding area were recently added to the UNESCO world heritage list4.
People in the region recognised the value in these wild forests early, with the oldest regulations on forest management aimed at protecting the natural condition of the forests dating back to the 18th century. During this time there was a fear that the unregulated exploitation of the forests would lead to their destruction, and through the years the implemented regulations ensured that it became custom to use natural regeneration to allow reforestation of production forests. This was done specifically to preserve their natural structure and biodiversity, and as a result, 95% of Croatia’s forests develop through natural regeneration rather than clear cutting and replanting.12 Perhaps this could be one of the reasons the area is recognised as one of the wildest areas in Mediterranean Europe. As this forestry model is based on sustainable management, Rewilding Europe has been working to promote it across Europe.4
While the people of the Velebit region have been instrumental in the protection of the wilderness, a decreasing population was a prerequisite to opening up land and rewilding the local landscape. And the current trends of decreasing population and land abandonment do not seem to be stopping. Croatia as a whole is projected to continue its population decrease in the future, although by how much depends highly on the choice of family support, economic, and immigration policies. The current trajectory leads to a quite high rate of population decrease, although this rate could be lessened by, for example, policies that increase economic opportunities for the population and therefore reverses Croatia’s current trend of outmigration.13 The population of the Lika area itself is also projected to continue declining, which can possibly lead to the opening up of more lands that can be incorporated in the already impressive Velebit Nature Park.
Depopulation can often bring with it fear of economic stagnation or loss, and Croatia is already facing a slow economy. However, fewer people can alleviate the need for continued economic growth, and smaller populations can also provide economic benefits. The projected decline in the working age population of Croatia, which might at first sound concerning, is also predicted to lead to a lowering of unemployment in the country.14 A useful term in this context is “depopulation dividend.”
Croatia, like Europe as a whole, is facing a demographic change and probably smaller populations in coming decades. This will present challenges and demand certain structural changes, but it will also increase opportunities to create a more ecologically sustainable country, with more land released to wilderness. With their historical regard for forest wellbeing, Croatians hopefully will embrace continued population decrease as an opportunity to expand rewilding efforts and further restore the country’s ecological potential.
- Family Indicators [Internet]. OECD Social and Welfare Statistics (database). Accessed May 27, 2020. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1787/efd30a09-en.
- Murgic J, Jukic T, Tomek-Roksandic S, Ljubicic M, Kusic Z. The Ageing of Croatian Population. Collegium Antropologicum. Vol. 33, 701-705. 2009.
- Kanazir VK, Filipovic M, Panic M. Demographic Characteristics of Lika Region. Journal of the Geogrphical Institute Jovan Cvijic Sasa. Vol. 66, 45-59. 2016.
- Rewilding Europe. Velebit Mountains [Internet]. Nijmegen; Rewilding Europe; Accessed May 27, 2020. Available from: https://rewildingeurope.com/areas/velebit-mountains/.
- Frkovic A. Reintroduction of Chamois in Northern Velebit (in Croatian). Sumarski List. Vol. 132, 543-550. 2008.
- Krofel M, Jonozovic M, Jerina K. Demography and Mortality Patterns of Removed Brown Bears in Heavily Exploited Population. Ursus. Vol. 23, 91-103. 2012.
- Majic A, Bath AJ. Changes in Attitudes Towards Wolves in Croatia. Biological Conservation. Vol. 143, 255-260. 2010.
- Sindicic M, Gomercic T, Kusak J, Siljepcevic V, Huber D, Frkovic A. Mortality in the Eurasian Lynx Population in Croatia Over the Course of 40 Years. Mammalian Biology. Vol. 81, 298-284. 2016.
- Grazelife [Internet]. Accessed May 27, 2020. Available from: https://grazelife.com/.
- Vukelic J, Mikac S, Baricevic D, Sapic I, Baksic D. Vegetation and Structural Features of Norway Spruce Stands (Picea abies) in the Virgin Forest of Smrceve Doline in Northern Velebit (in Croatian). Croatian Journal of Forest Engineering. Vol. 32, 73-86. 2011.
- Jukic M. Old-Growth Forests in Croatia (in Croatian). Thesis. Faculty of Forestry, University of Zagreb. 2019.
- Matic S. The Forests of Croatia – Country Report. In Diaci J, ed. Virgin Forests and Forest Reserves in Central and East European Countries. Department of Forestry and Renewable Forest Resources – Biotechnical Faculty; p. 17-24, 1999.
- Cafaro P, Dérer P. Policy-based Population Projections for the European Union: A Complementary Approach. Comparative Population Studies. 2019 Oct;44: 171-200.
- Lovrincevic Z. Does Longterm Growth of Croatian Economy Depend on Demography or Productivity After All? (in Croatian). Ekonomski Pregled. Vol. 70, 380-410. 2019.
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