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Poachers endanger marmots

SLOVAKIA and Poland have initiated a cooperative programme to protect the dwindling marmot population in the Tatra Mountains. Conservationists from the Tatra National Park (TANAP) established a constant vigil last month to watch over Slovak territory where marmot colonies live and continued their effort until October 24. They were armed with binoculars, cameras and even a helicopter to intervene if they spotted a poacher. The effort was concentrated in Belianske Tatry and Západné.

Taking the air: a Tatras marmot. (Source: SITA)

SLOVAKIA and Poland have initiated a cooperative programme to protect the dwindling marmot population in the Tatra Mountains. Conservationists from the Tatra National Park (TANAP) established a constant vigil last month to watch over Slovak territory where marmot colonies live and continued their effort until October 24. They were armed with binoculars, cameras and even a helicopter to intervene if they spotted a poacher. The effort was concentrated in Belianske Tatry and Západné.

There was success in the Belianske Tatry area several years ago in reintroducing marmots into the mountain range; the animals flourished and became self-sufficient. These marmots had been implanted with microchips so the colony could be monitored by authorities from TANAP. But three years ago the marmot population completely died out in Belianske Tatry – an occurrence experts blamed on natural predators as well as the actions of human poachers.

“They plug the ventilation [holes], release gas, and the marmots are forced to crawl out of their den,” explained Pavol Majko, the director of TANAP, to the SITA newswire, adding that “the poachers then catch them in special traps or kill them.”

This year TANAP conservationists managed to record an attempted illegal poaching of marmots but the officials were unsuccessful in capturing or identifying the poachers. Pavel Ballo, one of the TANAP conservationists who witnessed the attempted poaching said he could not believe his eyes. Hikers in the region have found objects that indicate barbaric methods have been used to kill marmots: a pick axe, shovels, and gas canisters, alongside a steel trap that had the remains of a marmot’s paw. “Additional tools have been found by animal rights activists, who discovered wire nooses in the vicinity of the animals’ dens, along with claws and clumps of fur,” Majko told SITA.

“They are shooting [the marmots] with assault rifles, releasing gas into their dens,” Ballo said to SITA as well as to Markíza TV, adding that the animals “die in terrible pain, over a period of one or two days”.

An organisation known as Klusownik / Pytliak (i.e. poacher), in cooperation with environmentalists, has asked that a photo system be installed in areas populated by marmots as a deterrent and possibly to identify the poachers. But for now the conservationists say they will only be able to relax after the first snowfall covers the mountains and the marmots begin their hibernation.

Ballo who has been concerned with the dwindling population of marmots for a long time said that poachers are lured by the prospect of making money from marmots’ fat and that the illegal trade becomes more lucrative as the animals prepare for their long hibernation by putting on additional fat. “One marmot during the fall, when they are fattened up, can render around two litres of fat,” one of the conservationists in Klusownik / Pytliak told SITA, adding that “two decilitres [of fat] can be sold for €40.” SITA wrote that marmot fat purportedly has healing powers.

Marmots thrived in the Tatra Mountains in the past. Though rarely seen, their distinctive whistle, used to warn the colony of danger from falcons, eagles, and foxes, can still be heard. Though there are many species of marmots, the Tatras marmot is endemic to the region and experts have confirmed that animals living in the Tatras are genetically different from the Alpine marmot. Ballo said that the animals’ plight needs to be more widely recognised by the public. “It would be useful if we could catch the poachers in the act, or with their kill, and managed to publicise it,” he said.


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