CIPRA is a both a mainstay and a cornerstone

Jul 13, 2012
Chris Walzer, lead partner of Econnect, on ecological networking, psychological barriers and a continuous landscape.

Chris Walzer, lead partner of the Econnect project, is professor of wildlife medicine and nature conservation at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at Vienna University/A. As expert representative and scientific consultant to various institutions the 49-year-old is also a strong advocate on matters of species protection in Central Asia. www.vu-wien.ac.at
© Caroline Begle / CIPRA International

After three years the Econnect project has now been completed. So are bears, lynx and wolves now able to roam freely?
That was not the aim of the project. Structural barriers don't really exist for large predators such as bears, lynx and wolves. But there are psychological barriers. There are people who are not happy about sharing the landscape with carnivores. One of Econnect's biggest achievements is that we now take quite a different view of the notion of barriers. In the past we sought to take a relatively narrow spatial approach to the issue. We now realise that "passability" throughout the entire landscape must take place regardless of individual factors. This transition from a traditional corridor concept to a continuous matrix within the landscape is a long and arduous process. It was only towards the end of the project that it began to take shape.
Is it fair to say that this change in attitude is also one of the project's successes?
As far as I'm concerned it's one of its greatest successes. But not all the partners share that view. Dealing with a corridor is so much simpler: you have an island here, a corridor there… green motorways - and animals wandering up and down. But what about in between? Anything that's roaming around there has no protection. The problem is demarcated, and the efforts to address it are just as confined, spatially restricted, restricted from the point of view of the entire thought construct. The moment I say the entire landscape has to be passable it all becomes more complex. And the potential for conflict rises.

In the final report, it says: "The biggest obstacles are cultural in nature." What do you mean by that?
I'm talking about socio-political issues. Ultimately it's an ethical problem. We're just treating symptoms at the end of a long chain - a fragmented landscape, infrastructure, and more and more traffic. But hardly anyone is actually asking whether we need more traffic and more infrastructure. In fact we should be questioning the issue of growth itself. The pace of development is so fast that we're unable to keep up. The problem is shifting the whole time. The minute I'm able to offer a solution, the problem has changed yet again.

CIPRA does not manage nature reserves and does not draw up scientific studies. So in your view how did CIPRA contribute?
CIPRA was one of the founders of the project. It is a both a mainstay and a cornerstone, a centre of competence. It has a great deal of knowledge about the players who operate in the Alpine region; it can provide lots of resources and fundamentals. It has many years of expertise on ecological networking in the Alps. Without CIPRA the project would not have been possible. CIPRA is also a melting point. When it comes to ethical problems as I mentioned earlier, CIPRA takes that information on board, too, and follows on from it. CIPRA has already done quite a few things on the limits of growth. One of CIPRA's roles in the future might be to incorporate socio-political issues to an even greater degree.

The Jecami platform is a cartographic tool for visualising ecological barriers and corridors.
The Jecami tool, a computer application developed essentially by the Swiss National Park and based on the geographical information system GIS, has helped solve a number of problems. First of all, when it comes to visualising aspects of the landscape such as passability, you're tied to whatever spatial resolution is in place. Jecami is able to process all sorts of data irrespective of scale, a bit like Google Earth. And it calculates the landscape's suitability for networking based on indicators such as population density, infrastructure, fragmentation index, light pollution, etc. It is a good communication tool, for example for municipalities who are in discussions with the parties concerned such as land owners or farmers.

Communication also means simplification. And yet the science is complex. How did Econnect navigate these tricky waters?
Sometimes the gap between the science and the users in the pilot regions is simply too wide. All the theoretical foundations are in place. But they are "hidden away" in scientific publications and not accessible to users. What we need is some sort of translation service to make the scientific data accessible to the users and the pilot regions. I have no doubt that in future one of CIPRA's key tasks will be to make the findings from the scientific literature accessible to users. Of course it already does so to a certain extent, but there are lots more of these complex and highly theoretical principles out there. One question that crops up time and time again is why networking is so important for biodiversity? The findings are all there; they have been demonstrated many times in trials over small areas. But if I don't translate the data, most users won't know what to do with it. They have no benefit from it and no arguments in favour of it.
Ecological networking is a long-term project covering several generations. But the project itself is now completed. How will you ensure that the fruits of your labour won't simply be left to rot?
First of all, we're working on follow-up projects and looking to find a place for networking. One of Econnect's strengths is the consortium. If I have spent three years working with someone, then the direct contact has been established and it can be used. The pilot regions themselves have also been greatly strengthened and they will carry the notion of networking forward into the future.

Barbara Wülser (interview) and Caroline Begle (photos), CIPRA International


Chainsaws for capercaillies
If it is to attract a potential mating partner, the capercaillie needs space for its courtship rituals. In the Hohe Tauern pilot region with its dense forest cover, that sort of space is now in short supply. Which is why Econnect called in the lumberjacks on the Gassneralm. Here foresters and farmers, nature conservationists and the hunting community worked so well together that the pilot project has now become a role model for the Capercaillie Action Plan launched by the Austrian federal province of Carinthia.

Sending out a signal with plastic balls
Ski resorts with their multitude of cable cars and other infrastructure represent a constant hazard for many species, particularly birds. But now, thanks to the Econnect pilot project, more than 2,000 red balls have been put in place in the resorts of Limone Piemonte (I) and Isola 2000 (F) in the south-western Alps to ensure that ski-lift routes are clearly visible to animals as obstacles. All Econnect had to do was purchase the balls; the work itself was carried out by the ski resort operators.

Lights out for wild boar
In the French valley of Grésivaudan human activity is turning night into day. Nocturnal animals such as wild boar tend to avoid crossing fields and roads if they are lit up, which seriously curtails their movement. To make the population aware of the problem and prompt the municipalities to take action, the département of Isère organised a campaign day on 1 October 2011 as a contribution to Econnect. Since then more than 20 communities have reduced their lighting.



For more nature outside protected areas
CIPRA is strengthening its roots as a nature conservation organisation through its habitat networking activities in the Alps. In 2011 the emphasis was on completing the Econnect project. Over a period of more than three years the 16 project partners have initiated a rethink and achieved their first implementation successes. The Econnect budget of EUR 3.2 m was co-financed by the EU. CIPRA also received financial support totalling EUR 57,900 from Liechtenstein for its activities over the three years.
In 2011 CIPRA also took part in the Ecological Continuum Initiative alongside the Alpine Network of Protected Areas (Alparc) and the International Scientific Committee on Research in the Alps (ISCAR). It also participated in the Alpine Convention's "Ecological Network" and "Wild Animals and Society" platforms.
www.econnectproject.eu - www.alpine-ecological-network.org