We have the pleasure to begin our Q&A with expert series by talking to Marko Šćiban, Serbian biologist and an experienced researcher at the Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia (Društvo za zaštitu i proučavanje ptica Srbije). Marko has been actively involved in environmental protection and biodiversity monitoring in Serbia for the last 15 years. Backed by deep knowledge of flora and fauna in the Balkans and rich field research experience, he reveals the greatest hardships and highlights in environmental protection in his home country.
1.We’ve heard a lot about biodiversity loss in Serbia over the last couple of decades, but little about the specific consequences for ecosystems, the economy, and the quality of life. Can you tell us the primary outcomes of biodiversity loss in Serbia and how they affect Serbian citizens?
Most Serbian citizens are largely unaware of the effects of biodiversity loss, as they are mainly unaware of threats created by pollution and general habitat loss. One part of the country, for example, Vojvodina, is already largely devastated by intensive agriculture, pesticide use, and invasive species. People in this region are starting to be more conscious of the past and current biodiversity loss. In contrast, eastern, southern, and western parts of the country are still abundant in biodiversity and healthy natural habitats, so people in these areas still do not take this problem seriously. Generally speaking, we have a negative trend all across the country.
2. What are the most significant threats to biodiversity and the biggest obstacles to environmental conservation in Serbia?
The biggest threat to biodiversity, from my perspective, is unfunctional legislation. We have good and modern laws, but in practice, they are highly unfunctional due to the lack of will and power of the government bodies. Government action is crucial for preventing the destruction of wild habitats because the government regulates activities mining, large tourism projects, factories, use of pesticides, and other chemicals, which are the main threats to biodiversity.
3. What is the current number of protected areas in Serbia? Is their number growing or decreasing?
I do not know the exact number, as there are different types of protected areas, but what I know is that their number is increasing very slowly. It seems that the government is reluctant to have more protected areas because it prefers exploitation over conservation. In total, there are over 400 protected areas of various levels of protection and size, from tiny ones with just a few trees to ones over 100,000 hectares.
4. How active is your country in international negotiations, i.e., the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and what is the current situation with national action plans and their implementation?
Serbia is pretty active in signing and adopting new legislations, but this doesn’t change a lot in practice. Many institutions responsible for enforcing these legislations don’t care to do their job properly, are politically prevented from doing so, or lack the manpower to perform their obligations. However, adopting these legislations helps us put additional pressure on the governing bodies to change harmful practices and protect nature in various ways. At first glance, the latest CBD report looks like a huge document with enormous work behind it. But, in reality, it is only a summary of various activities all across the country without any strategy and plan. Basically, governmental and private project results are presented as something the state did concerning CBD, but most of these activities do not have any connection with CBD, nor are they often supported by the state at all. More actions in terms of coordination and state support should be done in the future, as well as more biodiversity monitorings. Sadly, the current situation isn’t quite promising, and developments are very slow.
5. Solving these serious problems requires awareness and action of the entire community, so how can Serbian citizens get involved and contribute to biodiversity conservation?
With state institutions and officials being so ignorant, prevented or hindered from tackling these problems, our citizens do not have many options. Sometimes they are even obstructed to work on this topic. That happened to us dealing with birds on several occasions. What Serbian citizens can do to contribute to biodiversity protection directly is to connect with BPSSS, join our surveys, bird, and habitat monitoring activities. Also, there is an NGO called Habiprot with its online Alciphron database, which lists most invertebrates in our country. Another important online database for invertebrates, fungi, and vertebrates is the Biologer. These are the main ways to collect data about biodiversity and further protect habitats of rare, endangered species. The best thing is that anyone can contribute to these databases. There are also many Facebook pages where people can post pictures for identification and learn to distinguish various animal groups. The most populous groups are “What bird is this?”, “Insects of Serbia”, “Which plant is this”, “Butterflies of Serbia,” and similar.
6. Can you tell us about some projects, initiatives, or discoveries that have moved biodiversity conservation forward in Serbia in the previous decade?
Throughout the previous two decades, there were many activities in BPSSS that motivated me to continue with this challenging yet beautiful work. We revised the bird fauna of Serbia, worked on the second Breeding Bird Atlas of Europe, and reestablished the International Waterbird Census in Serbia in 2012. In general, there is a lot of work ahead all of us. Many invertebrate groups still do not have even a national list of species. So for the majority of them, we don’t know their status, which is their distribution, are they endangered or not, which taxons are the most important on a national level, etc. Unfortunately, volunteer work on many of these topics still dominates. State very rarely provides financial incentives for biodiversity research outside faculties and institutes, which also largely lack people and experts. But, even with all these problems, we need to press further. Collecting biodiversity data is very important as it teaches us about the state of certain habitats, and provides information that can serve as evidence to put new areas under protection and for concrete projects in the future. That is a goal worth fighting for!