Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary and Serbia have submitted an historic UNESCO application to establish the first five-country biosphere reserve in the world, paving the way for Europeʼs largest river sanctuary, sprawling across some 930,000 hectares with a length of 700 kilometers, says a press release from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
The area, aimed at protecting the shared nature and wildlife along the Mura, Drava and Danube rivers, would become Europeʼs largest river protection area. The so-called “Amazon of Europe” begins at the Austrian Mura river and extends through Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary along the rivers Drava and Danube as far as Serbia. The press release notes that until 1989, the river landscape had been torn apart by the Iron Curtain.
“This landmark cross-border nomination is a powerful demonstration of a shared green vision that builds on and reinforces both regional cooperation and unity in Europe,” says Andreas Beckmann, CEO of WWF Central and Eastern Europe. “It is a significant step forward in protecting the region’s natural treasures and serves as a striking example of how nature conservation can bring countries together.”
The designation is expected to be approved and announced by UNESCO in June 2020.
The basis for the nomination was created in 2011 when the environment ministers of all five countries signed a joint declaration committing themselves to establishing the trans-border biosphere reserve. A year later, the riverine areas in Croatia and Hungary were granted biosphere reserve status. Soon after, they were followed by Serbia (2017), Slovenia (2018), and Austria (2019).
The joint nomination connects all five stretches into one coherent protected area. The strictly protected core and buffer zone consisting of 13 major individual protected areas amounts to 280,000 hectares. It is surrounded by 650,000 hectares of transitional zone.
The area features rare floodplain forests, gravel and sand banks, river islands and oxbows. The “Amazon of Europe” is also home to Europe’s highest density of breeding white-tailed eagle, as well as endangered species such as the little tern, black stork, otters, beavers and sturgeons. It is also an important annual resting and feeding place for more than 250,000 migratory birds.
“Five countries have agreed to jointly protect an area which is one of the richest in terms of species diversity in Europe. Such floodplain areas are only surpassed by tropical rainforests,” says Arno Mohl, program leader at WWF-Austria and a long-time campaigner for the protection of the Mura, Drava and Danube rivers.
Some 900,000 inhabitants live in the biosphere reserve area, highly dependent on the Mura, Drava and Danube lifelines. Intact floodplains protect settlements from floods and ensure clean drinking water supplies, while spectacular landscapes enhance the potential for sustainable tourism development, the press release notes.
“In times of climate crisis and the vast extinction of species, it becomes a matter of survival to protect our last natural areas,” says Mohl. “The new biosphere reserve is an important step away from nature exploitation such as destructive hydropower dams or sediment extraction projects. It paves the way for a sustainable co-existence of people and nature.”
Additional projects for nature and people are already in progress in the area with a combined funding of around EUR 14 million, co-financed by the European Union.
Under the Coop MDD Project, the protected area administrations of the Mura-Drava-Danube Region have been cooperating since 2017 to jointly focus on common goals and trans-border nature protection measures.
The Amazon of Europe Bike Trail project was launched in June 2019. By 2021, sports and nature enthusiasts will be able to book cycling tours, including excursions to local natural and cultural sights, along with services such as luggage transport. Furthermore, river revitalization will create new natural habitats and recreational areas for people to experience the stunning landscape along the rivers.
The protected area was nominated with the assistance of the WWF, the EuroNatur foundation, and a number of local conservation partners in all five countries.
“For more than 20 years, the WWF has invested a great deal to achieve better protection of the rivers’ natural values. We are very proud of the achievement of this joint nomination, which will preserve the unique Mura-Drava-Danube rivers for us and future generations,” concludes Mohl.
Alongside the WWF, the ministries and nature protection authorities of all five countries, as well as UNESCO’s MAB (Man and the Biosphere) committees, participated in the preparation of the UNESCO nomination dossier.