The wildlife haven in a Cold War ‘death strip’

The wildlife haven in a Cold War ‘death strip’

For decades they represented a no-go zone for people, but the walls and fences that divided Europe during the Cold War have left a surprising legacy.

Rare birds sing in the shadow of old East German watchtowers. Wild reindeer roam the borderland between Finland and Russia. Lynxes slip past Communist bunkers in the mountains of Albania and North Macedonia. All over Europe, endangered species are finding an unlikely home on land where the former Iron Curtain divided the region during the Cold War.

For decades, the border that cut through Europe was a brutal symbol of the hostility between East and West, between the socialist and capitalist power blocs. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall 28 years ago, it divided Germany into the Federal Republic of Germany in the West, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East. Many lost their lives trying to cross over to the West, killed by snipers or landmines, in the no-go zone between the two nations. This heavily guarded corridor became known as the “death strip”.

But in this region where no humans could tread, plants and animals thrived.

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Today, much of the strip of land along the former Iron Curtain has been turned into a “European Green Belt”. This 12,500km-long (7,767 miles) green corridor links national parks and wildlife sanctuaries from the Arctic Ocean to the Adriatic Sea, even branching off to the Black Sea. As climate change affects migration patterns, it has also become a vital escape route for species fleeing northwards to cooler areas. And it all began with some intrepid bird watchers.

Whinchats and watchtowers

“When I was 14, I started to record the bird species in the area,” says Kai Frobel, an ecologist who grew up on the West German side of the border in the 1970s. “I noticed very quickly that the majority of the rare species, like the whinchat, nightjar, corn bunting, were all breeding in the “death strip” of the GDR, of all places.”

The wildlife haven in a Cold War ‘death strip’ View image of The Green Belt has turned into a lifeline for many endangered species

Frobel was the first to publicly document this surprising wildlife haven, leading to a lifelong career as a conservationist. Today he works for a German environmental organisation (Bund) that started buying and protecting land along the western side of the border in the 1980s.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Frobel suggested turning the inner-German border into a 1,400km-long (870 miles) “green belt”. Germany reunified in 1990, making this possible. At the heart of Frobel’s plan was the so-called no-man’s-land. This strip of land had officially belonged to the GDR. But because it was on the western side of the border fence, it had barely been touched during the 40 years the East and West were divided.

All along the former Iron Curtain, pockets of wilderness were left untouched during the East-West stand-off

“The border patrols only went in there every few years and got rid of the shrubs, cleared the area a bit, and other than that, it wasn’t used at all,” says Melanie Kreutz, a project leader at Bund. “So no farming, no pesticides, no fertiliser. And this area, this no-man’s-land, is really the ecological backbone of the (German) green belt today.”

More than 80% of the former inner-German border now forms part of that protected green belt. Its historical legacy has been preserved along with the plants and animals. Visitors can spot wild orchids, otters and storks, but also explore the history of the Cold War through museums, exhibitions, and guided hiking and cycling tours.

All along the former Iron Curtain, similar pockets of wilderness were left untouched during the East-West stand-off. In the north, the forests of Norway, Finland and Russia sheltered elks and bears, and at the southern end, in the mountains and lakes of the Balkans, lynxes and pelicans thrived.

The wildlife haven in a Cold War ‘death strip’ View image of The endangered Balkan lynx, a subspecies of Eurasian lynx, roams the Green Belt

After the end of the Cold War, the countries along the border gradually joined forces to preserve their shared, accidental wildlife corridor.

The European Green Belt now runs through 24 countries covering a huge range of habitats including coastlines, lakes, forests and mountains. While there are still gaps, the green belt has turned into a lifeline for many endangered species.

Stepping stones for reindeer

“These corridors and stepping stones, they allow species to maintain their strongholds and to exchange genes, and to migrate,” says Aimo Saano, nature conservation manager at Metsähallitus, a Finnish government agency that manages the core areas of the Finnish part of the European Green Belt. “They create the complex ecosystems that should be there.”

“As we know from densely inhabited Europe, this is the obvious danger: that ecosystems have been minimised and cut into small pieces, separated from each other.”

Linking up across borders can help fight this trend, and support species like the highly endangered wild forest reindeer. In the 1990s, one of the few remaining populations of wild forest reindeer lived in Karelia, a Russian region bordering Finland.

The wildlife haven in a Cold War ‘death strip’ View image of The endangered wild forest reindeer has benefitted from cross-border green belt areas

Unlike the inner-German border, the one between Russia and Finland has of course not disappeared. But Russian and Finnish conservationists have moved some of the Russian wild forest reindeer to a Finnish national park, establishing a smaller, second population west of the green belt. The reindeer can move back and forth across the border, and the resulting genetic exchange is vital to the species’ future health, Saano says.

Some species, such as birds, butterflies and other insects, are even migrating northwards along the European Green Belt to escape the effects of global warming. “At least here they will have a corridor to move [along],” says Saano.

Peace and pelicans

At the southern end of the European Green Belt, in the Balkans, the end of the Cold War was followed by a series of bloody wars. As the former Yugoslavia fell apart, few people saw wildlife protection as a priority. With peace, however, came a growing awareness of the area’s natural treasures, and a willingness to reach across borders to protect them.

There are still large areas of unspoilt nature – Sandra Wigger

“Our main focus is obviously the protection of the environment, but in the Balkans, it goes beyond that,” says Sandra Wigger, project manager at EuroNatur, an environmental foundation that coordinates local organisations along the Balkan section of the green belt. “It’s also about cross-border exchange, regional development, it’s about letting people see that they can take action together. Because they went through those years of war, which weren’t even that long ago.”

Both the natural conditions in this mountainous, sparsely populated area, and its Cold War history, have resulted in undisturbed wildlife habitats. Albania, for example, was particularly isolated under communist rule. Its borders are still dotted with bunkers. In Bulgaria, a no-go zone up to 25km (15.5 miles) wide in places, lined the border.

The wildlife haven in a Cold War ‘death strip’ View image of More than 80% of the former inner-German border forms part of the protected Green Belt

“There are still large areas of unspoilt nature, large forest areas that have only been used by the few people who live in these mountainous regions,” says Wigger. “The cities are usually very far away. That means we really have a huge biodiversity here that has been preserved.”

Dalmatian pelicans are among the species that have thrived in this pristine wilderness. The world’s largest colony breeds in the reedbeds by the Prespa lakes between Greece, Albania and North Macedonia.

Another border-crossing species, the endangered Balkan lynx, roams between different hunting grounds in and along the green belt, such as the Mavrovo National Park in North Macedonia, but also the mountains of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.

The wildlife haven in a Cold War ‘death strip’ View image of Mavrovo national park in North Macedonia is home to endangered Balkan lynx

For the conservationists working along the European Green Belt, connecting with other countries also creates opportunities to exchange information and learn from each other.

“This European approach gives it such a huge dimension, where you really see, OK, there are people, organisations, governmental agencies on the whole continent that work together across borders,” says Wigger. “There’s this support, this feeling of being part of a community where you realise that you’re not alone.”

“A living monument”

Not everyone is in favour of the green belt, however. In Germany, where conservationists would like to close the remaining gaps, farmers’ associations have protested against its expansion. They fear the loss of farmland. Rising land prices, demand for biofuel crops, and road construction are also putting pressure on the green belt. 

For Frobel, who spent his childhood next to a border that seemed impossible to breach at the time, protecting the green belt is about memory as well as nature.

“It’s a living ecological monument for a generation that didn’t experience the border,” he says. “Our basic expectation was that this monstrous inner-German border was built for eternity. Hardly anyone thought that, one day, it wouldn’t be there anymore.”

As his colleague, Kreutz, says: “For people, it was a death zone. But nature could really flourish freely there.”

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