This month we had a lovely opportunity to talk to Stoycho Stoychev, a dedicated ornithologist working at the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPS). With years of experience in the field, Stoycho shares his knowledge and experience in protecting Bulgarian biodiversity, revealing the biggest environmental challenges and successes in his home country.
1. We’ve heard a lot about biodiversity loss in Bulgaria 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 Bulgaria and how they affect its citizens?
For many people, biodiversity has an intrinsic value. However, in some cases, people feel a direct effect. Some settlements suffer insufficient water supply due to forest logging. Some small rivers almost dry out due to the building of hydropower plans thus directly affecting tourism and angling.
2. What are the most significant threats to biodiversity and the biggest obstacles to environmental conservation in Bulgaria?
If I have to mention one, I would say agriculture. Intensive agriculture driven by subsidies is the biggest threat as it affects large areas and various species. The impact includes increased use of pesticides, destruction of hedges and destruction of grasslands, and conversion of pastures into arable land. Improper development of renewables (solar, wind, and hydro plants) is another threat that I expect to increase its impact in the coming years. Poisoning and poaching affect some key species such as birds of prey and have a population-level impact.
3. What is the current number of protected areas in Bulgaria? Is their number growing or decreasing?
The ecological network in Bulgaria consists of two main types: 1) Natura 2000 sites under European Union Birds and Habitat directive that are designated as protected zones under the Biodiversity Act and national protected areas under the Protected Area Act. Natura 2000 sites cover about 34% of Bulgaria. However, their regimes are soft and main human activities such as timber extraction, hunting, and agriculture are not restricted. The national protected areas have stricter regimes and they ensure better protection of species and habitats. However, they cover only about 5% of the country. Bulgaria has 3 national parks – Rila, Pirin, and central Balkan that ensure strict protection of the large parts of high mountain ecosystems. There are 11 nature parks (IUCN category V), 55 strict reserves, 38 managed reserves, over 560 protected sites, and 350 natural monuments. Their number and the total area are still insufficient and for decades there were almost no new protected areas designated. Now the government stated an ambition to increase their area by 10 % of the country’s territory.
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?
There is a national strategy for conservation of biological diversity accepted in 1998 and two national plans for its implementation. The first covered the period 1999-2003 and the second the period 2005-2010. However, although formally accepted they remained on paper only. A new plan was developed last year but it was heavily criticized by NGOs and is not adopted yet.
5. Solving these serious problems requires awareness and action of the entire community, so how can Bulgarian citizens get involved and contribute to biodiversity conservation?
There is strong support for nature conservation in Bulgaria. NGOs are also very active. We have an NGO coalition that unifies our efforts. For me, the most significant achievement of Bulgarian citizens was the saving of Strandzha natural park. Attacks from local politicians and business groups supported by an unfair court decision lead to the abolishment of this key natural park located along the Black sea coast and its staff. This court decision caused protests that blocked the main streets of Sofia. The pressure made by protests led the Parliament to change the law so that the court could not abolish nature parks.
6. Can you tell us about some projects, initiatives, or discoveries that have moved biodiversity conservation forward in Bulgaria in the previous decade?
There are many, but I’m biased as an ornithologist. I’m most proud that bird electrocution was accepted as a problem and seriously tackled in Bulgaria. Fifteen years ago this issue was neglected and the grid operator did not take any measures to protect birds. BSPB/BirdLife did the first research on the issue. Using satellite transmitters we proved that this is the main threat to the globally threatened Imperial eagle, causing more than 60% mortality of the juveniles and immature birds. Using the data we collected, lobbying, and establishing partnerships, we convinced the powerline companies to develop large-scale projects to insulate dangerous powerline poles. Thousands of poles were insulated and many km of powerlines were put underground in the frame of common projects with EVN and CEZ. More importantly, the companies recognized the solution and benefits for them as well (reduced maintenance cost) and started to invest their funds to tackle the issue. Thousands of birds from many species were saved. The population of my favourite Imperial eagle increased from 8-10 occupied nests in 2000 to 41 occupied nests in 2021. Of course, there were other measures targeting other threats to the Imperial eagle as well but preventing electrocution was probably the most important.
Another great success is related to the conservation of the Dalmatian pelican. For about 60 years there was only one colony in Bulgaria in Srebarna lake along Dаnube. BSPB and partners built nesting platforms and used decoys, so we managed to establish 3 more colonies at two other sites – Belene island and Kalimok protected site.
Another success is that we managed to declare all Important Bird Areas in Bulgaria (23 % of the country s territory) to be designated as Natura 2000 sites. This happened through BSPB advocacy and submitting an official complaint that lead to the infringement procedure that forces the government to ensure legal protection.
I would also mention the protection of 10% of the forests in Bulgaria within the Natura 2000 network by ensuring that no forestry activity is allowed in patches of old forests.