Protecting the "Amazon of Europe": A Photo-Essay

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We don’t usually see the words “Europe” and “Amazon” mentioned in the same sentence, and it might be hard for some to imagine that Europe could have its own Amazon. But even though it’s not as imposing as the South American Amazon, the lower courses of the Drava, Mura and Danube Rivers form a 700-kilometer-long “green belt” that connects almost 1,000,000 hectares across Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia. Together, they create one of the Europe’s most ecologically important riverine areas, rightly called the “Amazon of Europe.”

The Drava River.

The Drava River.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

The lower courses of these rivers are still in their natural state and form highly valuable natural and cultural landscapes. This stunning river landscape hosts an amazing biological diversity and is a hotspot for rare natural habitats such as large floodplain forests, river islands, gravel and sand banks, side branches and oxbows.

The naturally twisting Drava.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

A sandbar in the Drava River.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

These habitats are home to the highest density of breeding pairs of white-tailed eagles in Continental Europe and other endangered species such as little tern, black stork, beaver, otter and the nearly extinct ship sturgeon. Every year, more than 250,000 migratory waterfowls use the rivers to rest and feed.

A bird on the Drava River.

A bird on the Drava River.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

A water snake.

A water snake.
Goran Šafarek/WWF
Water birds on the Drava.

Water birds on the Drava.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

For many years now, WWF has been working on the declaration of the world´s first five-country Transboundary UNESCO Biosphere Reserve “Mura-Drava-Danube” (TBR MDD), which includes a network of 13 protected areas, including the world-famous Kopački Rit Nature Park at the Danube-Drava confluence, the Mura-Drava Regional Park in Croatia, Gornje Podunavlje Special Nature Reserve in Serbia, the Danube-Drava National Park in Hungary, as well as Natura 2000 sites in Slovenia and Austria.

Swimming at dusk.

Swimming at dusk.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

In addition to high levels of biodiversity, the river and floodplain areas are vital to local communities.

Boys swimming in the Drava River.

Boys swimming in the Drava River.
Goran Šafarek/WWF
Local fishermen rely on healthy fish populations for their livelihoods. Extensive floodplains mitigate flood risks, secure favourable groundwater conditions and self-purification of water, which is essential for people, forests and agriculture. People also enjoy recreational activities along the rivers such as walking, swimming, fishing or canoeing.
Boats in the river.

Boats in the river.
Goran Šafarek/WWF
Boating in the river.

Boating in the river.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

The area’s cultural heritage is the evidence of a vibrant past with various cultural influences from east and west. The presence of the Ottoman and the Habsburg empires are visible in the architecture of many old cities in the region. Croatians, Hungarians, Serbs and even some Austrian, German or Czech descendants can still be found in the Croatian villages Podravina, Slavonija, Baranja and in the Serbian Vojvodina.

Mist on the river.

Mist on the river.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

The “Amazon of Europe” Under Threat

The Mura, Drava and Danube rivers are under pressure from unnecessary river regulation, hydropower development and gravel extraction, which significantly affects the state of rivers. These bad practices cause the deepening of riverbeds and the lowering of groundwater levels, as well as the drying out of wetlands, floodplain forests and drinking water sources.

Sunset over the river.

Sunset over the river.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

All this not only threatens endangered species, but also has a negative impact on agriculture and local people. This is evident in the decline of sand martins along the Drava, where breeding pairs went down from 12,000 in 2005 to only 3,000 in 2010. River channelling also increases the risk of floods in downstream settlement areas.

Mushrooms grow by the river.

Mushrooms grow by the river.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

The main objective of the WWF project “Protection of the European lifeline – Transboundary Biosphere Reserve Mura-Drava-Danube” is to ensure the protection and sustainable management of this unique transboundary river ecosystem.

Traditional weaving.

Traditional weaving.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

WWF’s work focuses on linking relevant institutions in all five countries to establish a good cooperation, but also works on projects to prevent bad practices (e.g. River Watcher), restore river ecosystems (e.g. DRAVA  LIFE – Integrated River Management project) and make local people and decision makers aware of the benefits of natural rivers.

Drava in winter.

Drava in winter.
Goran Šafarek/WWF

For more info on the “Amazon of Europe” please visit this webpage.

Bojan Stojanović works with WWF Adria. He can be reached at bstojanovic@wwfadria.org.