Are Bulgarian caves protected?

Devetashka Cave
Photo: BGNES
There are many caves in the Balkans. The greatest variety of animal and plant species can be found in the caves, situated in this part of Europe. About 6,000 caves have been discovered in Bulgaria and only some 800 of them have been researched so far. Over 750 kinds of animal organisms have been identified in those, as most of them are capable of surviving even in complete darkness. How do we protect this incredible natural wealth and is the legislation in this area efficient enough?

Those questions were raised again last autumn, when the Expendables 2 mega Hollywood production was shot in one of the most beautiful and significant, regarding biodiversity, caves in Bulgaria – the Devetashka one, situated near the town of Lovech, Northern Bulgaria. A special bridge was constructed, allowing the heavy equipment of the production to enter the cave. All plants around the entrance of the place were cut off and those had been some sort of a natural barrier. According to speleologists and environmentalists this all, along with the incredible noise of the action movie’s filming, caused great damages to the population of bats.

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The Devetashka Cave is ranked third in Europe in terms of bats’ preservation. 15 rare and precious bat species, about 30 bird species and over 20 species of specific cave animals can be found in the cave, bio speleologist Boyan Petrov, coordinator of the Bat Research and Conservation Centre with the National Museum of Natural History says and adds:

© Photo: BGNES

“We discovered a pair of owls for instance, many other rock birds live there too, along with huge bat colonies that form endless carpets of sleeping animals,” the expert explains. “Our observations show that in winter those reach a number of up to 35,000, while in the summer they are some 10,000. However, this dark world usually remains hidden for the visitors that are impressed by its huge size and enormous entrance.”

How did the Bulgarian authorities let the team of an action movie into a so valuable natural phenomenon, pronounced to be a natural monument back in 1996? There are legislative gaps, the expert answers:

“Unfortunately Bulgarian legislation, dealing with biodiversity’s protection stops at the caves’ entrances,” the scientist says. “Some 120 caves in this country have been pronounced to be “natural monuments”. About 800 are situated within natural parks or zones from the Natura 2000 European network. However, their protection has not been fully described in any law yet and no official document says what can and cannot be done inside a cave. Why does the law end at the caves’ entrances? Because only scientists and speleologists know what exactly takes place inside a cave. At the same time we haven’t participated in the creation of the legislation in the area of natural protection.”

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Yagodina Cave

This lack of protection for the Bulgarian caves’ biodiversity has another, purely historical explanation. Back in the years of the Cold War many of those places were used by the army for weaponries or fuel storages, such as the case with the Devetashka Cave. Of course, one can figure out that biodiversity was the last thing that the army cared for. Practically the free access to the caves dates to the beginning of the 90s, when bio speleologists started systematic researches of the life inside.

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Snezhanka Cave

Obviously the time has come for the knowledge accumulated to be included in an adequate way in the environmental legislation. The paradox lies in the fact that exactly the shooting of the Expendables 2 movie pushed the legislative arrangement of caves’ protection. The first decisive step in this direction was the roundtable that took place in Lovech on February 13 this year, dedicated to the future of the Devetashka Cave. Boyan Petrov sums up the main decisions taken:

“The Municipality of Lovech took the responsibility to manage and take care of the cave in long terms, in a profitable for locals manner. On the other hand the municipality was engaged in the protection of this habitat of 15 bat species, 30 bird ones and some 20 other kinds of cave animals. At the same time the Ministry of Environment and Waters promised to fund the initial legislative steps via the development of a management plan, describing what is allowed and what not. The security of this natural monument will be entrusted to the Municipality of Lovech, while the Regional Environmental Inspectorate will be in charge of the compliance with all restrictions. At the same time our institution will monitor the protection of all rare species inside the cave. We have to find the balance that will allow the usage of the cave by all parties, which have interest.”

© Photo: BGNES

Devetashka Cave

Bio speleologists and spelunkers say that the best option for them would be the creation of a separate law for protection of caves. However, for the moment they will accept the proposal of the environmental ministry for amendments in the Law for Protected Territories and the Law for Biodiversity that will regulate at first the cases with the most important caves in Bulgaria. 

English version: Zhivko Stanchev
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